Diyanet head’s controversial remarks spark new debate over secularism and role of religion in Turkey

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by Leo Kendrick

A ceremony to mark the opening of a new Supreme Court building in Ankara last week drew attention and controversy after a photograph was published showing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Chief Justice Mehmet Akarca, and President of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) Ali Erbaş joined together in prayer, celebrating the opening of the new building. 

The photo, which made rounds in the news and on social media, inspired intense debate and commentary on the role of religion in Turkish courts, as well as broader conversations on the state of laicism (laiklik) in Turkey, a form of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution dating back to the country’s early republican years. 
Turkey’s form of laicism, inspired by earlier French systems, mandates state control and regulation of religion through the Diyanet, founded a year after independence in 1924. Originally envisaged as a mechanism for controlling the influence and messaging of Islam in the secular republic, the role of the Diyanet has shifted markedly in recent years under the leadership of President Erdoğan, as it has been increasingly harnessed as a tool for promoting Islam and giving it a more prominent role in Turkish society. As its influence has increased, so has its budget, growing over four-fold under President Erdoğan, making the Diyanet one of Turkey’s best-funded government ministries.

Last week’s image of the prayers at the opening ceremony for the Supreme Court building was for many a visual confirmation of the increased influence of religion in Turkey’s public sphere, as well as evidence of the deteriorating independence and neutrality of the country’s courts. Many legal experts were quick to criticize the ceremony as unconstitutional, pointing to the second article of the constitution which declares Turkey as a laic, democratic, social, and lawful state.


In the middle of this debate has been Diyanet President Ali Erbaş, a firm ally of the president whose outspoken role of late has attracted attention and controversy. In the wake of the debate following the Supreme Court opening ceremony, Erbaş spoke at the Imam-Hatip Congress at Aksaray University, in which he responded to criticisms of the opening ceremony, as well as offering a general rebuttal of concerns over Islam’s increased role in Turkey’s nominally secular society. In his remarks, Erbaş seemed to lash out at detractors, criticizing their demands that “religion play no role at home, in business, in politics, justice, or law.” Erbaş continued saying: “There’s this belief that faith should not be on the street, in the neighborhood, and that it should stay between a person and God.” Attributing this system to a “Western-centric understanding of religion,” Erbaş’s remarks took direct aim at those lamenting the erosion of Turkish secularism and independence of its courts, in what many saw as an overt challenge to the laic system mandated by Turkey’s constitution.

Erbaş has been a prominent and outspoken President of the Diyanet, frequently weighing into matters that predecessors would have shied away from such as social media, workers’ rights, and foreign policy. A pronouncement by the Diyanet in late August declaring various seafood haram, or forbidden by Islam, attracted significant controversy and ridicule. Many of the seafood banned, namely mussles, kalamari, squid, and lobster, play an important role in Turkey’s food culture. Mussles, known locally as Midye, are one of Istanbul’s most famous and widely-consumed street foods. This fatwa from the Diyanet, which Erbaş heads, led some critics to respond saying “What era are we living in.” While adherence to Islamic (halal) eating standards is of course voluntary, the way the Diyanet has begun to publicly institute Islamic norms and promote devout lifestyles has some citizens concerned over the decay of Turkey’s secular system.

Erbaş’s controversial speech in Aksaray also decried the rise of “deism, atheism, and nihilism” in Turkey’s youth, blaming these changes on the spread of a “Western understanding of religion” in the Islamic world. “This is something we must discuss,” Erbaş said, characterizing the connection between life and religion as “weakened”.
In a broadcast aired Tuesday (7 September), Medyascope‘s Ruşen Çakır offered his analysis on Erbaş’s recent remarks, arguing that the rise in atheist and agnostic beliefs in Turkey’s youth is not a result of a lack of Islam, but rather a reaction to the overreach of it in recent years. Citing the recent conversion of the Haghia Sophia to a mosque, and cancellation of the Istanbul Agreement (Istanbul Sözleşmesi) this past year, Çakır characterized these changes as part of an effort to shore up waning support by the ruling party, whose base is made up mostly of pious, socially conservative Turkish voters. Adding that he does not believe this strategy will help Erdoğan electorally, Çakır described the events at the Supreme Court ceremony and Erbaş’s recent comments as a direct challenge to Laicism.

Turkey’s new Supreme Court building opened last Wednesday (1 September) in Ankara. In response to criticisms over the opening ceremony, President Erdoğan’s communications director shared an image on social media showing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, praying in front of Turkey’s parliament during Ramadan in 1920, a comparison which prompted criticisms.

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