The Story Behind the Rise of Turkey’s Ulema

by Ceren Lord | published February 4, 2018

At the heart of the controversy over Islamization in Turkey has been the accelerated rise and visibility of the Islamic scholars or clergy known as the ulema. Despite the ostensibly secular nature of the republic, the majority of Turkey’s ulema are employed by the state’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı). The directorate is the country’s chief Islamic authority and holds a legal monopoly on Muslim religious life and activity. [1] Indeed, a spate of legislation in recent years has significantly expanded the Diyanet’s influence over all spheres of life, from education to family relations, and from psychological support at hospitals to the provision of religious services for refugees and during national crises.

Conventional wisdom has tended to interpret these developments as the instrumentalization of the Diyanet by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) for political purposes. In the same vein, prior to AKP rule the Diyanet was considered as a tool of the ostensibly secular and “Kemalist” state. Certainly, most political authorities and other state actors (such as the military) have sought to influence and assert control over the Diyanet in pursuit of differing political agendas. And the unprecedented expansion of the Diyanet in the AKP era is also a function of the government’s push for Islamization. There is, however, another side to the story of the Diyanet’s expansion: its own agency.

Like any state institution, the Diyanet is by no means a monolithic institution. It has developed and pursued its own agenda and interests, bolstered by continuity with the Ottoman ulema. Historically, the Diyanet adopted multiple strategies against the efforts of other state institutions and political authorities to influence and control it. These efforts resulted in a degree of reciprocity and subversion that enabled the Diyanet to reinforce its authority as an Islamic institution. The AKP, in pushing the expansion of the Diyanet for political purposes, also has enhanced the capacity of the institution to pursue its own agenda. Indeed, the unprecedented expansion of the Diyanet in recent years demonstrates its ability to seize opportunities arising from its common cause with AKP to expand its role in order to pursue, in tandem, the expansion of the religious field and Islamization of public space and morality.

Diyanet as the AKP’s Stalwart Ally

A crucial moment marking the rise of the Diyanet and its “com[ing] out of its closet” [2] was the night of the failed July 15, 2016 coup, which the AKP government blamed on its former Islamist allies, the Gülenists. Having learned of the planned coup during a dinner with intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Moaz al Khatib (a leading member of the Syrian opposition and ulema), then Diyanet chief Mehmet Görmez (2010–July 2017) [3] rallied the body’s 112,725—strong religious corps, including the imams of some 82,381 mosques controlled by the body. The ulema were beckoned to mobilize opposition to the coup with the battle cry, “Turn on the lights of every mosque and encourage the people to [join] the independence struggle! Our people should be at ease! We should all pray! Tonight, together we will eliminate the biggest [act of] murder and betrayal against our people!” [4] As salah prayers were heard from the mosques across the country, the ulema were joined in the streets over the next few hours with exclamations of tekbir (the expression of Allahüekber, “God is great”) from the anti-coup crowds, which lasted for days. Görmez looked back at the failed coup and claimed, “with the salah prayer in its ears, tekbir in its mouth, and the flag in its hand, the nation defeated the traitors.” [5]

The Diyanet’s steadfast stand with the AKP government on July 15 and its positioning firmly against the Gülenists over the next days are seen by many in Turkey as confirmation that the institution has become an extension of the AKP. Even prior to coup attempt, the Diyanet appeared faithfully aligned with the AKP. Görmez, for example, had been criticized for supporting the AKP’s incendiary allegations that the Gezi Park protestors in 2013 had consumed alcohol at a mosque in a central Istanbul neighborhood. Similarly, Diyanet sermons are widely seen as a channel for pro-AKP propaganda. Imams have been reportedly pressured to solicit votes for the AKP, including for the constitutional referendum in April 2017. [6] Having come under fire for his apparent loyalty to the regime, Görmez’s July 2017 resignation—rumored to have been forced—came as a surprise. His departure appeared to be yet another sign of the Diyanet’s deepening submission to the will of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

A Golden Era for the Diyanet

The Diyanet was establishment in 1924, following the declaration of the republic in 1923. The new institution marked a major diminution of the power and role of the ulema and replaced the abolished Ministry of Shariʿa and Foundations (Şeriye ve Evkaf Vekaleti). That ministry had been instituted in 1920 by the nationalist government in Ankara to replace the office of the Shaykh al-Islām, the chief Islamic authority of the Ottoman Empire based in Istanbul. With the unfolding reforms in the early republic, the ulema lost control over education and legal jurisdiction.

