Diyanet: In the name of Political Islam

Who is Diyanet

Diyanet (full name Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) is the oficiall Turkish state departement for religious affairs based in Ankara. It was established in 1924 in the context of the formation of the Turkish republic. Diyanet’s main task is the provision of public religious service to the Turkish population, including the management of mosques and the selection and payment of imams. Diyanet is exclusively oriented on Sunni Islam, as this is the major religion in Turkey. Alevi and other religious minorities are not in the focus of the organization. In the 1970ies and early 1980ies, in response to increasing numbers of Turkish guest workers in Europe, Diyanet founded branches in many Western countries in order to cater for the religious needs of the Turkish minorities in those countries.

Diyanet’s original function was to bring religious affairs under state control, with the ultimate goal of protecting the secular order of the Turkish state and preventing the intervention of religion in state affairs and politics.[1] Diyanet can hence historically be seen as a core institution of the Kemalist secular system in Turkey.[2]

This ideological purpose however has changed drastically since Islamic AKP party came into power in 2002. Under the rule of the current regime,

  • Diyanet’s budget has been expanded massively,
  • religious positions have been modified extensively towards conservative and partially fundamentalist views,
  • the publishing of Fatwas (authoritative legal opinions on Islamic lifestyle) and
  • the issuing of halal certificates for food products have been introduced,
  • a 24h television station named Diyanet TV has been set up[3],
  • Quranic education has been stretched to early ages (religious kindergartens have been legalized),
  • a large-scale mosque building program has been launched, and
  • there are clear signs that the network of Diyanet branches outside of Turkey has been instrumentalized for explicit political goals of AKP party, e.g. spying on Turkish opposition abroad or promoting the 2017 constitutional referendum among Turkish communities.[4]

Hence, Diyanet administration today can be seen as a powerful strategic apparatus of the ruling AKP party, enforcing the regime’s particular ideology and its religious and political agenda, both at home and abroad.

Diyanet’s boosted budget

With the rise of AKP, Diyanet’s administrative capacity has been strengthened vastly. Its budget has quadrupled since 2006, reaching approx. 6.37 billion Lira (1.83 billion Euros). Its share of government spending has increased by 30% – 50% and its staff has gone up by 50% in the same period, reaching approx. 150.000 employees.

Diyanet’s budget allocation is reported to be 6.8 billion Lira, which is more than the budget of eleven other ministries including the ministries of economics, tourism or health.Therefore it can be seen as one of Turkey’s largest state agencies.

If you analyze Diyanet’s budget development more in detail, it becomes apparent that the major upswing came after the year 2010. This correlates with changes in the leadership of the organization, as a new conservative chairman was appointed in that year. Scholars also attest that 2010 was a turning point:[5] In subsequent years, Diyanet’s share in total government spending climbed up to more than 1,30%. Previous research on that topic found out that in the past this percentage has fairly steady been between 0,5% and 1%, since as far back as 1951.[6] The new outbreak after 2010 can hence be seen as a strong sign that Diyanet’s expenditure has left its long-term average behind.

In any case, the published financial data clearly suggest that Diyanet has developed into a supersized government body within the last decade. The rising budgets of Diyanet’s associated foundations have not even been taken into account yet.

Diyanet’s conservative Islamic positions

Diaynet’s religious orientation has gradually turned towards highly conservative and partially fundamentalist views under AKP rule. The major shift in this context took place after 2010. Ali Bardakoğlu, the last chairman of the organization appointed by a secular president, was dismissed in 2010. Under Bardakoğlu ‘s leadership Diyanet largely stayed out of politics, there were even some attempts of liberalizing religious issues to a certain extent. For example, efforts were made to encourage more female participation in mosques and everyday life and to carefully improve women’s rights.[7] Bardakoğlu was a public opponent of forced marriages of girls at early ages and he even showed up at the International Women’s Day. Diyanet allowed in vitro fertilization and birth control pills and 450 women were appointed as female preachers, called Vaizes, in 2005.

Bardakoğlu was presumably forced to withdraw from his office in 2010, as he refused to support AKP initiatives of recommending women to wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarves, saying religion does not require it.[8] He was replaced by Mehmet Görmez, a loyal follower of the regime and reportedly member of Milli Görüş[9], an antidemocratic and Islamist movement within the Turkish Muslim community. Under Görmez’s tenure Diyanet has taken a significant conservative turn. Whereas once its employees were predominantly secular civil servants, increasingly more openly pious Muslim recruits have been brought into its ranks.

