HomeExpertsInstrumentalization of Islam: Hayrettin Karaman’s Role in Erdogan’s Despotism

Instrumentalization of Islam: Hayrettin Karaman’s Role in Erdogan’s Despotism

The world no longer has just a Recep Tayyip Erdogan problem. It also has a problem with Turkey, because what the Islamofascist Erdogan regime stands for is now standing before us in the guise of Turkey. Mr. Erdogan’s despotic approach, which omits democracy, human rights, individual freedoms, the rule of law, humanitarian values, moral principles and human dignity has finally permeated Turkey with all of its institutions and norms.

How did Turkey come to this terrible point? Is it correct to put all the responsibility for this catastrophe on the shoulders of Erdogan alone? Could we accuse only Mr. Erdogan of ruining Turkey’s image as a model country that is trying to harmonize Islam and democracy and reconcile fundamental rights and freedoms with religion, and turning it instead into the worst dictatorship in the Middle East? If all the guilt is not shouldered by Mr. Erdogan, who are the other actors who share responsibility for this process of authoritarianism?

The actors and motives behind this transformation of Turkey from a country exporting stability into a source of chaos that destroys global peace and stability, can be illuminated in many ways. Through various explanations of the situation, other names and groups can share the responsibility for the current regression of democracy and humanity alongside Mr. Erdogan. But in this article, I will try to address the role played by the political instrumentalization of Islam, as the most important hallmark of political Islamism, in the establishment of Mr. Erdoğan’s despotism.

In this, I will explore how theologian and author Hayrettin Karaman is playing a determining role in this process. Undoubtedly, the choice to use Mr. Karaman as an example will not come as a surprise. He is seen as a role model by the conservative circles of Turkey and enjoys influence over Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Karaman’s penetration of the political Islamists’ circles and the misuse of his religious authority as well as the “fatwas” that he issues on a personal basis, along with his instrumentalization of the principles of Islam for power purposes, sometimes converting them to the contrary, play a considerable role in this selection.

Neither the politicization of Islam nor its political instrumentalization is new. Starting from the Omayyads and the political needs of the Caliphate, the principles of Islam were instrumentalized in line with the demands of rulers during the Abbasid, Seljuk and Ottoman periods. Among the most typical and tragic examples of this instrumentalization were the massive killings of Alawites in the period of Yavuz Sultan Selim and the religious fatwas allowing the murder of the royal siblings in the period of Fatih Sultan Mehmet.

The point is that, ontologically, the emergence and current state of political Islam is actually nothing more than an instrumentalization shaped in flesh and bone. The political instrumentalization of Islam is a tremendous threat, as seen in the legitimization of the suicide attacks by radical Islamist terrorist organizations such as HAMAS, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite the fact that Islam sees “the killing of an innocent as the killing of the whole mankind” according to the Quran. From this point of view, it is easier to understand the menace posed by Mr. Karaman’s role which abets the inhuman actions taken by the Islamofascist Erdogan regime, including the ever-increasing persecutions, the results of which are impossible to predict.

So who is Hayrettin Karaman? What rhetoric and actions prompt a comparison with HAMAS, al-Qaeda and ISIL?

According to the information on his personal website, Mr. Karaman was born in Turkey’s Çorum province in 1934 and graduated from Imam Hatip School in Konya in 1959, at the age of 25 and from the High Islamic Institute of Istanbul in 1963. After 1975, the year of transformation of High Islamic Institutes into Faculties of Theology, he rose to the rank of professor. In 2001, when the pressure on the universities increased during the February 28, 1997, post-modern coup process, he left his position at the Marmara University’s Faculty of Theology.

Between 2001 and 2004, he served as a guest lecturer at the European International Islamic University in the Netherlands. Mr. Karaman, who had written quite a few books regarding Islamic law and Islam in general, was also on the advisory committee of a number of Islamic organizations. He wrote periodical articles for Yeni Safak Daily, a political Islamist newspaper, starting from its first issue in the late 1990s. The religion-related articles in this newspaper, the contents of which suited the needs of the political conjuncture, were always considered as political fatwas, aiming to instrumentalize Islam in favor of Erdogan’s political power.

What makes Mr. Karaman’s instrumentalization of Islam more significant and more meaningful than the others, is the religious work he performed in the period when religious people were under pressure, as well as his proximity to the victims at the time and the related impersonization by them. His work was pursued with interest by large conservative circles, thanks to its relatively libertarian stance, which earned him respect even among different social groups at the time. The “legitimizer role” he played in the process of increasing despotism, which was closely followed by the political Islamist cadres, mostly consisting of his former students, was vital. Mr. Karaman mobilized his social and scientific credits in service of Mr. Erdogan’s Islamofascist regime, through the fetwas he gave by writing articles on controversial issues on the political agenda. He played a dominant role in paving the way for all of the inhuman, uncivilized and unlawful actions taken by the current despotic regime in Turkey, by means of instrumentalizing Islam.