Despite waves of expansion following the transition to multiparty system in the late 1940s, the AKP’s assent to power in 2002 has marked the beginning of a golden era for the Diyanet. Since then, the institution has enjoyed unprecedented expansion domestically and internationally and increased prominence and visibility in politics and public life. It also plays a central role in the AKP’s Islamization drive, which has meant greater involvement of ulema in social and foreign policies as well as influence in shaping public morality. The Diyanet has enjoyed ever increasing annual budgets, while a stream of regulations and laws have equipped it with greater legal reach.

Further extending the Diyanet’s monopoly and status as the chief Islamic authority has been its growing media presence and adoption of legal prescriptions that, for example, have enhanced its ability to monitor and censor religious content on the internet. Political authorities increasingly point to the
as the relevant authority to issue judgment on a variety of matters, from pronouncements on the Islamic credentials of tariqat [Sufi orders] and terrorist groups like ISIS, to the recognition of Alevi places of worship (the country’s second largest faith community after Sunni Muslims). In 2010, a new organizational law sealed both the Diyanet’s expansion over the years and its growing role by outlining new duties and responsibilities, such as examining and pronouncing views on the acceptability according to Islamic norms of laws, statues, regulations and draft laws forwarded by ministers and other departments. In 2012, the Diyanet director’s position on the state protocol list was elevated from fifty-first to tenth place.

Diyanet’s Islamization Agenda

The institutional expansion of the Diyanet and religious infrastructure more broadly was not merely a product of the AKP and government manipulation. The Diyanet has taken advantage of the opportunities created by the AKP government and its common cause with it to pursue its own agenda. This agenda, according to the institution itself, is to advance the “traditional mission” of the Ottoman Shaykh al-Islām in which the Diyanet sees itself as “historically rooted.” [7]

The Diyanet’s push to expand religious infrastructure has been accompanied by a hitherto unseen level of explicit attacks against secularism and the secular legal framework. Following a spate of jihadi terrorist attacks in 2015, Görmez declared that secularism was responsible for “sen[ding] the world into a total war.” He argued that more religion was the antidote to conflict with radical Islamists, who have “learnt [Islam] in an incorrect way.” [8] Likewise, during his handover ceremony, the newly appointed Diyanet Director Ali Erbaş emphasized the ulema’s fight against secularism, vowing to “work harder to reach mankind, which is wallowing in the grip of secularism...to deliver to mankind the eternal call of Allah and his messenger.” [9]

Recent legislation empowering Diyanet muftis to perform civil marriages, which were previously conducted by municipal authorities, has been perceived as marking a creeping attack on the secular legal framework, particularly the secular civil code adopted in 1926. This new legislation, proposed in 2014 by an AKP member of parliament with the public support of Görmez, was previously proposed in 2007 by Diyanet-Sen, the Diyanet’s trade union. Diyanet-Sen also has campaigned for the appointment of Diyanet ulema as “religion psychologists” to hospitals and as religious personnel to the military. Many of these demands have been realized in the AKP era.

The Diyanet long has sought to reassert its influence over education. The 1924 closure of the medreses (religious schools) and the concomitant loss of the ulema’s control over education, which was centralized under the Ministry of Education in 1924, marked a significant element of the diminution of its role. Here, too, the AKP has paved the way for greater collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Diyanet. This collaboration has included the Diyanet becoming more involved in shaping the curriculum of religious education and, in late 2017, transferring more than 5,000 Diyanet personnel to the education ministry. [10] The Diyanet’s ambitions were underlined by the new chief Erbaş in his handover ceremony, when he declared that the institution would “strengthen” its collaboration with the state’s (Islamic) religious secondary schools (called imam-hatips) [11] and theology faculties. [12] Yet, together with its push for expansion of the infrastructure behind religion, the Diyanet is equally cautious to maintain its monopoly on religious life. Following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the institution called for greater control and resources to monitor tariqat orders to prevent the rise of organizations like the Gülenists. That can be regarded as an opportunistic move aimed at re-asserting the institution’s authority and monopoly.

