Turkey's Religion Council

Setting Guidelines for Islam and Politics

The Religion Council discusses essential issues concerning religion and politics. Apart from Turkey's most important Islamic scholars, intellectuals and politicians are attending as well. Dilek Zaptcioglu about last month's meeting

Turkey's Religion Council, a newly founded institution of the AKP government, discusses essential issues concerning religion and politics. Apart from the country's most important Islamic scholars, intellectuals and high-ranking politicians are attending as well. Dilek Zaptcioglu about last month's meeting

Turkey's dissatisfaction at not being involved in the development of a "European Islam" has found its political expression in the resolutions passed by the 3rd Religion Council in Ankara.

The council's resolutions expressed its preference for Turkish religion teachers over European teachers and religion lessons conducted in Turkish over lessons conducted in any other language.

Council demands closer cooperation of EU

Moreover, the council called on the Member States of the EU to work more closely with Turkey on religious issues that affect the population of Turkey or people of Turkish origin.

In doing so, the Religion Council has set out the Islamic guidelines for Turkey's EU policy over the coming years.

The council was also a forum for debate about the Turkish political elite's diametrically opposed attitudes to laicism. Two-hundred-and-fifty theologians, politicians, and intellectuals met in the Turkish capital from 20 to 24 September under the sponsorship of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

The DITIB and the ATIB, the Diyanet's overseas organisations, sent delegates to the council because of the relevance of the council's theme for their work: "The Diyanet's religious service and lessons abroad as part of the rapprochement with the EU."

Islam and terrorism said to not belong together

The main focus of the opening addresses at the five-day council meeting was on the topical issue of "Islam and terrorism".

All speakers agreed that these two words do not belong together and should not be spoken in the same breath. They also agreed on the necessity for Muslims to practice self-criticism. The Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, made no bones about the fact that there are "unfortunately a number of Turkish citizens" among the terrorists.

"These people have passed through our state education system. So we must ask ourselves what we are doing wrong". Sezer blamed both "groups" of people who were instilling old-fashioned beliefs into children from an early age, and "political tendencies that were turning religious faith into an ideology".

These people, he said, were responsible for the fact that Islam and terrorism are now so often linked. Sezer made it clear that there is absolutely no alternative to laicism - the strict separation of the secular from the religious, which is practiced in Turkey according to the French model.

Speaker of Parliament: "Apply laicism with care"

Bülent Arinc, the speaker of the Turkish parliament and former head of the conservative Islamic governing party, AKP, sees things completely differently. "If laicism is applied in a country with a population that is largely Muslim, it should be applied with great care," he said referring to Sezer's insistence on a ban on the wearing of headscarves at universities and in administrations.

Arinc saw "absolutely no link between terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and Islam," and criticised "the blanket prejudice against all Muslims demonstrated by the public in the West". This negative discourse abroad, he went on, made it more difficult for members of the laity to enter into dialogue with representatives of Islam in Turkey.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then focussed the spotlight firmly on the issue that was to dominate the agenda over the five days that followed: the religious services offered by the Diyanet overseas, especially in the Member States of the EU.

Erdogan praised the ability of the Turks to integrate and emphasised the "leading role played by Turkey in the Islamic world". Erdogan's views were integrated directly into the council's resolutions, which covered a total of 37 points.

Council to open office in Brussels

Under the heading "The European Union and Religion", the council agreed to open an office in Brussels. The purpose of this office will be to coordinate all of the Diyanet's EU work and to take any steps that need to be taken in Brussels.

The aim is that the DITIB - the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion and Diyanet's organisation in Europe - will be accepted as the EU's only partner on related issues and that the EU's local laws will be amended appropriately.

The reason for this is that the council feels that Turks living abroad can really only be assisted in matters of religious faith by such close institutional links.

Because Islam has no centralised structure, as some other religions do, the aim is also to "identify the Islamic community as the official carrier of Islamic lessons" because the council feels that only Islamic theologians are in a position to determine the content of a religious lesson.

The move is aimed at giving Turkey a greater say in the training of Islamic religion teachers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

It is also an expression of the council's dissatisfaction at the training of teachers in Germany who only speak German. The Christian minorities in Turkey were cited as an example of how this principle can be applied: they are allowed to conduct religious lessons in their native tongues and also decide on the content of these lessons.

Training Islamic teachers to exert more control

While the DITIB is not seeking sole control, it does want to continue training teachers itself and sending them abroad to work. The aim is that these trainee teachers will in future learn the language and study the culture of the country in which they will work before leaving Turkey.

There was also a preference for training young, foreign trainees at Turkish faculties of theology. To this end, quotas of places at such faculties will be reserved for foreign students.

The council would also like to see religious lessons for the community in the mosque being conducted in Turkish. If, in a school, all of the children attending the lesson are Turkish, the lesson should, where possible, be conducted in Turkish.

In cases where this is not feasible, "steps should be taken to ensure that Islamic terms are adequately explained".

Increasing number of Turkish clerics

The Religion Council also resolved to increase the quota of Turkish imams and muftis overseas. It would like to see at least one Islamic cleric in the catchment area of each consulate.

This cleric should be able to speak the local language and act as a man of confidence. Another resolution stipulated for the first time that female religious officers should be responsible for women.

Indeed, generally speaking, the council is in favour of promoting the active participation of women in religious services. Furthermore, the council resolved that religious officers overseas should be given more protection and their residence permits obtained through diplomatic channels.

The aim of these moves is to improve their protection and enhance their immunity. Finally, Turkey would like to launch an initiative in all EU Member States to ensure that Muslims do not have to work or attend school on religious holidays like Ramadan and the Festival of Sacrifice.

Dilek Zaptcioglu

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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