Imam politicians could destabilise Turkey
Turkey’s state religious authority is again looking to repeal a law that forbids imams from engaging in political activity. Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled against a similar request, which would have overturned a 1965 law.
Should the Directorate of Religious Affairs be successful this time around, imams would be able to make political speeches at mosques during Friday prayers and religious holidays, a move that many say could further destabilise Turkey.
The Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, was established in 1924 by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, handing control of religion to the state in an effort to ensure secularism.
But this is not the secular system found in the West. In the Ottoman Empire, Muslim clergy and places of worship were under state control – and this has continued in modern-day Turkey. The state maintains the country’s religious practices to ensure stability.
Rolling back the 1965 law banning Muslim preachers from political activity could upend this tradition, bringing religion into the legislative and political spheres. Imam politicians would allow the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to have a greater say in religious matters. According to local daily Cumhuriyet, the law could even be changed in such a way that the Constitutional Court would no longer oversee disciplinary action.
Yet not everyone opposes it.
Abdurrahman Dilipak, a columnist at Islamist daily Yeni Akit, said that Christian democratic parties in the West work with the church. And even though they sometimes disagree about hot-button issues such as birth control, they still work together.
“Evangelists and Jews are intertwined with the state,” he said. “Mosques and clerics in Turkey are under control of the state. If the state governs religious institutions, it shouldn’t be uncommon for religious institutions to have parallel or opposing views. Support or objection is possible within the framework of religion, morality, law, tradition and custom.”
Prominent Islamic theologian Ihsan Eliaçık disagrees. Eliaçık believes allowing politics in the mosque will lead to a radical cleavage in Turkish society, noting that 24 million people from various political leanings gather for Friday prayers.
“Turkey would not be able to withstand this development,” he said “People would be forced to choose a mosque. I think that a secular state is possible but not a secular country. The state should stand at an equal distance between all religions.”
If the state fails to do so, Eliaçık thinks this division could trigger a civil war, due to the polarisation in Turkey today. We’ve already seen signs of increased tensions.
İmdat Atmaca, an imam in the Ayvacık district of Samsun province, announced at the end of Friday prayers last week that he would run as an AKP candidate for Ayvacık mayor in local elections slated for March 2019. His move reportedly sparked criticism on social media for using a religious post to deliver a political message.
“War will be an inevitable outcome of allowing clerics to engage in political activity in mosques,” said Özcan Pali, president of the Deism Association.
In a written statement, Pali argued that politicised religion creates enemies, explaining: “Terrorist organisations who base their ideology on religion, such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and similar organisations, are anti-peace groups formed as a result of the politicisation of religion. It's interesting to note that the religion and god they believe in is the same.”
Allowing imams to take a political stand would create a structure that resembles non-secular countries, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Islam Özkan, former Arabic editor for state-run Turkish Radio and Television, said even Islamic parties in the Arab world and the broader Middle East reject the notion of allowing religious figures to enter politics. To do so, Özkan says, would be a significant drawback for society.
"The Muslim Brotherhood was active in mosques during the first couple years of its establishment in Egypt and made propaganda for the Movement,” he said. “But the Muslim Brotherhood Movement was not a political party [back then]. It was a movement aimed at raising awareness and social transformation."
Özkan also pointed out that states often use religion as a means of control. “Religion in classist societies has been one of the ideological devices that governments use to promote a culture of submissiveness,” he added.
Eliaçık views imams employed by the Diyanet as civil servants as they receive their salaries from public taxes. Turkish civil servants are forbidden by law from engaging in political activity. He also sees freedom of religion as an innate right that the state has no authority to restrict.
“In my view, the Directorate of Religious Affairs should be eliminated – it shouldn’t exist,” he said. “The Diyanet is no different from security institutions. The state should impose political bans on both the armed forces and the Diyanet. It’s unacceptable to be indoctrinated and to talk in favour of a political party during kandil prayers, religious holidays and at the mosque. This is also true for soldiers.”
Okan Akyüz, deputy chairman of the Atheism Association, emphasised that the road to preventing the abuse of religion lies in the principle of separation of powers.
“Although it was well-intentioned in the first place, the Directorate of Religious Affairs is in the midst of ongoing unlawfulness and abuse that has served the purpose of the government,” he said. “Each incoming administration had its own community structure in its own mosques built by the state with their own imams whose salaries were paid by the nation. Now it aims to provide both power and foresight to the current administration by recording the secret activity of the communities under their control."