War of words in Turkey’s religious orders
I have been sadly observing the power struggles, competition for economic benefits, and bursts of anger among the tariqats (Islamic orders) and Islamic community groups in Turkey.
We have even witnessed self-styled sheikhs promising that whoever kisses their hand will go to heaven, or selling shrouds that will supposedly keep the wearer away from hell.
Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, popularly known as “Robed Ahmet Hoca,” is the best known figure from the İsmailağa religious community in Istanbul, himself recently drew an accurate sociological picture.
“Just put on a green turban and wear a cloak. If you manage to start by finding a bunch of guys - you can pay them if necessary – you will end up with a thousand followers. Pay a couple of them for showing loyalty, kissing your hand and calling you ‘master highness’ and you will find 2,000 more. What kind of a tariqat is this? What kind of Sufism is this? How can a tariqat exist without the religious sharia? This country is full of such tariqats and such so-called sheikhs. There are many of them,” Ünlü said.
Kazım Karabekir, a prominent general and politician in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the early Republic of Turkey, once spoke with deep sorrow about locals in the villages of eastern Anatolia who attributed healing effects to the water in which a “sheikh master highness” washed his feet.
Back then there were more direct sociological reasons behind such phenomena, such as the lack of doctors and medicine, poverty, the lack of connection to the wider world.
Nowadays, factors such as rapid urbanization and inadequate education make new generations who have migrated from the countryside feel the need for solidarity and attachment to a superior person, especially to a man of miraculous deeds. These factors also support the flourishing of religious communities.
Britain, which is today home to the perhaps most secular society in Europe, went through this process in the 19th century when those migrating to the industrial urban centers brought their churches with them and Protestant cults started mushrooming everywhere. As a result, British politicians such as Prime Minister William Gladstone often pursued policies based on Christianity.
In secular France, meanwhile, colonialism went hand-in-hand with the Catholic Church.
Power in, morals out
The cultural shocks of urbanization are closely associated with economic opportunities.
“Followers of some religious communities tend to lean toward mafia methods in the fight for economic benefits,” theologian and thinker Mustafa Öztürk warned in daily Karar on Aug. 4, 2016.
“The followers of every religious community behave like they have taken an oath not to accept that the mortals they are completely obedient to could ever make mistakes,” Öztürk added. Indeed, Islamic theology denies infallibility among mortals.
The solution to such issues should be sought in auditing, especially financial auditing, and education. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In the cultural sphere and in religious education the cults of infallibility and blind allegiance should be criticized. Importance should be given to raising strong-willed individuals.
Above all, the emphasis on power and politics should be replaced by values such as morals, responsibility, righteousness, forgiveness and tolerance.
One final word: It should be recognized here that despite headlines and common understanding, Turkish society has actually been going through a rapid secularization process in recent years, which can even be observed in the religious circles.