A further aspect of the Diyanet’s Islamization agenda has been the institution’s bid to dominate public morality and expand its penetration of private spaces and lives, as underlined by Görmez’s periodic assertions of a new transformation of the Diyanet’s role ‘outside of the mosque’. For example, he called on the ulema to take a leading role in public life by stepping “outside the mosque” to not only offer moral leadership, but also to actively pursue Islamization:

no Muslim should be deprived of reading the Qur’an. For this reason, in recent years, as the Directorate of Religious Affairs, we have completely changed the curriculum, program and methodology. Previously, we taught the Qur’an to those that came to us… now... I say we should go to those that do not come to us, we should go their homes, shops… and teach them the Qur’an. To achieve this, we will be at the service of our nation with our 120,000 personnel. We will come to you. There should be no one that has not read the Qu’ran. [13]

The ulema has extended its penetration of private spaces through the establishment of Family and Moral Guidance Bureaus (Aile İrşat ve Rehberlik Büroları) from the late 2000s and by tasking imams with offering moral support and guidance to families, workers, youth and particularly women. [14] Its capacity to refashion social mores was further broadened in July 2017 with the establishment of a new Department of Migration and Moral Support Services (Göç ve Manevi Destek Hizmetleri Daire Başkanlığı). The new agency would provide religious services during crises and emergencies such as earthquakes and terror attacks, with duties such as the provision of services to Syrian refugees, drug addicts, prisoners, seasonal workers and child care centers. [15]

Equally important is that despite its fruitful partnership with the AKP, the Diyanet has continued to demand autonomy. Indeed, even Görmez, seen as one of the most politicized and compliant Diyanet chiefs, periodically demanded autonomy. [16] Following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, for example, he demanded to be tied directly to the president’s office, rather than the Office of the Prime Minister. His efforts were consistent with the Diyanet’s vision of its continuity with the historic role of Ottoman ulema as a key pillar of the state with extensive powers and degrees of autonomy.

From the Ottoman Ulema to the Republic’s Diyanet

The Diyanet’s establishment in 1924 is often treated as a “year zero,” representing a break from the Ottoman Empire’s state-religion relations and those of the new republic. This illusion of a sharp break that marginalized the ulema was reinforced by the abandonment of the word ulema during the one-party period. [17] Even today, scholarly and non-scholarly analyses of the Diyanet rarely use the word ulema, reinforcing the illusion of the ulema’s demise. Yet as historians such as Amit Bein have shown, the 1924 Diyanet absorbed rather than replaced the Ottoman ulema. That historic connection with the Ottoman ulema shaped the Diyanet’s identity as a continuing institution rather than as a new institution that broke from an earlier one.

One such continuity is the Diyanet’s approach towards Alevis. The Diyanet, having absorbed the guardians of Sunni Hanefi orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire, became a key preserver of Sunni Hanefi Muslim identity. Its approach to Alevism was shaped by this legacy, viewing Alevis as heretical while later targeting them with assimilationist Sunnification policies and re-articulating Alevism as a kind of “Turkish Islam.” The Diyanet has been the greatest opponent of Alevi demands, including state recognition of Alevi places of worship, and has stood in the way of equal citizenship rights. In this way, the Diyanet is engaged in negotiating the bounds of national identity and citizenship. [18]

Undoubtedly, the secularization of the legal framework in the early republic did mean that Diyanet ulema had to operate on a more constrained domain compared to peers in other parts of the Muslim world, where constitutions incorporated aspects of Islamic law. Yet, from the 1940s, the republic’s concern with the spread of communism facilitated the successive expansions of religious infrastructure, including religious schools and the Diyanet, with the latter’s enthusiastic encouragement and presentation of itself as a bulwark against communism, superstition and fanaticism during the Cold War.

