The History of Turkey’s Diyanet

Kristin Fabbe and Kimberly Guiler, at The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, looked at the proliferation of conspiracy theories surrounding last week’s attempted coup in Turkey. In their piece, they made a point about a Turkish institution that probably deserves more explanation than they were able to give it, the Diyanet:

Turkey’s self-avowed secularists also see themselves as victims — victims of a regime that is leveraging Islam, and especially the state-run presidency of religious affairs (Diyanet) and its imam/civil servants, to bolster its hold on power. Throughout the night of the failed uprising, mosques in several Turkish cities broadcast the call to prayer on repeat after Erdogan asked citizens to protest the overthrow attempt. The call was coupled with appeals for the people to protest the coup and remain steadfast in their support of the government.

Interestingly, the head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Gormez, also referenced past victimization in a rare public statement made from the Diyanet TV studio. Gormez condemned the betrayal by the Gulenist “parallel structure” and offered “praise to Allah for granting the calls to prayer that silenced the coup, after the [past] coups that have silenced calls to prayer.” In 2015, Kristin Fabbe wrote, “Problems could arise if the AKP decides — and is able — to leverage the Diyanet as a political weapon against the Gulen Movement.”

It seems that time has now come.

The office of the Diyanet gets its name from the Arabic word diyanah, which means “religion” in an organizational sense. It has roots that go all the way back to the Ottoman Empire and really even before that. One of the things the Ottomans did quite effectively was to bureaucratize…well, almost everything, but in this case I’m talking about religion. Contrary to the Islam 101-level “Islam recognizes no separation between church and state” analysis you’re likely to get from almost anybody at, say, this week’s Republican convention, Islamic history is in fact replete with instances of tension between “church” and “state” that are as illustrative as the ones that defined much of Europe until relatively modern times.

Caliphs were, it’s true, imbued with some religious authority, but the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs also spent considerable time feuding with the community of religious scholars, the ulama, and those feuds usually didn’t go well for the caliphs. The long decline of the Abbasid caliphate, meanwhile, was marked by the rise of overtly secular/temporal local and regional rulers who looked to the caliph to rubber-stamp their authority (which wasn’t all that different from the way popes were expected to crown kings in supposedly secular Europe), but for little more than that. And when the Mongols took the last widely-accepted Abbasid caliph and (allegedly) rolled him up in a carpet and trampled him to death in 1258, the office, while technically passing to another line of the Abbasid family who were spirited off to Cairo, was for all intents and purposes defunct. What replaced it was a bunch of very secular dynasties who derived legitimacy from their religion but by and large weren’t regarded as religious leaders in their own right (there are exceptions, mostly Shiʿa, but let’s not get lost in the weeds).

Ottoman sultans, particularly later Ottoman sultans, claimed the title of caliph, but their reasonably harmonious relationship with the ulama didn’t derive from that claim–rather, it derived from the fact that the Ottomans managed to turn most of their ulama into state functionaries. Previous Islamic dynasties had tried to co-opt the ulama through religious endowments, patronage, etc., but none came anywhere close to the Ottomans in terms of actually doing it. At the top of the imperial religious bureaucracy was an office called the Shaykh al-Islam, or Şeyhülislam in modern Turkish. Prior to the Ottomans this title, which means something like “honored elder of Islam,” had been used informally to describe great and influential religious scholars. But for the Ottomans, the person holding this office was, next to the Sultan (who was nominally also the caliph), the highest religious authority in the state, which in practice meant that he was the highest religious authority in the state except on the most extraordinary of questions/circumstances. The Shaykh al-Islam also served as the Grand Mufti of Constantinople. The Ottomans appointed Grand Muftis in each major city, and these were the final religio-legal authority in their cities, but the Grand Mufti of Constantinople–the Shaykh al-Islam–was the final authority in the entire empire.

Mehmet Cemaleddin Efendi (d. 1909), one of the longest-serving (and last) Ottoman Shaykhs al-Islam (Wikimedia Commons)

The Shaykh al-Islam had, in theory, the authority to depose a sultan who strayed from the faith, just as, in theory, the pope might have had the authority to depose an impious king or the caliph might have had the authority to depose a regional sultan back in previous centuries of Islamic history. Of course the sultan had, in actuality, the authority to have the Shaykh’s eyes gouged out or his head lopped off, so no Shaykh al-Islam ever actually attempted to exercise this theoretical power. And the Shaykh al-Islam had nowhere near the practical authority of the Grand Vizier, so at best these guys were third in the Ottoman hierarchy and usually they ranked lower than that.

When the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate were abolished following the end of World War I and the Turkish War of Independence (so, the early 1920s), the office of Shaykh al-Islam was also eliminated. In its place the new Turkish government created the Diyanet. The office’s role is to maintain places of worship and other religious sites and to make sure that Islam retains its proper place in Turkish life and that everybody’s practice of Islam is more or less within the bounds of propriety. It has been for most of its history sort of benignly sectarian. I say “sectarian” because it’s done little to address the religious needs of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to Turkey’s majority Hanafi Sunni faith, including Alevis, Shiʿa, and Turkish Kurds, who are mostly Sunni but generally not of the Hanafi school. I say “benignly” because the fact that all this religious diversity exists in Turkey tells you that it’s at least mostly allowed those minority communities the freedom to practice their religion as they wish. In fact, for most of Turkish history the Diyanet has been used to check the growth of Islamist political parties, not to enable it. And that all goes back to the founding ethos of the Turkish Republic.

