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Turkey’s powerful top cleric called to tone down or resign

Ever since he delivered the first sermon at the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque in July 2020 with a sword in hand, Ali Erbas has been on a meteoric rise of visibility.
Head's of Turkeys Religious Affairs Directorate Ali Erbas holds a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on March 15, 2019.

For some pro-secular Turks, the prayer uttered by Ali Erbas, vocal head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, at the beginning of the 2021-22 judicial year sounded like a death prayer for the independent judiciary and Turkey’s secularism.

“The opening of the judiciary in this particular way is unacceptable in a state of law,” the Istanbul Bar Association said in a statement as the images of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Court of Cassation chair Mehmet Akarca in prayer dominated the news and social media. Erdogan and Akarca, who was wearing the judicial gown, were seen with raised hands alongside Erbas at a ceremony marking the opening of a new service building for the court and the start of the judicial year on Sept. 1.

“The principle of secularism … does not allow the judiciary to function with religious references. … A secular state which accepts the supremacy of law should guarantee justice for its citizens by keeping an equal distance from each faith. … Any move that belies this would give the appearance of a religious state,” the Istanbul Bar’s statement said.

Dogan Erkan, lawyer and member of the People’s Salvation Party, a small Communist party, filed a complaint with the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office against Erbas, Erdogan and Akarca for violating the secularism principle of the Turkish Constitution and abuse of office. Muharrem Ince, leader of the Homeland Party, criticized Erbas, the government and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition, who was at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “At the opening of the judicial year, they cut the rope on the state of law and secularism, while the opposition holds the other side of the ribbon. You’ll all go,” he tweeted.

The white-cloaked figure of Erbas standing alongside Erdogan in openings or ground-breaking ceremonies is a familiar sight in Turkey. A day before the opening of the Court of Cassation building, Erbas prayed alongside the president, the defense minister and the force commanders in the ground-breaking ceremony of a massive military complex in Ankara. On the same day of the judicial ceremony, he accompanied the president to the opening of the Gendarmerie and Coastal Defense Academy, where he extended prayer for the officers who’d be trained there. “God, may you make our troops victorious on the ground, at sea and in air; protect them in their fight against terrorism,” he prayed.

Turkey’s top cleric also accompanied Erdogan on his visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on July 19-21 and opened the Bilal Pasha Mesjd and Foundation at Varosha (or Maras, as it is called in Turkish), a contentious ghost town that was partly opened by Turkish Cypriots last year.

Erbas’ supporters said the prayer on Sept. 1 was no different than usual practice. The visible top cleric was merely extending a prayer to the new building and not to the judiciary. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communication tsar, responded to the criticism by posting a photo of Kemal Ataturk opening Turkey’s first parliament with a cleric on his side — implying that presidents were accompanied by religious figures at openings in the early years of the republic.

Erbas was fiery in his own defense. “As leaders, we should leave no vacuum,” he said at a meeting of graduates of the religious Imam Hatip Schools. Criticizing efforts to “weaken religion” by pushing it out of the public space, he said, “How could we have Islam without justice? [There are some who want] faith to remain simply between the believer and God and not extend to their home, their work, to the politics, justice or judiciary. … You see how they are making a fuss.”

A few days later, Erbas further fanned the flames by remarks on social media controls. In an online meeting on Sept. 5, he said Turkey was in dire need of “a new legal framework for social media use” and echoed Erdogan’s words on “establishment of a strong mechanism.”

The top cleric had suggested earlier that Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) might be applicable to regulate social media in instances where legal regulations are insufficient, daily Cumhuriyet reported, digging up his preface of a new book, “Social Media Ethics,” published by the directorate earlier this year.

This second remark — as well as his words that religion should be in public space — spurred a new wave of protests from the opposition. Republican People's Party (CHP) deputies called on Erbas to either refrain from putting his nose in politics or resign and become a deputy. “If he wants to play politics, he should simply take off the cloak and run for office," said Faik Oztrak, spokesperson of the main opposition. “We would expect the religious affairs director to remain within the limits of his office,” said CHP group head Engin Altay. “Your guide should be the Quran, not Erdogan.”

But it is unlikely that Erbas, who has been on a meteoric rise ever since he delivered the first sermon in Hagia Sophia with a sword in hand on July 24 of last year, will be cowed. Vocal and outspoken on all matters from smoking to single people, he enjoys the support of the president and the heavyweights of the ruling Justice and Development Party whenever he faces controversy.

Erdogan came to Erbas’ defense when the latter said Islam condemns adultery and homosexuality because they “bring disease and corrupt generations” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. As LGBTI groups in Turkey and abroad accused the cleric of spewing hatred for the vulnerable gay community, Erdogan said an attack against Erbas was “an attack against the state.”

When students protesting Erdogan’s appointment of Melih Bulu as head of the prestigious Bogazici University with a poster depicting Islam’s most sacred site alongside LGBTI flags, Erbas also jumped into the debate. “I strongly condemn this act … and we, as the Directorate of Religious Affairs, will follow up the issue and resort to justice against those who have delivered this disrespectful act,” he tweeted on Jan. 29. Two students were arrested on the same day.

The visibility of Erbas is subject to different interpretations. “Is Erbas angling for the presidency?” asked Ankara insider Deniz Zeyrek in his column in the staunchly anti-AKP daily Sozcu. “He sees himself as the right person to succeed Erdogan as the president. That is why he keeps attacking Ataturk or secularism. No one should be surprised if he takes off his cloak, puts on a suit and enters politics.”

Others maintain Erbas plays this role because it is what is required from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as the Diyanet. “Diyanet is an important instrument in the government’s war against secularism,” said Burcu Karakas, journalist and author of “We are Everything: Diyanet at Work.”

“Following the legal amendments to Diyanet’s status in 2010, the agency has become ever more vocal on all areas of daily life, particularly on family affairs, women, and education of children and youth,” Karakas told Al-Monitor.

Armed with a budget of some 13 billion Turkish liras ($1.6 billion), the Diyanet ranks 13th among 40 public entities funded from the central government budget. Its ever-growing personnel reached 128,000 people across Turkey in 2020. It runs approximately 90,000 mosques and about 20,000 Koranic courses across Turkey. It has its own TV channel and has signed an accord with Turkish national broadcaster TRT to establish a children’s television channel.

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