The Diyanet next expanded during the ostensibly secularist military’s interventions. In the aftermath of military intervention in 1960—supposedly one of the most secularist of interventions—the Diyanet’s legal institutional role was expanded to include the provision of “moral guidance to the nation.” Its reach was increased significantly through the enlargement of its provincial presence and its monopoly augmented through the absorption of peripheral ulema, including village imams. Likewise, the junta regime that assumed power following the 1980 coup envisioned a key role for the Diyanet in the implementation of its Islamization program. Dubbed the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis,” the move was presented as a means to quell violent social contestation between leftist and rightist movements prior to the intervention. The Diyanet was tasked, much like it is in the AKP era, with disseminating religious teachings and morality in all aspects of life from prisons to factories, hospitals to homes. In both periods, Diyanet chiefs have been more than happy to oblige, if not actively shaping such policies themselves. Like the Ottoman ulema, the Diyanet ulema also developed multiple strategies in its relationship with other institutions, including direct struggle, cooperation and tactical collaboration. For example, the Diyanet has resisted pressure since the 1980s to issue a fetva declaring the headscarf a matter of choice rather than Islamic principle.

The AKP era thus resembles past junta regimes and governments in seeking Diyanet support to bolster its legitimacy, such as though sermons supporting government reforms and policies. In exchange, the Diyanet increases the ability to draw the bounds of what is Islamically acceptable and to turn these policies to its advantage by strengthening and expanding its authority and monopoly. Indeed, it pushed its own agenda for the Islamization of public space and morality long before the AKP era, including the prohibition of alcohol, the expansion of religious education and opposition to teaching the theory of human evolution.

Diyanet’s Positioning as a Global Islamic Authority

The growing influence of the Diyanet ulema extends well beyond Turkey’s borders. Its foreign policy activism has included delivering religious services to Turkish and Muslim citizens across Europe since at least the 1980s and in Central Asia and the Balkans since the 1990s. The Diyanet’s realm of activity has widened in recent years to include policies targeting the Alevi-Bektashi communities in the Balkans, humanitarian aid and relief activities in Africa, Islamic education scholarships to students around the world [19] and a growing presence in the Middle East.

The Diyanet has been active in Syria, revealed by the former chief’s meeting on the evening of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt with Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib—the same individual who caused controversy in 2012 by calling on the United States to reconsider its decision to list Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation. [20] Al-Khatib is also the former president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, and a member of the League of the Ulema of Sham (Rabitat Ulama al-Sham, established in 2012 by opposition ulema from Damascus and Homs, and member of the umbrella group, the Syrian Islamic Council, Al-Majlis al-Islami al-Suri), which is ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood. [21]

The Diyanet has dispatched muftis as emissaries and coordinators to Syrian opposition areas taken by Turkey under Operation Euphrates Shield. These individuals are involved in repairing damaged mosques and appointing hundreds of Syrian imams and female Qur’an instructors to serve in these regions and in refugee camps in Syria. In addition, the Diyanet is directly training Syrian ulema in new educational centers such as in Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey. [22] This foray into Syria is matched inside Turkey by the provision of religious services for Syrian refugees, which includes plans for the establishment of religious advisory bureaus in refugee camps and the employment of Syrian imams by the Diyanet. An important aspect of this project is the leading role played by the Diyanet in the education of Syrian children to “protect” them from the “manipulation” of terrorist organisations. [23] The Diyanet Foundation has worked together with the Ministry of Education and the Qatari Sheikh Thani bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services to publish four million school books for Syrian children. [24]

More broadly, these moves represent a wider agenda of positioning the Diyanet as an Islamic authority beyond Turkey. In this vein, Görmez has underlined that

the Diyanet has become not just Turkey’s but the Diyanet of all Muslims. The Diyanet has become the organization that our brothers in Central Asia, Balkan, Africa and other geographies come to for religious services and religious education. Since 2006, it has become an organization that is serving in forty locations in Africa, providing services for seven million brothers in Latin America, and for our Muslim brothers in the Asia Pacific region. [25]

This international outreach is not unconnected to AKP efforts to position Turkey as the leader of the Muslim umma. A recent government-supported conference in Istanbul on the future of the umma, well attended by various exiled Islamist actors and organisations, advanced that very theme.

