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Turkey’s 6th Religious Council: The Dawn of a Sharia-compliant New Turkey

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

As long ago as 2013, I put forward that “[o]pponents of [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the AKP [or Justice and Development Party] . . . fear that the government’s long-term goal (as arguably expressed in the AKP’s policy statement Hedef 2023) is to transform the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate,” and arguably beholden to Sharia law. Now that we are nearing the momentous first centenary of the Turkish Republic’s foundation, this issue is becoming more and more piognant and relevant. And this year’s 6th Religious Council (6. Din Şurası) that took place at the end of last month seems to carry important messages in this respect.

Turkish Islam in a Secular State

These Religious Councils have their roots in the previous century when the Republic of Turkey had not yet taken its current Islamist turn. The first council took place in December 1993, even predating the Islamist RP (or Refah Partisi erroneously translated as ‘Welfare Party’) and its sudden rise to prominence in early 1994. At that stage, when the Kemalist consensus was still largely in place, the Republic was ruled by its 50th government (25 June 1993 – 5 October 1995) under the premiership of Tansu Çiller. Çiller, at the time hailed as Turkey’s first (and last) female prime minister, oversaw a coalition government between her own True Path Party (or DYP) and the Social Democratic Populist Party (or SHP led by Murat Karayalçın).  At the time, the academic theologian and thinker Dr İhsan Süreyya Sırma was interviewed by the Turkish Islamist periodical Haksöz Dergisi, an interview that was published under the arguably somewhat ominous headline “The Religious Council is part of the ‘Islamisation Movement’.” Talking to the anonymous interviewer, Sırma puts forward that “[t]here is an Islamic movement in the whole world and also in Turkey.” And in light of that recognition, he suggests that the “present regime” in Turkey (nominally secular in its outlook and makeup) had become “concerned,” and, rather than falling victim to this global trend’s negative effects, and with the goal of taking “hold and directing” this movement, the idea of organising a “religious council” had come about. Dr Sırma says that, following the event, the PM Tansu Çiller proudly pronounced that “[t]his [Religious Council] took place during [the administration of] my government. We did this.”  This means that the PM must have called upon the Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet, in Turkish), a branch of the Turkish government in existence since 1924 and directly attached to the office of the prime minister, to set up and organise 1st Religious Council. In the world of day-to-day Turkish politics, this probably meant that Tansu Çiller had a conversation with the then-head of the Directorate, Mehmet Nuri Yılmaz (in office, 1992-2003), to mull over the implications and ramifications of organising such an overtly Islamic event in the then-still ostensibly secular Republic of Turkey. And in this way, İhsan Süreyya Sırma suggested in 1994 that the Çiller government had consciously prepared the ground for a veritable Islamic réveil, an Islamic réveil that had its humble beginnings in the RP’s overwhelming victory in municipal elections that year and that was eventually to lead to the present Islamist government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) and his AKP henchmen.

Following this first council, the next edition took place in 1998, when another unwieldy coalition carrying the acronym Anasol-D, led by the now largely forgotten Mesut Yılmaz, was in charge, but the subsequent Şura‘s all took place under the aegis of the Justice and Development Party (2005, 2009, and 2014, with an extraordinary meeting of a Din Şurası taking place in August 2016 in the aftermath of the Coup-that-was-no-Coup supposedly organised by the preacher Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement). And now, the sixth and latest edition has just taken place.

Turkey’s 6th Religious Council:

Socio-Cultural Change and the Diyanet’s Services

Last August, the Diyanet published a new set of regulations in Turkey’s ‘Official Gazette’ (Resmî Gazete) as a result of which a religious council is to be held every five years. At the same time, though, the Directorate reserves the right to convene an extraordinary council whenever it sees fit. Representatives of the Ministries of Labour and Social Security, Environment and Urban Planning, Foreign Affairs, Youth and Sports, Culture and Tourism, Interior, and Health will be present during the proceedings. The whole organisation is specified in Law No. 633’s 19th Article, as reported by the Anadolu Ajansı. And in this vein, a four-day congress (25-28 November 2019) was held in Ankara: The 6th Religious Council (6. Din Şurası). The Diyanet publicised the event on all of its social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) as well as through its dedicated television and radio channels. This illustrates that Turkey’s government, and particularly its Directorate of Religious Affairs, have now wholeheartedly subscribed to what I have termed a Turkish version of ‘Maududi-ism,’ to use a term coined by the Pakistani journalist Nadeem Paracha. This term refers to the Pakistani writer Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), an influential thinker who saw “the West . . . [as] a political and economic but also a cultural threat to Muslim societies,” as worded by the Islam specialist Dr John Esposito, yet at the same time, “self-consciously reapplied Islamic sources and beliefs, reinterpreting them to address modern realities,” realities that were (and are) in large measure shaped and moulded by the West and its scientific and technological innovations.

