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‘Diyanet’ for Monetizing Faith and Politically Enjoining the Poor

Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs under the auspices of the Office of the President, is currently one of the most indispensable and lucrative institutions under the disposal of the Erdogan government. Although it is not a ministry, Diyanet’s budget surpasses many government ministries including the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Ministry of National Education, Ministry of Industry and Technology, and some others. Everyone wonders why a huge chunk from the state coffers have been allotted to the Diyanet and whether all expenses made by the Directorate are made by the book.

The topic of Diyanet brought to my mind an incident which the former Zaman columnist and prominent academic Ahmet Turan Alkan had mentioned in one of his columns: Narrating an experience by a small-scale business owner in Turkey about his employees on the issue of attending to the weekly congregational prayers on Fridays, Alkan related that when the boss asked a young employee why he had been reluctant to attend to the Friday prayers, the young man replied, “I simply cannot do that, sir” and added, “Because I have no money.” The boss was surprised, so he said, “You don’t need to pay anything for the prayer. The service is free of charge.” The young man quipped, “The imam asks for money every time he is about to conclude the Friday sermon. I have no money. I don’t go to the mosque because I don’t want to lose face.” Charity is central to faith; yet, for those who are not used to the common practice in mosque, this comes as quite a large dilemma. While imams on the Diyanet’s payroll appeal to the public on weekly basis from the Friday pulpits for their charitable contributions to not only their own mosques but also to the other neighborhood and village mosques and Qur’anic schools, the heavyweight Diyanet top hierarchy draws generously from the Treasury for a variety of projects.

I frequently remember how I was once with one of my friends at a mosque for the Friday prayer and that the imam – having concluded the sermon – appealed to the congregation for their donations to the mosque again as per the routine. My friend criticized the imam and the way the mosque was financed that way while it was a part of the large hierarchy of the financially-stable Diyanet organization. He stood up just before the start of the Friday prayer and left the mosque. What he criticized was not the imam himself, but the systemic culture that kept on asking contributions while the imams in Turkey were government servants paid by the Diyanet since the founding of the Republic and that the mosques and their annexes were heavily subsidized by the state in terms of utility bills and so on.

In addition to its super-sized budget allegedly overshadowing even that of the Vatican, the Diyanet also has myriad forms of income. As of October 23, 2020, the Diyanet officially announced the number of the mosque that it ‘operated’ as 84.684 across the country. This number is far superior to the number of all schools under the Ministry of National Education – which announced the total number of schools in the country as 68.589 on September 5, 2020 – in Turkey. It is not hard to imagine the worth of real estate and religious clout of the Diyanet as superior to many other institutions in Turkey. In addition to appealing people’s charitable selves on every major national and natural crisis, the Diyanet also collects donations especially after the Friday prayers at each mosque. If we make a small calculation with an assumption of minimum 100 Turkish Liras collected after every Friday prayer at each mosque, it equals to 457,293,600 Turkish Liras (approximately 60 million USD). For sure, more donations are collected exclusively on yearly basis at many more religious and social occasions by the Diyanet across the country.

The Turkish government pays the salaries of all imams (prayer leaders) and muezzins (persons who give the call to prayer) as the civil servants under the auspices of the Diyanet. Moreover, all municipalities across Turkey do not charge utility bills from the mosques and the Qur’anic schools. When anything is needed for the minor maintenance of the mosques, there are always pious people who voluntarily get the job done and meet all expenses with an expectation of attaining the divine approval of God. This being the case, one wonders what the Diyanet does with other resources like write-offs, donations, exclusive lounges and hotels, TV ads, the Diyanet Foundation and so on. This leads some to label the organization as the “Diyanet Holding” and media outlets like the Deutsche Welle file a news report titled, “Diyanet: The Turkish Religious Authority that Mints Millions” in 2019.

I was surprised when I read the report titled International Religious Freedom of Turkey 2019, published by the United States Department of State, as I had not been aware of several discriminations meted out to religious minorities in Turkey. The report elucidated that while the local administrations – especially the municipalities run by the ruling party AKP – under the district and provincial administrations exempted the mosques from all utility payments, other places of worship such as churches, synagogues and others were asked to pay bills without any incentives or exemptions. This happens albeit the right to religious freedom for all groups are guaranteed by the Constitution without allowing any kind of discrimination on religious ground. The same report also mentioned that some municipalities run by the CHP (Republican People’s Party) treated all places of worship as equal with one another and charged nothing from any of them notwithstanding their faith.