Mr. Karaman himself actually admitted his influence on the Erdogan regime in an article: “The government does not take fetwas or anything from me. Turkey is not an Islamic republic that is ruled by fetwas, but a country ruled by the civil democratic constitution and laws… Since the Islamic jurisprudence is my field of expertise, when my articles, written in view of the Islamic jurisprudence, are seen by some of the Muslims, that trust me, as fetwas, and nobody can object that.” (Yeni Safak, November 29, 2013). The problem is that the president, prime minister, ministers and high profile bureaucrats are all among “some of the Muslims” that see his articles as fetwas.

Moreover, Mr. Karaman’s influence on this subject is not only due to his own efforts. On the contrary, he managed to increase his political role exponentially with the help of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which controlls more than 90,000 mosques and more than 120,000 imams across the country, as well as the theological community—mostly consisting of people who see him as a role model—Islamic communities and orders. He secured the instrumentalization of Islam and its influence on the conservative circles of Turkey by placing the “Islamic shield” over Mr. Erdogan’s discretionary and despotic politics, which are contrary to the principles of democracy and universal jurisprudence, as well as to the universal message of Islam. Mr. Karaman did this at the expense of betraying Islam and his own scientific authority.

It should come as no surprise that in this process there is a significant role played by the Muslim masses who are not able to differentiate between Islam and Islamism, Islam and Muslim, or Islamic principles and conjectural political thoughts allegedly based on Islam. However, as expressed in one of the writings of theologian and author Ahmet Kurucan, “It is not enough for a thought being allegedly divine-based, to be actually divine. Therefore, it is wrong to say that the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, which consists [sic] of the thoughts/juridical principles/solutions/laws created by people is divine.” This analysis is even more meaningful where theologians like Mr. Karaman betray their scientific authority and use religion to cover the use of amoral and inhuman methods if required by the political powers.

The political adventure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is closely connected with the process of Mr. Karaman’s transformation from a respectable personality to an apparatus of the Erdogan regime, by bending Islamic principles into any shape needed by the political power. Indeed, it is almost impossible to reconcile the positions taken by Mr. Karaman in the period when socio-political reforms targeting a more civilized, pluralist and democratic future were applied in the scope of the European Union membership process with those he has taken since 2011.

This radical change must be directly connected with the new objectives verbalized by Aziz Babuşcu, the Istanbul Provincial Chairman of the AKP that time, on April 1, 2013:

“The ones, who were our partners of any kind in the 10-year period of power, will not be our partners in the next 10 years. The reason is, in the past 10 years some of the partnerships made in the identification and liquidation process related to the freedom, law and justice rhetoric. No matter how much they despaired us, let us say that the liberal segments were our partners in this process. However, the future is the period of construction, and this period will not be what they desire it to be. That is why those partners will not be with us. The ones, who in this or that way walked next to us yesterday, tomorrow will walk next to the forces that are opposite to us. Because the Turkey to be built and the future to be established will not be the future and the period they will be able to accept.”

Long before Mr. Babuşcu’s statement, however, Mr. Karaman was one of the main actors in legitimizing all kinds of unlawful, arbitrary and discretionary prosecution as a part of establishing this “political Islamist future.” Mr. Karaman, who had not previously expressed any problems with the country’s legitimate Constitution, now turned himself into a source of “parallel law” in favor of the political power. Playing a role of a “faqih,” he produced the necessary solutions (!) by interpreting Islam to the benefit of the political power whenever required.

The restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms, violation of privacy, intervention in private life, crushing or destroying minority groups on questionable grounds, such as in the “interest of the majority”, as well as crimes such as bribery, siphoning and plundering of funds and corruption, are all legitimized by a sort of “religious parallel law” by some theologians or clerics, including Mr. Karaman.

In democratic and liberal constitutional states, citizens are free in their private lives as long as they do not harm others. Privacy must not be teased out or invaded unlawfully. In the same way as this contemporary law, Islamic law also respects privacy and private life. However, if you look at what was said and done by the political powers regarding the discussion in 2013 of “student homes for girls and boys,” it will become clear that the current situation is somewhat different. Then-Prime Minister Erdogan literally declared a war on this type of accommodation, preferred by a small minority of the adult university students, launching a discussion in Turkey that lasted for weeks. Like similar theologians, Mr. Karaman immediately tried to legitimize Mr. Erdogan’s archaic and interventionist style.

