Political Islam jeopardises Turkey’s fight against coronavirus

With its huge budget and staff, the decisions made by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) have had a negative effect on the country’s fight against the deadly coronavirus pandemic, exiled journalist Can Dündar wrote for the Washington Post.

“Over the past two weeks, Turkey has been witnessing a lethal tug of war between reason and belief — one that shows us again how dangerous politicized religion can be,” said Dündar, former editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Diyanet officials participated in a meeting on Turkey’s response to the coronavirus, organised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 18, while the country’s top medical professional organisation, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) was not invited.

The top religious body had authorised thousands of Turks to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and by March 15 the 21,000 returning pilgrims became the biggest threat for the spread of the virus in Turkey as most of them were only checked for fevers at airports, against the advice of the TTB and other medical experts.

Only the last group of pilgrims, some 6,400 people, were quarantined, after many defied a non-binding request by the Diyanet to self-isolate for 14 days and not receive any visitors as is tradition.

“But it was too late,” Dündar said. “Thousands of people had spread across the country. Within a week, the number of cases surged from one to more than 1,000.”

Diyanet also decided to keep the mosques open, including for Friday prayers, “which draw around 18 million people each week,” Dündar said. The government suspended Friday prayers on March 16, later than many Islamic countries including Iran and Kuwait, and after entertainment and cultural venues were already closed.

“But it was too late again,” Dündar said. “Within one week, Turkey had surpassed all other countries in the rate of increase of cases.”

Following the meeting that included Diyanet and excluded the TTB, President Erdoğan “chose to speak like a cleric,” Dündar said, when he urged the country to “take precautions and leave judgement to Allah.”

“Our Lord’s help will be on our side,” Dündar quoted Erdoğan as saying on March 25, as the president responded to concerns raised by experts that the spread of the virus would accelerate in coming weeks due to the delayed initial reaction.

Religious talk dominated Turkish media rather than scientists, Dündar said. A sociology professor said the coronavirus was god’s wrath for “adultery and anal sex,” while an infectious disease expert from the Coronavirus Science Council said on live television that god created viruses for population control.

The pandemic has shown “just how the secular foundations of the education system have been eroded,” Dündar said, while Turkey’s economy faltered and healthcare system was “utterly unprepared for the challenge it faces.”

Religious authority has filled the gap the government created with the lack of “a serious, well-thought-out response,” with measures like mosques broadcasting prayers every night.

Political Islam in the country has obstructed science and misallocated vital resources, Dündar said, posing a direct threat to the nation’s health.