What do people want from Turkey’s top religious body?

What do people want from Turkey’s top religious body?

While the debate over the economic promises of the opposition parties, especially those from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have dominated the agenda ahead of the June 7 elections, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu found time over the weekend to attack the opposition with something different than “they are going to spend the money we have stashed” argument.

The target of Davutoğlu was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the issue this time, surprisingly, was not the ongoing Kurdish peace process, which the government wants to distance itself from so as not to lose nationalist votes.

“If HDP members come here, ask this question to them,” the prime minister told his supporters on April 25 in Konya, his hometown and the place where he tops the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) list in the June 7 elections.

“They say in their election manifesto that they will abolish the Diyanet [Religious Affair Directorate]. Ask them, ‘What do you want from our Diyanet? What do you want? Why are you uncomfortable?’”

In its election manifesto announced on April 21, the HDP promised to abolish the Diyanet.

“The Religious Affairs Directorate will be abolished, the state will take its hands off of the area of religion and belief, and religious and belief-related duties will be left to society and believers,” the manifesto reads.

The HDP’s stance on the Diyanet reflects that of millions in the country, who argue that the country’s top religious body serves the needs of the Sunni majority only, with a hefty budget from the government.

The Diyanet is one of the country’s biggest state institutions, overseeing around 90,000 mosques and over 142,000 personnel. The institution’s budget has significantly increased under the AKP governments since 2002, going from a budget of 553 million liras in 2002 ($335 million) to 5.7 billion liras ($2.14 billion) in 2015, amid promises to hire 8,000 new personnel. The 2015 budget of the Diyanet is equal to the budgets of the Foreign Ministry, the Energy Ministry and the Culture and Tourism Ministry combined.

One might ask if Turkey needs 90,000 mosques when there is an apparent need for more schools and hospitals, and if you do, Diyanet chair Mehmet Görmez, Turkey’s top religious official, is ready to answer.
“It is not right to compare the number of mosques with the number of schools and hospitals,” Görmez said in March 2013. “Everybody in this country is a mümin [believer in Islam], but not everybody is sick. That is an incorrect comparison.”

Maybe Görmez, for whom an official car worth 1 million liras was recently acquired, also believes that not everybody in the country needs education, but he did not elaborate.

HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, as expected, did not back down from his criticism after Davutoğlu’s remarks, while also slamming the Diyanet for becoming highly politicized during the AKP era.

“You are not afraid of Allah as much as you are afraid of the prime minister and the president,” Demirtaş said in a speech in Van on April 26, adding that no religious official should be an employee of the state.

The Diyanet was founded in 1924, in the second year of the Turkish Republic, to keep religion under control and not to leave mosques to religious groups, which the administration considered a threat to the state’s secular identity. Under AKP rule, it has turned into a tool to impose Sunni belief on society.

If Turkey is ever to have a civilian constitution that champions individual rights and freedoms, like the AKP once again promised in its election manifesto, there will be no place for an institution like the Diyanet. 

That is what millions of people want from the Diyanet: to disappear.

But I won’t get my hopes too high in a country where the president’s son holds meetings with school principals to urge them to raise “pious generations.”