However, most are familiar with the fact that the Turkish state dynamics have not tolerated many Islamic groups and faith circles. The Alevis, Nurcus, Suleymancis, and some Sufi Orders have been oppressed at different times by the State at different levels. Nowadays, the state specifically targets and oppresses the participants of the Gulen Movement. While all these discriminations are meted out to other religious and Islamic minorities in Turkey, the Diyanet does nothing while it is expected to act as transparent, tolerant, and compassionate to everyone regardless of their beliefs, thoughts and ethnicity. The organization of the Diyanet is thoroughly politicized and cemented around interests while preferring to keep a political stance and make the circumstances unbearable for all oppressed groups.

It did not come as a surprise for anyone when the Erdogan regime began purging the participants and the institutions of the Gulen Movement through all sorts of illegitimate and non-Islamic practices including seizing properties, depriving innocent citizens of their basic rights and privileges, throwing people behind bars and abandoning them to death as well as physical and psychological abuse, the Diyanet supported the Erdogan regime by providing a ‘religious framework’ to mass persecution and announcing a fatwa published as a 96-page report to declare the Gulen Movement as apostate, a terror organization and a cult. Using the large funds provided from the Treasury, the Diyanet also held several conferences with the attendance of the popular representatives of the religious groups from the Muslim World and encouraged them to blemish the participants and the institutions of the Gulen Movement without any probe or religious sensitivity (that commands caution against misinformation through hearsay and toxic discourse) to convince them that the Movement was a non-Islamic terrorist group.

This great support to the Erdogan regime did not go unnoticed and Erdogan awarded the Diyanet with all means of financial support. Acting as if they were the Sheikh ul Islams of a past caliphate, the successive chief imams of the Diyanet for almost the last six years have provided ‘religious justifications’ to the wrongdoings committed by the Erdogan regime, received perks and commendations, and grown together as allies with Erdogan to finish all religious or secular competition in the field. Both parties hate competition. If there had to be a political party, it should be only the Erdogan’s party. The same applies for the Diyanet. If there had to be any religious organization, it should be only the Diyanet and all others should be annihilated.

The Diyanet provided its full support to the Erdogan regime on the night of the failed coup attempt. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Gormez, then-President of the Diyanet sent SMS messages to all imams and muezzins across the country 12 hours before the coup attempt, notified them to stand by for the night to summon public to the streets by an Islamic knell called sala (recitation of praises and prayers [salawaat] to the Holy Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] routinely done on every Thursday night to herald the next-day’s Friday prayer and also on emergencies such as a demise or an impending attack). I am sure a great majority of the Diyanet personnel realized the actual meaning of the SMS message when they got it first. However, it did not take them much long to grasp what it all meant. When the news of a coup d’état circulated, all muezzins across the country began reciting the sala, alerting the general public to come out on the streets to ‘encounter the putschists’. Never in the history of modern Republic of Turkey did the people and the army of the same country encountered on a coup until then. People were used to learn the news of the coup when they woke up in the morning and saw tanks positioned at key locations of the city and the news from the radio and TV that the civilian government had been dismissed without any bloodshed. It has been heartrending that 250 civilians lost their lives on the night of the failed coup, and that happened just summons circulated by Erdogan on media and the muezzins’ call from the minarets across the country. In that night, the Diyanet was no longer limited to the role of discriminating, slandering, acting as the willing sidekick of the illegitimate actions of an oppressive regime, it upgraded itself to the role of acclimatizing the zealots, manipulating the religious sentiments of the general public for the incidents during a bloody night, complementing the call made by Erdogan on the TV screens under his tutelage for the people to come out to the streets.

Nowadays, with waning economy and flaking popularity of the authoritarian leader in the face of the rising inflation and depleted funds, Turkey stumbles fast towards a massive economic collapse. With public feeling their pockets lighter and their power of purchase reduced to almost nothing while the echelons of the regime bathe in wealth, the Erdogan regime feels the heat of public backlash. Having utilized all national, cultural and religious sentiments to further its rule, Erdogan’s regime falters more and more as it meets one negative development after another. Suffering from a dramatic drop in votes that will lead to their loss of power in any election, Erdogan and his associates blunder on. Back in 2016, in Erdogan’s own words, they really needed a “gift of God” to change the course of their downfall at least in the eyes of the public. This time too, they suffer from a setback like never before. Whatever trick they pull, the government officials are unable to paint rose-tinted pictures for the public. Having attacked to the foundations of the state and military institutions, Erdogan and his associates see all things falling apart around them. Once again, banking on exploiting people’s religious sentiments, the Diyanet has been called for the duty. The template sermon text dispatched two weeks ago to all imams across the country to be read during the Friday sermons invited common people to patience against economic difficulties and perseverance against the impending hardships by quoting multiple verses from the Holy Qur’an. Most critics say while the Diyanet invites people to austerity and patience against likely hunger, it never uses the sermons to criticize the extravagance of the Erdogan regime both within the palace and in the party organizations across the country. Controlling a huge real estate and commandeering a hefty budget, the Diyanet does not heed the difficulties suffered by people but prefer to help the Erdogan regime stay afloat despite all bad governance.

