Religion and politics: The view from Turkey

Religion and politics: The view from Turkey

Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), recently warned religious groups to steer clear of politics and commerce. 

“We should not see religious movements getting involved in politics, trade, or football, for example,” Görmez said.

That’s certainly true. But there is something missing: Politics should also stay away from religious movements.

The reason why religious movements have entered politics - to the point where they are now receiving such warnings - is their effort to gain political power, which opens the door to economic power.

Politics generally extends a hand to religious movements in the hope of gaining loyal supporters. It therefore offers them status and positions. One of the main reasons why the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) was able to infiltrate the state to such an extent was its secrecy; but another reason is because its members were granted positions within the state with the motto “they are from us.”

Power poisoning

Religious brotherhoods and sects are sociological realities. Banning them is unthinkable in our age, and doing so has many negative consequences such as increasing secrecy and fostering alienation.

Spiritual discipline and moral maturity should be the essential aim of these religious structures. Only then can they have positive effects on society encouraging solidarity and moderation. There are many such examples in history.

But when politics gets involved, values like spiritual self-control get lost. A terrible process of “power poisoning” starts. This can lead to the madness of trying to grab control of the state. There are also many examples of this in history. 

Let’s not forget that the first contention in Islam started with the caliphate - in other words, fights over political power. Let’s also not forget that legitimizing all these mundane fights with religious comments has led to many conflicts ever since.  

I would like to recall the words of Rached Ghannouchi, a Tunisian wise man and Islamist leader, in an article published in the French daily Le Monde on May 19.

“We want to totally separate political activities from religious activities. That will be good for politicians because they will not be accused of manipulating religion for their interests. That will also be good for religion because religion will not be held hostage to politics,” he wrote.

Pious people should pay special attention to Ghannouchi’s statement about religion becoming hostage to politics. If religious thought and behavior becomes dependent on a political hierarchy, and if it adapts itself to the practices of politics, does it not loose its spirituality and independence?  

There can only be one mission of democratic politics regarding religion: To secure freedom of religion and conscience, together with freedom of thought and expression, in a way that encompasses the dimension of social activities and religious organizations within the limits of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Beyond that, if faith becomes a cause of either promotion or discrimination in a society, there can be neither justice nor peace.

In the Turkish case, the “s/he is one of us” type of discrimination lies behind the crooked relationship between many political and social groups and parties. It is not just limited to religious movements.
That is why the culture of independence of state institutions is weak in Turkey.

That is why values like professionalism, meritocracy, performance and competence carry little weight. 
Unless we overcome this malaise we will not be able to get over the middle-income trap we still find ourselves in.