In an unexpected move, President Tayyip Erdoğan slammed Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) on Aug. 5. He said it had been late in detecting black holes and loops in the system, thus letting “others” sneak in “especially in the east and southeast of the country.”
His remarks were Erdoğan’s strongest criticism to date of the Diyanet, on which he places utmost importance in the state administration. The Diyanet has a higher budget, employs more personnel (including imams and muftis, who have a direct link to citizens five times a day during Muslim prayers), and is more influential than many other ministries.
The timing of the president’s criticism makes it even more important. It came on Aug. 5, just five days after Mehmet Görmez resigned as the head of Diyanet, after serving there for seven years as Erdoğan’s pick. Görmez is reportedly due to chair the International Islamic University, to be established in Istanbul, as Erdoğan heralded before Görmez’s resignation.
Because Erdoğan particularly mentioned the “east and southeast” in his criticism, his words may be considered to have been addressing the influence of Kurdish nationalism and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK). However, the criticism actually came in reference to the struggle against members of the illegal network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt.
The criticism also came after series of unfortunate events that made Erdoğan and many others uncomfortable. It thus became just the latest in a line of question marks regarding government moves in Ankara.
For example on July 30 in the southeastern city of Şanlıurfa, near the border with Syria, a street seller attacked a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, in a public square with a hatchet. It was a typical Islamist fundamentalist act, with the man reportedly shouting slogans including “End to idol worshipping.”
Two days later, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was photographed praying for the soul of Atatürk
at his mausoleum in Ankara, as a first by a prime minister in Turkey. It was said to be a sign of respect aiming to set an example, but many Kemalists criticized this gesture.
The next day, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) was hit by another crisis. During a live broadcast on CNN Türk on the evening of Aug. 3, Ayhan Oğan, a former Central Executive Committee member of the party, told his counterpart from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that a “new state is being built by Erdoğan, whether you accept or not.”
Oğan paid little attention to the criticism from the CHP, claiming that the CHP
has distorted his words.
However, a strongly worded statement then came from Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli. Bahçeli has actually been acting as a political ally of Erdoğan since before the April 16 referendum, which consolidated all executive power in the president’s hands. But this time he accused Oğan of “attacking the very foundations” of the Turkish Republic with rhetoric full of “Gülenist lies.”
After that, first AK Parti spokesman Mahir Ünal and then Prime Minister Yıldırım came out with strong statements against Oğan’s words, which they stressed were “not linked the party.” The CHP
has been demanding disciplinary measures against Oğan, but still no move has been made by the AK Parti.
The incident shows that the MHP is playing a key role in the AK Parti’s strategy ahead of the next election, scheduled to take place in 2019. Erdoğan and the AK Parti desperately need the MHP’s support (even if the party is bitterly divided) to secure re-election in the next election, which they have to secure at least 50 percent plus one vote. Bahçeli demonstrated one again that the MHP remains tied to the basic principles of the republic set out by Atatürk, including the principle of secularism, despite the fact that Erdoğan and the AK Parti also need the votes of a number of smaller parties, religious sects and social groups for 2019.
The recent crisis with Israel
over the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem showed that smaller Islamist and right-wing parties, as well as religious-based organizations, are keen to drag Erdoğan and the AK Parti from the center to the extremes, using their small but potentially crucial electoral percentages of support as a weapon.
Perhaps we will witness more provocative acts in Turkey, such as the attack on the statue in Şanlıurfa. Such acts could put the AK Parti in a difficult position before the “restructuring” of the party, as promised by Erdoğan. Every smaller player is currently trying to take a part on the stage in order to maximize their already existing leverage.
Erdoğan’s criticism of the Diyanet came after all those events. It perhaps indicates that Erdoğan may take some bold decisions after his holiday in his Black Sea
hometown of Rize. These steps might affect Turkey’s foreign policy, especially in its relations with other majority Muslim countries of the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether those steps will also lead to more concessions given to smaller allies in domestic politics, in order to achieve his ultimate goal.