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On the Council’s final day, Tayyip Erdoğan, the main architect of the New Turkey, as the Republic is now being referred to following its recent Islamic réveil, ascended the speaker’s podium to tell his audience what the future holds for his country and the wider world: “[e]ven if it were to run counter to our inner inclinations, we will place not the conditions of [our] age [but] our religion at the centre of our lives. Quite naturally, we will not succumb to extremism in this process. In particular, we will not give credit to certain templates, to certain dogmatic judgements that give rise to certain actions that separate religion from life.” By means of pronouncing these programmatic opening statements, the Prez indicates that Turkey has now reached a stage at which its population will have no choice but to surrender to the precepts of the Prophet and the rules and regulations laid down in Islam. At the same time, he nevertheless acknowledges that contemporary life can and does exert its peculiar attractions on many people – as for instance exemplified in the recent ‘rap attacks‘ that enticed large swathes of the younger generations – but that these distractions do not sway true believers from their duties as good Muslims. While enunciating these potentially radicalising exhortations, Erdoğan manages to pay lip service to moderation and restraint, insinuating that Turkish Muslims in the AKP mould would never join Jihadi groups or take part in religiously-inspired violence.

I would argue that Tayyip Erdoğan’s words were meant to instill a sense of expectation in his audience. Following the Coup-that-was-no-Coup and the successful referendum which led to the establishment of his Absolute Presidency, Turkey’s President is now quite literally preparing the ground for a radical redefinition of the state of Turkey. Founded in 1923 as a Turkish nation state attempting to join the European Concert of Nations, a nation state where different ethnic and linguistic groups and sub-groups were supposed to be absorbed into the Turkish mainstream, far from being a monolithically Turkish population, the people of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace were largely united as a Muslim entity as I have explained at great length in 2013. Turkey was instead supposed to be a country where the ideology of nationalism operated to replace the religion of Islam as a social and political cohesive. This supposed Kemalist consensus dominated the nation’s social and political life throughout the 20th century. At the outset of this century, a new political movement (Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP), with its roots in the religious reaction of the 1980s and 90s, at first hesitantly and later quite openly and brazenly attacked this nationalist ideology with the goal of returning the state and its people to the fold of Islam. And in a Turkish context, this basically means the Ottoman Sultanate and Caliphate. Even though, this is but an illusory goal keeping in mind that neither Tayyip Erdoğan nor any of his henchmen can boast of any tangible links with the Ottoman dynasty or polity, hence my 2010 coinage of pseudo-Ottomanism to describe the AKP ideal of reviving a strong and pious Turkey in the Middle East and the wider world. In a Turkish context the noun Ottoman (or Osmanlı, in Turkish) is used as a catch-all phrase denoting dedication to Islam and primacy within the Islamicate world (or the world of Islam or Darülislam, to use the proper yet anachronistic phrase).

The Diyanet in AKP-led Turkey:

Turning Turkey into a Muslim Nation of Believers

This year’s 6th Religious Council took place over four days, accommodating 353 participants, who discussed socio-cultural changes in relation to the religion of Islam witin the framework of five commissions. In the end, a grand total of 37 decisions were taken, which were communicated to the public by Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the current head of the Diyanet. Erbaş has proven himself to be an active and loyal supporter of Tayyip Erdoğan. These decisions outline the way in which the government will attempt to bring the wider population of Turkey in line with the Prophet’s example and the way of Islam. The language used by Erbaş speaks of safeguarding religious sensibilities and opposition to vile consumer culture, while seeking a tangible connection with the worldwide community of believers beyond Turkey’s borders. Professor Erbaş’s words underline that the religion of Islam must also accommodate believers in today’s world, where new-fangled trends and fashions are constantly competing with Allah for attention. But, he assures, Islam remains relevant and will emerge victorious through the good offices of the Diyanet. In this context, it has to acknowledged that Erdoğan has turned the Directorate into a massive organisation with a huge budget, a budget that for instance this year exceeds the budgets of eight separate ministries – including the ministries of the Interior as well as Foreign Affairs. And as a result, the Prez readily and easily uses Erbaş and his Directorate as a convenient propaganda vehicle to spread Turkey’s Islamic influence abroad – most recently, for example, the Diyanet opened a huge mosque in the African country of Djibouti – a splendid sample of pseudo-Ottoman architecture carrying the name Sultan Abdülhamid II Mosque, in reference to the Ottoman Sultan most admired by Turkey’s Islamists as a paragon of Islamic power and virtue.

As a result, Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş currently enjoys a very high stature, arguably somewhat incongruous with his humble position at the head of a mere directorate. This shows that the AKP establishment has made headway in its desire to emulate its Ottoman forebear. As such, the head of the Diyanet nowadays all but occupies a position of power similar to that of the Sheikh-ul-Islam (Şeyhülislam, in Turkish) in Ottoman times. The Republic’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, today all but wields absolute power, like a veritable Ottoman Sultan of old (prior to the introduction of constitutional monarchy in 1908), and at his side, the Directorate of Religious Affairs in the figure of Ali Erbaş ensures that all of his deeds and actions conform to the rules and regulations of Islam. In this way, Erdoğan and  Erbaş constitute the two signposts that are more than willing to guide Turkey and its population into a bright future, a bright future that will arguably see the transformation of the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities as a modern-day version of a veritable Islamic state . . .  In 1923, the foundation of the Republic of Turkey at the very edge of Europe led to a cultural malaise among its intellectual and political leaders alike. Established on the remains of the multi-ethnic yet staunchly Islamic Ottoman Empire, the Republic set out to emulate Western civilisation from an early date, and chose to abandon the cultural idiom of Islam and to opt instead for the civilization of the West as Turkey’s structural and intellectual framework.

Now, on the verge of celebrating the centenary of the Republic’s foundation (2023), Turkey’s AKP-led government seems to hold out the promise that it will solve this moral crisis once and for all . . . and transform Turkey into a nation of believers where the names Turk and Muslim will be interchangeable.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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