Mr. Erdogan, focused on raising a so-called “religious generation”, significantly increased pressure, especially on the university youth, in the year 2013. A private life-related article written by Mr. Karaman which opened the way for Mr. Erdogan to behave in an anti-democratic way, in opposition to basic rights and freedoms, was a warning sign:

“The government could not protect the behaviours, practices and relations that are not preferable for the majority and seen by them as dangerous, ugly, illegal…. If a situation is seen by the majority as immorality, disgrace, dishonor, shame, sin (adultery), lowness, what is going to happen? I will tell you: The society (apartment, neighborhood, environment …) will react on it, will somehow interfere in the ugly situation, will restrain the neighborhood. The ones oppressed will ask for help, using the media and state institutions, the media will be shaken, and the state institutions trying act tolerant… So what is the solution? In my opinion the solution number one is to establish a democratic order basing on Islam in a society which consists of people who are “Muslim” almost 100 percent. The political power should not attempt to apply politics against this regime, even if people insisted on the liberal democracies; the individuals should, for the sake of the majority they always need, willingly restrain from some of their freedoms. If they still do not restrain, the measures such as at least a neighbourhood pressure becomes the right of the majority” (Yeni Safak, November 8, 2013).

At that time, I wrote an article on this subject, published in the Today’s Zaman daily (a newspaper closed by the Erdogan regime in 2016). In my article, for which both the printed and digital archives have been destroyed, I asked the question: “Can this advice given by Mr. Karaman in order to defend the behaviour of the current political power by claiming that it based on the Islamic principles, be used in the European countries, in Myanmar or similar places where Muslims are minority?”

Mr. Karaman’s writings related to where and how young adults aged 18 and older should live appeared at the same time as Mr. Erdogan’s focus on university youths. “If an unmarried pair live in the same house, or if girl and boy students are staying together, or if there are activities considered dangerous for the state, those houses can be supervised, restrained and illegal acts banned, perpetrators punished by the state according to Islam” (Yeni Safak, November 10, 2013). Does this invasive approach have any definition other than fascism?

In another article, written at a time when Mr. Erdogan had not yet managed to totally consolidate his despotism, Mr. Karaman expressed his views on majoritarian democracy as follows: “…The only means of coming to power in the multi-party democracies are ballot boxes, the votes. If a government is doing something that the majority does not want, there is almost an absolute risk of losing the following election. That is why the governments (state) do not want to take measures like, for example, freedom of abortion, legitimization of gay marriages. …Oh, there may be the ones saying ‘it should not be like this, let the individual rights be granted and protected, let the majority not morally impose the minority and individuals…’ No one prevents them from saying that, everybody says what they want to say, I also say what I want to say” (Yeni Safak, November 15, 2013).

The problem is that there is a radical difference in impact between what the others say and what Mr. Karaman says. Things that Mr. Karaman says are somehow turned into the oppressive actions of the Erdogan regime. Or the opposite, Mr. Karaman prepares a basis to retroactively legitimize the oppressive actions of the Erdogan regime as if they were based on Islam.

Another expression of how Mr. Karaman understands individual rights is as follows: “The individuals who are deceiving the religious and moral values based on freedom, not respecting and openly violating them have to face the consequences of this, too…. So, in order for this not to happen, whether there are limitations in legislation or not, the social life brings limits to the freedoms, the free individuals must not use their freedoms to the utmost” (Yeni Safak, December 20, 2013).

The words used by Mr. Karaman on the enmity of the Gülen movement after the corruption and bribery scandal of December 17-25, 2013, in order to open the way for mass dismissals and witch hunts and legitimize future persecutions, are telling: “The clause 26 of our “Mecelle” (Ottoman Code of Civil Law), if you translate it to the modern language to be understood by youth, says that ‘Damage to a region or group is acceptable when it is to prevent damage to the public and community” (Yeni Safak, December 19, 2013). Mr. Karaman’s reference to the Mecelle, which was used during the Ottoman period, but not to the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, says a lot.

As it was expected, this fetwa given by Mr. Karaman was understood by the Erdogan regime as “you can destroy all of the organizations and persons connected with the Gülen movement in your. There is no problem with that in regard of Islam.” This was not only understood in this way, but corresponding actions were taken immediately. Thousands of organizations and personal assets were confiscated, more than 160,000 people were dismissed from their posts, hundreds of thousands of others were taken into custody and imprisoned in a discretionary manner and thousands of people were tortured, while thousands of others were forced to leave Turkey to escape oppression and persecution.

