Turkish bureaucracy becoming Islamicised as staff from top religious body take over

Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, the state institution responsible for regulating the role of Islam, last month announced that is set to hire 5,000 new staff, ranging from Qur’an teachers for the body’s rural organisations to state-appointed officials to work in İmam Hatip religious schools and muezzins - callers for prayer. 

The applications for the thousands of positions are set to begin on Oct. 6 through to Oct. 20.

But as the top religious body continues to expand its workforce, which eventually finds their way into other government jobs as Turkey’s health and education ministry are continuing to suffer real shortages in staffing. While this imbalance is raising questions about Turkey’s employment problems in key fields, the Turkish state is becoming increasingly partisan and bureaucracy Islamicised.

The acquisition of 5,000 more employees to the directorate, which has come under criticism over its ever-expanding budget under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has raised eyebrows in the face of Turkey’s economic problems and soaring unemployment figures.

According to a Court of Accounts 2019 report, the Religious Affairs Directorate was allotted a budget of 10.4 billion liras ($ 1.7 billion) in 2019, with this figure increasing to 11.5 billion lira in 2020.

The top religious body last year surpassed eight key ministries with its latest budget, including the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Energy and Natural Resources, and Culture and Tourism ministries, according to data from the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.

The directorate used 80 percent of its budget for 2019 on staffing expenditures. 

In previous years, the body focused on staffing for imams in religious schools in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority east and southeastern regions, including the provinces of Diyarbakır, Batman, Şırnak, Van, Mardin and Erzurum.

While the directorate is bracing to welcome thousands of new employees, the shortage of teachers in Turkey’s schools has reached new heights. The shortage of teachers and the escalating number of teachers waiting to be appointed, which is compounded by the closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic and the implementation of distance learning, remains among Turkey’s top education-related problems.

Turkey’s Ministry of Education appoints teachers annually, with a maximum of 20,000 teachers being assigned to posts throughout the country each year. Meanwhile, the absence of teachers, starting with village schools but including schools in provinces and towns, leads to the closure of schools or classes remaining without teachers.

There are 465,000 teachers, who are awaiting a ministry appointment in 2020, according to data from the Student Selection and Placement Centre (ÖSYM). This number is actually closer to 550,000 thousand, taking into consideration teachers, who have lost all hope of being appointed and are no longer in the official database. The number of candidates graduating with an education degree who have yet to be assigned a teaching post is expected to hit one million by the year 2023.

An even bigger crisis is faced by Turkey’s Health Ministry, which signalling an alarm in shortage of staff – a problem that poses more of a threat than ever due to the need for nurses, medical technicians and laboratory workers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The total number of doctors and other health staff who have not been appointed by the government number 320,000.

The General Directorate of Turkish Public Hospitals in a memorandum published last month said that healthcare workers would be given an additional salary payment ranging from16-50 percent for their efforts in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, but imams appointed to Turkey’s hospitals were given a 100 percent salary boost by way of additional payment.

According to the latest government data, the total of number employees with the Health Ministry is 164,00, while the Religious Affairs Directorate’s employees have increased by 50,000 in the last 10 years alone, reaching 130,000, a figure set to increase by 5,000 in the coming days.

Employment in Turkey’s public institutions has reached nearly five million, with a notable uptick following Turkey’s ushering in of the presidential system in 2018. The effect of referencing practices by the ruling AKP central administration on hiring in provincial and district organisations has become intensified during this period.

Data by the Turkish Presidency's Department of Strategy and Budget (CSBB) shows that the portion of public service employment will soon make up for 23-25 percent of the total employment in Turkey, meaning one out of every four employed person in the country will be a civil servant or government employee.

Of those employed in the public sector, 2.9 million are civil servants, 1.1 million are workers and 496,000 are contracted staff, according to CSBB figures.

In the private sector, employment had in previous years reached as high as 15 million, but this number appears to have decreased to 12.6 million as of June of this year. This is below the figure for 2015.

In other words, while the private sector has regressed back to figures from five years ago, the number of government employees continues to multiply, particularly in the fields of religious services, security and judiciary. 

The private sector appears to have lost its desire in creating new jobs, despite government incentives during the pandemic, including short-term working allowance and government bans on employee dismissals.

As long as the current trajectory continues, it appears Turkey will be hard-pressed to solve problems like unemployment, particularly among the youth, with the burden of employment becomes placed on the shoulders of the public sector. Moreover, public employment is set to be continually used by the ruling AKP to ensure partisan staffing, forcing youth into pledging allegiance to the party.

Meanwhile, Religious Affairs Directorate staff is being channelled into the other public institutions, through either interviews or appointment. This is happening in a number of fields and institutions, including with state-run TRT network, finance, universities, the transportation sector, etc. Religious Affairs Directorate are forming an increasingly larger demographic in Turkey’s bureaucracy.

Turkey’s bureaucracy, which was once predominantly comprised of staff with law backgrounds, has since been replaced with Religious Affairs Directorate-rooted staff, which have either been transferred or directly appointed to new positions.

In short, the Turkish state is being transformed into that of a single-party, while the country’s bureaucracy is quickly becoming Islamicised.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.