By the time Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey, he was seen as a liberating national hero on par with a George Washington or Simon Bolivar. Atatürk’s leadership had shepherded the country through the massive transition that was the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire, through the Turkish War of Independence, in which the former Ottoman army fought successfully to keep European powers from carving up Anatolia the way they’d carved up the empire’s former Arab territories. At that time and in that place he could have established the Turkish Sultanate with himself as king and it’s likely that nobody–not adoring Turks, not war-weary and already-beaten Europeans–would have batted an eye. But instead he founded a new nation based largely on two principles: secularism and republicanism (Kemalism has six main tenets, these two plus nationalism, populism, statism, and revolutionism, but these are the two that I want to focus on here). And almost ever since, those two principles have been in conflict with one another.

Atatürk’s stature in Turkey is still unparalleled and I imagine it would be hard to find many Turks who would say they disagreed with his vision for the Turkish Republic. Nevertheless, Turks have been pushing back against that vision for most of the republic’s history by trying, again and again, to vote into office parties that have incorporated Islam into their politics, in contrast Atatürk’s avowed secularism. Note that I’m not saying those parties have won elections because of their religiosity (though I’m also not not saying that), but they have won elections all the same. This is why Turkey has had so many military coups–the military, which reveres Atatürk even more than the general Turkish population, has long seen itself as the guardian of his ideals and so has intervened whenever it has seen those ideals threatened, particularly by elected governments that seem to be straying too far into overt religiosity.

Some years after the last successful coup, in 1997, which was pretty tame as coups go, as it involved the military top brass writing a memo expressing the likelihood of a coup and it was the memo that then brought down the government, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a few other people founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP). AKP grew out of the ashes of the Welfare Party, an Islamist party that was dissolved after the 1997 coup-by-memo, and the Virtue Party, the Welfare Party’s successor, which was dissolved a few years later for not being secular enough.

By the time Erdoğan and company founded AKP circa 2001, a couple of things were increasingly true of Turkish politics: the Turkish people were sick and tired of coups, and Turkey’s elites (at least) wanted to press for membership in the European Union. Only you can’t really get into the EU if your military keeps overthrowing elected governments every decade or so. So what seems to have happened is that the military decided to allow AKP some room to operate and to win elections, and in return AKP wasn’t supposed to stress religion too much–it could still emphasize social conservatism, which in practice is pretty much the same thing, as long as it packaged that social conservatism in a secular-seeming box. This, in fact, is what most top AKP officials will say, and have said, when asked about their party’s Islamist leanings, although that line has also probably served them politically (polls strongly suggest that AKP gains support by at least appearing moderate on the subject of Islamism).

The military may not have been entirely on board with this agenda. The alleged “Sledgehammer” coup plot was hatched shortly after AKP won its first majority, and the alleged secret nationalist organization Ergenekon is also said to have strong military ties and to be strongly opposed to the AKP and Erdoğan. However, it’s been 13-plus years since AKP took over, and though there have been alleged coup plots and show trials during those 13 years, last week was the first time an actual coup against Erdoğan’s government was attempted. And part of the motivation for that coup attempt may have been the way that Erdoğan has co-opted the Diyanet, which has shown that he and AKP aren’t really burying the lead the way they had been when they first came into power:

Under the AKP, Diyanet has grown exponentially. In less than a decade, its budget has quadrupled to over $2 billion, and it employs over 120,000 people, making it one of Turkey’s largest state institutions – bigger than the Ministry of Interior. But Diyanet’s character has also changed. Previously, a solid proportion of its personnel were regular government bureaucrats, not persons with Islamic education. In recent years, however, the makeup of its staff has taken on a more Islamic character.

The use of Diyanet as a political instrument is fairly recent, dating to 2010-11. Until late 2010, Diyanet was led by a Chairman, Ali Bardakoğlu, appointed by secularist president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Under Bardakoğlu’s tenure, the Diyanet largely stayed out of politics. In 2010, during the course of reforms that ended bans on the Islamic headscarf, Prime Minister Erdoğan suggested that the Diyanet be consulted. In response, Bardakoğlu responded that “consulting the Diyanet on legislation is counter to the principle of secularism”. He also refused to recommend Muslim women to wear the headscarf, emphasizing that it is not a formal requirement of the religion. Bardakoğlu was fired shortly thereafter, and replaced by Mehmet Görmez, who has been considerably more pliant toward the AKP leadership’s wishes.

Now, before we get too carried away, we should note that the Diyanet’s share of total government expenditures hasn’t really risen all that much from its consistent historical levels. But Erdoğan’s decision to use the Diyanet as a political authority, and to swap out its leadership on ideological terms, does suggest that he sees the body differently from past Turkish leaders. The fact that Görmez sometimes gets referred to as Turkey’s “head cleric,” or something to that effect, which is a role you normally only see in descriptions of overtly religious states like Iran, may also be a clue that the office’s role is changing. And for a Turkish “deep state” that is increasingly worried that Erdoğan’s secular mask is slipping, that may have been–along with the (alleged) influence of Gülenists, dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s foreign and security policies, and other issues–part of the motivation for the coup attempt.

Mehmet Görmez, the current head of the Diyanet (via)

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