In order to whitewash Süleyman Arslan, the former General Director of Halk Bank, whose investigation regarding the violation of international sanctions against Iran was moved to the US after $4.5 million in bribe money were found in his house, Mr. Karaman said that “corruption is not theft.” In addition, he wrote that, “It is worrisome to see the seizures of money collected by those for charity by considering them as problem at a time when the Muslims are more free and relaxed and they are helping charity organizations and religious services. Accusing the ones who contributed and their mediators for falsifications and theft is engrossing. Irregularities may be in collecting, recording and storing of money for charity, nobody wants that to happen, however irregularity is one thing, and making charity and service givers to regret is another thing” (Yeni Safak, December 29, 2013). Using the religious arguments in this article, Mr. Karaman managed to justify bribers and bribe-takers, both cursed by Islam, and to recompense them with the title ‘benevolent.’

In another article on the procedures for providing direct and indirect bribes, Mr. Karaman said the following: “Not directly to me, but many people asked, if there is a problem when directing the people who are reasonably and legitimately winning the public tenders to use their profits help the charity organizations. My answer is: if the people that you encourage and dispatch are Muslims, and they would not help if you do not encourage them or then help with the expectation of the charity will open the way of new tenders, it will not be accepted as a good deed. But in case of the charity organizations are recorded and transparent, they can benefit from this donations; because there is no such issue of forcing and oppressing them, and they have no information about the donor who gives money under pressure. If a public tender is given to one that is going to help but “not being worthy, competent, best, most affordable, most useful to the public,” it will be a betrayal” (Yeni Safak, December 27, 2013).

As it is seen, instead of drawing a thick line between the charitable (!) businessmen seeking unlawful public tenders and their charity deeds (!), through his deliberately complicated expressions, Mr. Karaman has chosen the way of religiously legitimizing the theft, corruption and bribe-taking by the power holders using the public facilities.

Regarding the dissidents criticizing the corruption and bribery scandal of 2013, Mr. Karaman wrote, “The people that organized the Gezi events and things like that are all enemies of the nation and the state. For the state and nation lovers, it’s unthinkable to support these. Now we have Mr. Erdogan against whom they turned their weapons; I pray for him and his honorable friends to be protected by Allah, and I advise all the lovers of the nation and the sacred deeds to be an instrument and helpful for this protection” (Yeni Safak, December 22, 2013).

Mr. Karaman continues to instrumentalize Islam to legitimize illegal, despotic practices from plunder of private properties to destruction of people’s lives, from bribes to taking commissions from public tenders, and from mass persecution to the killing of Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, an alternative politician preferred by the nationalist conservative segments of society where Mr. Erdogan also has his political roots.

In an article published on March 18, 2018, Mr. Karaman wrote that, “In order to make the Islamic life to survive (because of absolute necessity), it was allowed for those Islamic scholars to give fetwas and to become jurists and the head of state despite of the fact that they are not eligible to interpret Islam.” With these words, he alleged that power holders, including presidents, are authorized to make religious interpretations and adjust religious principles according to the political needs of the time. In this way, he has tried to give the impression that all of Mr. Erdogan’s decisions and actions have a religious basis.

By distorting Islamic principles, Mr. Karaman has tried to legitimize all the acts of oppression and persecution carried out by the Islamofascist Erdogan regime targeting both the Gülen and the Kurdish political movements. Thus, as if the Erdoğan regime’s seizure of the properties of people, firms and media entities have not been enough, Mr Karaman gives new fetwas to pave the way for new confiscations. Using the term “necessity,” a relative term that can open any door, Mr. Karaman went as far as saying, “If someone is forced to disseise the private property because of necessity, that is permissible (in Islam).”

But not even that was enough for Mr. Karaman; in an article dated May 4, 2018, he equated the words “necessity” and “need,” as if he does not know that “need” is a relative thing changing from society to society, from person to person, from period to period. Taking a step forward, he also equated “public interest” and “necessity,” thereby allowing the state to confiscate private properties using “public interest” as a pretext.

In the same article, Mr. Karaman asked: “If the necessity forces someone to disseise the people’s property, that is permissible for him/her; moreover, if one thinks he may die because of hunger, cold or heat, it becomes a necessity (more than permissible) to disseise the property of others in order to meet his/her needs. If that is necessary to protect the life of one person, will it not be required to save thousands of lives?” In this way, he opened the way for reckless disregard for individual rights and dispossession of private properties in the name of meeting society’s ordinary needs, which would be evaluated as a “necessity.”