The Diyanet’s plans to establish centers of Islamic learning in Turkey for training ulema also include a project to establish an international “Islamic university” in Istanbul. The Diyanet has been pushing for the project since at least 2014 and recently won the support of President Erdoğan. Both AKP circles and the Diyanet have pitched the project as an alternative to the more historically prestigious Islamic centers such as Egypt’s Al-Azhar, which they argue has been undermined by military pressure since the 2013 coup ousting the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. For the Diyanet’s former chief Görmez, traditional centers of Islamic learning from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan to Malaysia are “unable to find solutions to problems in the world,” [26] and have “collapsed.” [27] Former chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked [28] Association of Syrian Scholars (Rabitat al-Ulema al-Suriyin) Muhammad Ali al-Sabuni has praised Diyanet’s Islamic education projects, describing Turkey as playing a leading role in training ulema in the Islamic world and spreading the correct version of Islam. [29] According to Görmez, one thousand ulema have taken refuge in Turkey from countries such as Syria, Iran, Yemen and Libya.

Another aspect of the Diyanet’s global outreach is its deepening relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the AKP government has a strong affinity. [30] Pro-government media suggest that the planned university, and the Diyanet itself, is seeking to absorb and collaborate with foreign ulema as well as the Association of Syrian Scholars based in Turkey. For some years there have been reports of a possible relocation to Istanbul of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood based in Qatar. Al-Qaradawi frequently has voiced his admiration for President Erdoğan, calling him the “hope of all Muslims and of Islam.” [31] Media reports suggesting that al-Qaradawi might head the Islamic university remain unverified. With the launch planned for 2019–2020, the university is envisioned to be linked to Frankfurt Goethe University’s Islamic Research Centre, Strasbourg University’s Islamic Theology Faculty, the Higher Islamic Institute in Sofia and the theology faculties in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. [32] Such an international expansion is likely to further enhance the Diyanet’s role and status.

Regime change and the prospects for the Diyanet

Since the AKP came to power, the Diyanet has been portrayed less as a “protector” and complementary element of Kemalist ideology and more as an “imposer” of the AKP’s Islamist ideology. [33] But this widespread perception misses a key element of the story: It neglects the ways in which the Diyanet is both expanding its power and playing a critical role in the Islamization of public space and morality in Turkey.

This narrow understanding of the Turkish ulema also reflects a deeper problem in many scholarly analyses of Turkey—what Deniz Kandiyoti has described as the “master narrative” of secularism. [34] According to this narrative, modern Turkish history is defined by a struggle between an authoritarian, secular Kemalist state and a Muslim society. Indeed, this narrative remains prevalent despite revelations of the breadth of Gülenist infiltration of the state over at least the last thirty years. Scholars that view the state as monolithic neglect the ways in which the Diyanet developed its own interests and strategies of survival—including elements of continuity following its absorption of the Ottoman ulema. The Diyanet’s recent rise is not only an outcome of the AKP’s Islamization drive, but also of the ulema’s own efforts to expand its domain of activity and status as an Islamic authority.

The current revision of the regime underway in Turkey heralds not only greater opportunities, but also risks for the Diyanet, much in the same way that the establishment of the republic marked a new era and challenges for the ulema. The AKP government may well seek to subdue the Diyanet ulema to bring the institution under control. Yet if it seeks to exploit the Diyanet to advance its own agenda, the AKP may continue to enhance the Diyanet’s infrastructural capacity to maintain its credibility as an Islamic authority. Historically, similar efforts by political authorities elsewhere in the Muslim world have tended to empower the ulema in the long run.

