The Turkish Diyanet Organization

Muslim Faith under Strict Control

Controversially since the formation of the Turkish Republic the Muslim faith has been under control by a state body called the Diyanet. But its sweeping powers are drawing increasing criticism, including from the EU. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

 

Blue Mosque in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, photo: AP
Turkey tries to avoid fundamentalism by monitoring religion through a controversial state body - the Diyanet

​​In every mosque of Turkey sermons have been written not by the local Imam, but by officials working in the Diyanet, who send over the sermons by fax or e-mail. Besides writing sermons, the Diyanet also appoints all the country's Imams. The authority closely monitors their activities to ensure they stick to official Diyanet polices. Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul Technical University has written a book on the Diyanet. She says controlling religion is not a new idea in Turkey: "It's obvious that the state in this geography has always preferred to control their religion. It has been like this in the Byzantine times, during the Ottoman times and it's the same in the republican times", Gozaydin explains. "There are two tiers in this context, on the one hand organizing the public service and at same time definitely controlling it. Religion or Islam has been quiet a threat for the founders of the Republic. So first they tried to sort of tame it."

Diyanet – a central pillar of the Turkish state

The Diyanet is a central pillar of the Turkish secular state. Under the constitution it's illegal on the pain of closure for any political party to call for its abolition. While the Diyanet head is appointed by the president, it remains largely autonomous. The head of religious affairs in Istanbul, Professor Mustafa Cargirci, says it plays a crucial role in Turkish society: "The Diyanet is in a unique to other religious institutions in other countries since it is a civil organization dealing with individual consciences as well as a state body. So we can combine both these areas to advance the status of women and protect their rights. We are taking this very seriously. And Turkey has a very special responsibility in the Islamic world as Turkey is the first modern Islamic society combining modern values with Islamic values."

Representing only one part of Islam

Critics of the Diyanet accuse it of failing to reflect Turkey's diversity. Mustafa Calisgun has been carrying out research for an EU-backed project looking at religious freedom. Calisgun thinks that the Diyanet has become an institution which is representing only one part of Islam. Some citizens of Turkey wouldn't accept that they are represented by a governmental organization. The Alevi branch of Islam branch is very different from the majority Sunni branch. Even though Alevis comprise up to 30 percent of the Turkish population or even more, the Diyanet does not recognize them and they receive very little of its 800 million (US-)Dollar budget. Most of that goes to the majority Sunnis. One of the Alevi leaders is Professor Izzetin Dogan. He says the failure of the Diyanet to reform is an indication that it has become too powerful. "Can you imagine in a secular state, after especially 1950, there has been built more than 80,000 mosques?!? And just to give you a comparison: Under the 600 years of the Ottoman Empire there was only 10.000 mosques built. And there are more than 100.000 Diyanet employees which are very influential on this population. And today it became most powerful institution inside the state."

Diyanet Imams for Europe

But such concerns could be lost as the fight against terrorism takes priority in many nations - including Turkey itself. Two years ago Islamic militants bombed of the British consulate in Istanbul. The international war against the al Qaeda terrorist organization has further strengthened the position of the Diyanet, as more and more western countries are worried about radical Islam within their borders. According to Professor Gozaydin the Diyanet's power and influence has spread to Europe - including Germany where they have an inofficial branch called "Ditib".

Gozaydin says that the Diyanet Imams are sent from Ankara to the mosques in Germany, France or Holland: "Apparently among the European states, the Diyanet seems to be the most favoured group to dominate those mosques. That's understandable since Islam is perceived as a quite threat to the world nowadays, it is very easy to understand they prefer a sort of 'tamed kind Islam'." Supporters of the Diyanet say its role of promoting a modern and progressive form of Islam has become even more important both to Turkey and Europe. But its centralized powers, and many say lack of accountability, is leading to growing calls for reform or even its abolition. The outcome of the debate over the Diyanet's future could well determine the very future of Turkey.

Dorian Jones

© DEUTSCHE WELLE / DW-WORLD.DE 2005

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