Of course, Mr. Karaman does not express these thoughts so openly. He does it in a more indirect language, saying: “That is more important and more preferable to keep the society, which consists also of God’s (Allah) favorable servants than to resolve the necessities of a person.” Mr. Karaman also noted that, “Numerous faqihs have expressed that the public need is considered both a necessity and at the same time more important and stronger than personal needs,” and thus he paves the way to any plundering to be performed in the name of the public interest. Mr Karaman presents this deviant understanding in the guise of Islam by using the term “necessity” and the more relative terms of “need” and “public interest,” thereby instrumentalizing Islam for the sake of abuse and confiscations.

Mr. Karaman is turning Islam, which requires its followers to keep a distance from what it declares to be forbidden, into a banditry handbook. He almost equates the deeds forbidden by religion with religious duty (farz). Mr. Karaman, with reference to another author who lived hundreds of years ago, goes as far as saying that it is only possible for a Muslim to be strong through the means of the forbidden (haram) and plundering. According to Mr. Karaman, “The deeds forbidden by religion are so much spread on the Earth that, even though it cannot be legitimate, that is permissible to commit it and benefit from it when needed. In this position, benefitting from the deeds forbidden by religion is not connected to the state of need. Because if acting as forbidden by religion will be declared connected to the necessity, the Muslims will gradually become weaker; the enemies will invade the Islamic lands; the people will not be able to perform the crafts and jobs that sustain the public interest.”

Obviously, Mr. Karaman can easily eliminate the basic restrictions of Islam and make all harams halal by using a simple formula like “Need equals necessity; necessity equals the commission of deeds forbidden by religion.” Similar to the scholars of the past, who let the sultans kill their innocent brothers in their cradles for the sake of the unity of power, Mr. Karaman is fabricating a new religion, aiming to meet power-hungry Mr. Erdogan’s needs. Unfortunately, he is using Islam as a cover for this deviant religion.

In an article jointly written by İhsan Yılmaz and Galib Bashirov, it is said that if you remove the legitimizing effect given by Mr. Karaman and others like him from Erdoganism, which is based on the principles of authoritarianism through election, populism, political Islamism and neo-patrimonialism (favoritism), corresponding with a despotic approach, there will be nothing left other than bare banditry. The legitimacy of the despotic Erdogan regime in the eyes of the conservative circles which give it power is based on the efforts of Mr. Karaman and similar theologians to instrumentalize Islam. Mr. Karaman carried these efforts to a new peak by calling for a new definition of the nation by saying that, “Our heroic nation consist of those who love President Erdogan and do not lose the traditional values.”

Today, despite the fact that Islam takes the individual, not the state, as an interlocutor, by making the state a new taboo for the conservative segments of society, Mr. Karaman and like-minded theologians have opened the door by abusing Islam for the state to commit a volume of crimes against humanity. Of course, after he said, “Corruption is one thing, and theft is another thing. From the religious point of view, calling corruption a theft is a slander,” in the wake of the disclosure of the December 2013 corruption scandal, nobody expected Mr. Karaman to stop his legitimization efforts, even as tens of thousands of innocent people, including 706 infants, were arbitrarily detained and jailed.

A statement made by Mr. Karaman, who claims that his interpretations are based on Islam, regarding the terrible persecutions by the Erdogan regime leaves nothing else to be said about his horrible role in this cruel period: “Saying ‘only those whose crimes were proved must be punished,’ means making the state open for the penetration of the traitors.”

As I stated at the beginning of this article, in order to understand how Turkey moved rapidly away from being a model Muslim democracy and turned into an authoritarian state, one should look at the role played by theologians like Hayrettin Karaman, religious functionaries and institutions in the instrumentalization of Islam by distorting its basic principles for the sake of the political needs of the Islamofascist Erdogan regime.

Dr. Bulent Kenes is the former Editor-In-Chief of Today’s Zaman.

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Dr. Bulent Kenes
Dr. Bulent Kenes
Bulent Kenes (Ph.D.) is an academic and journalist who has over 25 years of professional experience. He has managed multiple publications, both in Turkish and English. He has held top editorial positions at various media outlets such as Zaman daily (foreign news editor & news coordinator), Turkish Daily News (news coordinator), and Anadolu news agency (New York bureau chief). Kenes was editor-in-chief of Bugün daily (2006) and founding editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman (2007-2016; the paper was seized on March 4, 2016, by the Erdogan regime and formally closed in July 2016). Kenes was among the founders of the Stockholm Center for Freedom. He served as a voluntary chief editor from 2017-2019. He is based in Stockholm, where he lives as an exiled Turkish journalist and academic. He is also among the founders of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).
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