With the unprecedented expansion of the religious infrastructure, religious education and the chipping away of the secular legal framework (such as empowering muftis to undertake civil marriages), the ulema face an historic opportunity to achieve a level of authority and influence not seen since the establishment of the republic. This change means an acceleration Islamization and a greater role for the Diyanet to pursue, in its words, the traditional mission of the Ottoman Shaykh al-Islām. Given the government’s evolution toward personalized autocracy, the future trajectory of the Diyanet may further parallel the status of the office of the Shaykh al-Islām in the Ottoman state, when it was both beholden to the Sultan but also enjoyed a sphere of autonomy as an Islamic authority.

 

Endnotes

[1] Non-Muslim (Christian and Jewish) religious institutions are regulated by the General Directorate for Foundations (Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğu). Alevis, who comprise the second largest faith community after Sunni Muslims and are estimated to number 10–20 percent of the population, are not recognised.
[2] Pinar Tremblay, “How Erdogan used the power of the mosques against coup attempt,” Al-Monitor, July 25, 2016;
[3] Abdulkadir Selvi, “O gece MİT'e gelen telefon,” Hürriyet, July 27, 2017. However, subsequent allegations suggest that it may not have been Görmez after all. See, Türkiye Gazetesi, August 10, 2017.
[4] Dini Haberler, July 16, 2016. [Turkish]
[5] Yeni Akit, August 29, 2016.
[6] Pinar Tremblay, “How Erdogan uses Turkey's mosques to push 'yes' vote,” Al-Monitor, April 12, 2017.
[7] See the Diyanet’s website: https://diyanet.gov.tr/tr/icerik/kurulus-ve-tarihce/8
[8] Hurriyet Daily News, December 14, 2015.
[9] Cumhuriyet, September 18, 2017.
[10] Turan Eser, “Yeni rejim kurulurken Diyanet’in rolü,” BirGün, November 12, 2017.
[11] These schools were originally established by the state in 2014 as vocational schools for training prayer leaders (imams) and preachers (hatips). Since 1950, they have remained nominally as vocational schools but function as a parallel education system that provides more emphasis on religious training alongside the mainstream education system. Under the AKP, religious content within mainstream schools has expanded.
[12] Cumhuriyet, September 18, 2017.
[13] TRT Haber, November 15, 2015.
[14] See Sevgi Adak, “"Yeni" Türkiye'nin "Yeni" Diyaneti,” Birikim, November 2015.
[15] CNN-Turk, August 14, 2017.
[16] See, for example, Haber 7, July 24, 2013.; CNN-Turk, March 8, 2016.
[17] Amit Bein, Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic, (Stanford University Press, 2011).
[18] Ceren Lord, “Between Islam and the Nation; Nation-building, the Ulama and Alevi Identity in Turkey.” Nations and Nationalism, 23(1), (2016): 48–67.
[19] Daily Sabah, June 15, 2017.
[20] The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2012.
[21] Thomas Pierret, “The Syrian Islamic Council,” Carnegie Middle East Center, May 2014. Carnegie Middle East Center, “Profiles of Syrian Sunni Clerics in the Uprising,” May 25, 2014.
[22] See Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, June 12, 2017.
[23] Haber Turk, November 7, 2017.
[24] Hurriyet, December 21, 2016.
[25] Yeni Akit, November 6, 2016.
[26] Hurriyet Daily News, October 1, 2014.
[27] Yeni Akit, November 6, 2016.
[28] Thomas Pierret, “The Syrian Islamic Council”; Thomas Pierret, “The Struggle for Religious Authority in Syria,” Carnegie, May 14, 2014.
[29] Yeni Akit, May 21, 2016.
[30] See, for example, Al Monitor, December 12, 2014.
[31] Behlul Ozkan, “The Failure of a Neo-Ottoman Foreign Policy,” New York Times, December 7, 2016.
[32] Hürriyet, October 1, 2014.
[33] See, for example, İştar B. Gözaydın. Diyanet, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Dinin Tanzimi. İstanbul, (İstanbul; İletişim, 2009); Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16(4), (2016): 619-635.
[34] Deniz Kandiyoti, “The Travails of the Secular: Puzzle and Paradox in Turkey,” Economy and Society, 41(4), (2012): 513-531.

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