This is how the Diyanet, no doubt one of the most prominent propaganda and familiarization machines for the Erdogan regime, steps in the limelight whenever the regime needs religious gratification and authorization in the eyes of the public. The Erdogan regime has foreseen the vitality of the Diyanet for achieving its political ambitions years before, and Erdogan designed the Diyanet hierarchy accordingly by appointing the people who would absolutely obey him even by ignoring the basic Islamic tenets in favor of his Islamist party’s policies. For this purpose, not only did he allot a million-dollar Mercedes Benz to the President of the Diyanet, he also increased the salaries of the Diyanet staff including the imams and the muezzins far more than given to other civil servants, as a token of his gratitude for helping him engineer the society in lines with regime-tutored religious sentiments and to invest into the future in case of any need similar to the one in July 2016. Here, I cannot help but remember the jokes on the social media when Pope Francis visited Turkey and toured in a Renault Clio as compared to a Mercedes Benz similar to the one driven by the President of the Diyanet. People joked: “Renault Clio accelerates from 0 to 100 in 10.4 seconds and Mercedes Benz does that within 6.5 seconds. We wonder which car delivers one to God’s approval the fastest?”   

While the Diyanet acts as the Erdogan regime’s Big Brother  on religious masses in Turkey, it also serves to its political master abroad as well. Having been converted into a political tool by the Erdogan regime for expansionist politics, the Diyanet wore the virtual mantle of the caliphate on behalf of the political government in Turkey and increased pace of building mosques everywhere in the World. They built large mosques not only in Muslim-majority countries but also in the United States, the Russian Federation, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria and many others.

While it kept on building mosques in different parts of the world, the personnel crewing the Diyanet mosques in European countries conducted surveillance activities for profiling the participants of the Gulen Movement and other opposition groups. When their activities were unearthed by the intelligence of the respective countries, many Diyanet imams fled to Turkey fearing the repercussions of their illegal activities. The government personnel who were appointed to provide religious services to the Turkish and other Muslim communities in those countries worked as subaltern intelligence officers for the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). While expecting to receive religious orientation from a government-appointed imam, many Turkish expatriates are profiled against their will and, instead of gaining religious insight, they are pinpointed for harassment and abduction by the Turkish intelligence operatives. This is how the Diyanet has been politicized under the influence of the Erdogan regime.    

During my tenure in Pakistan, Prof. Dr. Mehmet Gormez, the then-President of the Diyanet, conducted an official visit to the country. I had the chance to follow his official visits and meetings. In his short visit, it was revealed that he had been to Pakistan only for convincing the local politicians about the baseless allegation that the Gulen Movement is a terrorist group and that the Turkish educationists working in a chain of private schools across the country were members of that group who should be dealt with firm action by the Government of Pakistan. Gormez also urged the Pakistani authorities to seize the schools and transfer them to the Erdogan regime. Not surprisingly, he just talked about the political affairs but not much of religious affairs as expected from him.

On behalf of the political government, Gormez and his successors traveled worldwide for helping the Erdogan regime to hunt the dissidents abroad and have them deported to Turkey where they would be most likely tortured and deprived of their basic rights. Wasn’t it against the Islamic understanding, the practices of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the traditions of Anatolia rich in tolerance and hospitality? Yes, it was and is entirely against all of these values and the Diyanet which needed to be more prudent on these terms was there and violated them all.

It is all because the Diyanet has been politicized and a considerable segment of the personnel prioritizes not the religion itself but the political gains and the survival of the Erdogan regime. It does not come as a surprise as it is reported that the youth has increasingly distanced from religion across the country. This course of events with the rich, powerful and politicized Diyanet will not help anything but the spiritual and material poverty of the people of Turkey besides the collapse of the justice system. When this happens, the Diyanet will surely not enjoy ruling the ruins.  

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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