Why was Hagia Sophia's top imam silenced by the AKP?

In July 2020, Mehmet Boynukalın, a professor of Islamic law at Marmara University, was appointed as the most senior imam at Hagia Sophia mosque.

Boynukalın, who comes from a family with decades-long connections in politics, religious orders and business, quickly came to public prominence. The first imam appointed in Turkey to hold a professorship, he regularly uses three Twitter accounts in Turkish, English and Arabic.

This social media presence has occasionally drawn the ire of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elite, while garnering significant, and seemingly genuine, support from the public, mostly the party’s conservative base.

In early February, Boynukalın commented on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s suggestion of a new constitution. Posting on social media with the hashtag “Let there be Islam in the constitution”, Boynukalın wrote: “In 1921 and 1924 constitutions, the religion (of the state) was Islam, there was no secularism. The republic should return back to its factory settings.” This was followed by several posts on the nature of the prospective constitution.

Boynukalın’s intervention increased pressure from within the AKP base for a new constitution to include Islamic values. When criticised, Boynukalın said it is his duty as a professor of Islamic law to speak.

The first time AKP elites openly challenged Boynukalın was on March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, when much of the public focus was on violence against women.

Posting on social media, Boynukalın said: “Murder is murder. Gender is irrelevant. Men, women, children whoever is the victim our motto is ‘for you there is life in retributive justice’.”

 “The continuous emphasis on ‘femicide’, is a slogan, media propaganda to turn women into the enemy of men,” he added. Boynukalın followed up by attempting to explain what he meant was in the bounds of Islamic law and retributive justice, arguing that a murderer should receive capital punishment.

Asked about Boynukalın’s comments, AKP Group Deputy Chair Özlem Zengin said: “I do not find it appropriate. At least on March 8, on women’s day he should not have tweeted this.” Boynukalin should “do his own job”, she added.

(The last tweet by Hagia Sophia's Imam Boynukalin before resigning the post was calling Turkish President Erdogan as the commander-in-chief)

Conservative circles did not agree. They started a rigorous campaign in support of Boynukalın on multiple social media platforms. A few pro-AKP female journalists stood by Zengin, but this only made the matter worse by enraging Boynukalın’s supporters. In the end, it was Zengin, rather than the imam, that had to keep quiet.

The next big controversy came after Boynukalın intervened in the public debate on interest rates. Since 2013, Erdoğan has repeatedly demanded interest rates be lowered and eventually eliminated. Last month, he sacked central bank governor Naci Ağbal for raising interest rates in an effort to rein in inflation and stabilise the value of the Turkish lira.    

Repeating Erdoğan near word for word after Ağbal’s dismissal, Boynukalın criticised interest rates, which are strictly forbidden in Islam, and instead advised his followers and the wider Muslim community to be patient in the face of Turkey’s growing financial crisis.

Bülent Turan, another AKP group deputy chair, posted a searing response, accusing Boynukalın of undermining all those who had sacrificed to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. There was no value in Boynukalın being on Twitter, he added.  

Turan’s remarks backfired as much as Zengin’s. Thousands reacted angrily on social media: Who was a politician to lecture a scholar about Islamic laws?

A few days later, Turan took a more conciliatory tone, emphasising that he graduated from the Imam Hatip religious high school system. “It is okay to say you are against interest rates and LGBTQ. But if you make it a matter of daily politics, you will pay a price,” he said.  

It looks like Turan was right. On Thursday, Boynukalın announced that he was resigning from his post at Hagia Sophia and returning to academia. In the aftermath, there was an outpouring support for the imam on social media and continued criticism of AKP elites.

But why did Boynukalın‘s words anger AKP’s top politicians? His statements were not necessarily critical of the government or against the norms of Islam.

There are three brief explanations. First and foremost, it is not what Boynukalın said, but what he represents that angers the AKP. Boynukalın is writing about political matters and that is a red line for AKP politicians.

Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) was established during the first decade of the Turkish Republic to control Islam. Imams that work for Diyanet mosques are considered public employees and are forbidden from getting involved in politics. It is the state that controls what imams can say in public, not the other way around. The AKP has enjoyed this secular red line for the last two decades.

Second, all authoritarian regimes hold a strong dislike of “experts”. Conservative commentators argue that years of secular education has worked for those who oppose Boynukalın, and that the country should get used to imams who are unwilling to interpret Islam in accordance with the preferences of politicians. Just like other authoritarian regimes, Erdoğan runs stamina tests on its own base to see emerging trends.

The last explanation is a deep fear about the rise of the clerical class, known in Islam as the ulema. Although the AKP has supported the rise of religious values to dominate all aspects of life, they still would rather keep the ulema in the mosque.

These abrupt public quarrels pitting top AKP politicians against Boynukalın and his supporters have sent a warning sign to the party. Challenging Boynukalın openly is not a battle they can win in the eyes of the public.

Boynukalın has given conservatives, some of whom are members of influential religious orders, an opportunity to demonstrate their anger towards the AKP. Religious orders have found significant freedoms and benefits under AKP rule, why shouldn’t they now make more demands of the political establishment? What is the role of an imam if not to speak of Islamic values and principles?

Here the issue gets particularly thorny. Public interest in Diyanet mosques is decreasing while religious orders are thriving as the sheikhs can preach without inhibition. But the AKP does not seem interested in releasing Islam from the control of state institutions.

As imam of the country’s most prestigious mosque, Boynukalın held a mirror to AKP politicians’ faces that they can no longer ignore. Political Islam can no longer be confined to the mosques, it must be managed more diligently.