Diyanet’s new theologic notion can best be illustrated with the Fatwas and other publications recently issued by the organization:

  • New Year celebrations should totally be ignored. They are regarded as a part of pagan lifestyle and lead to a “corrupt culture”, as Mehmet Görmez pointed out in December 2014.[10]
  • Tattoos are non-Islamic and should be erased. If they cannot be removed, one should repent. AKP has consequentially changed the dress code of public schools, banning make-up, tattoos and piercings for students.[11]
  • Incest between father and daughter may be tolerated under certain conditions and a minimum age of nine years for the girl.[12] This Fatwa was removed from Diyanet’s website soon after it went online, in reaction to massive public outcry. Presumably due to public pressure, officials responsible for the publication have been fired in the aftermath of the controversy.[13]
  • Engaged couples should not hold hands or spend time alone together during their engagement period.
  • Becoming a martyr in the name of religion is a good idea and a desirable goal. This message – the glorification of Islamic martyrdom – was communicated to children in a series of cartoons in a kids’ magazine published by Diyanet.[14]

There are furthermore worrying reports that Diyanet gets subsequently undermined by Salafist inspired ideas and, relateted to that, by the so-called Naqshbandi-Khalidi order, an ultra-conservative movement within Turkish Sunni Islam and close links to the Milli Görüş and the Muslim Brotherhood.[15]

Thus, today’s religious understanding of Diyanet contains elements of conservative, fundamentalist and even radical ideas. These ideas highly conflict with Western values and concepts of human rights.

Diyanet’s European network

As mentioned above, branches of Diyanet have been established throughout Europe since the 1970ies and 1980ies, in response to increasing numbers of Turkish guest workers and their families abroad. Due to fast growth of Muslim Turkish population in the respective host countries, the organization’s network has steadily strengthened and consolidated since then.

Diyanet runs over 2.000 mosques outside of Turkey.[16] There is a strong institutional position especially in those Western European countries, which have big shares of Turkish population.

Diyanet’s network still expands, especially on the Balkan peninsula, in the former countries of the Ottoman Empire with a high percentage of Muslim population, such as Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Bulgaria or Albania. Diyanet tries to establish relations with Muslim entities and local communities in this region, in conformity with the new overall foreign policy of the AKP government, which aims at raising Turkish influence offensively.[17] Diyanet’s activities include the provision of scholarships, the organization of educational programs, the publication of Qu’ran and other books in local languages, plus – not to forget – the construction of new mosques.[18]

The power of this network is considerable. The organization has a firm hierarchy with clear leadership. All imams of locally associated mosques are appointed and payed centrally by the Turkish state headquarters. Their work is supervised by Diyanet officials in embassies and consulates.[19] The weekly Friday sermon (Khutba) is centrally written in Ankara and delivered to the over 2,000 mosques abroad, who have the grip on the resident Turkish population.

This structure is a mighty tool for AKP regime, which has already been used for political goals such as promoting the party among the Turkish minorities abroad or spying on its enemies. Diyanet’s European infrastructure has been instrumentalized to catch votes for AKP.

Apart from the threat of political abuse, Diyanet’s European network involves crucial religious and social dangers: The organization’s general theologic notion has shifted towards conservative and even fundamentalist Islamic views. The powerful centralized structure of Diyanet can lead to a successive infiltration of these ideas to Muslim European communities and subsequently to Western societies on the whole.

ATIB – Diyanet’s branch in Austria

ATIB was founded in 1990 and is the by far the biggest Muslim umbrella association in Austria, responsible for more than 65 local mosque communities and imams. The association is a direct division of Diyanet and a dependent marionette with respect to its organizational structure. According to ATIB’s statutes,

  • Diyanet’s chairman and his deputy are automatically honorary members of the association (art. 6 sec. 5)
  • the attaché for religious affairs of the Turkish embassy is also automatically an honorary member of the association (same article)
  • the supervisory board consists of the same three persons: chairman of Diyanet, his deputy and the Embassy’s attaché for religious affairs (art. 13 sec. 1)
  • in case of a liquidation of ATIB, its assets shall be allocated to Diyanet’s charity arm, the Diyanet Vakfi Foundation (art. 5)

These rules enable Turkish state officials full control over the association and its local subsidiaries, the influence is rather obvious and not even covert. ATIB is also directly bound by instructions of the Turkish embassy in Vienna.

AKP party has already taken advantage of ATIB’s infrastructure many times in order to promote its political goals:

  • ATIB mosques and premises have repeatedly been used for election campaigns of AKP and appearances of AKP politicians
  • AKP flyers promoting to vote “yes” in the 2017 constitutional election have apparently been distributed in Viennese ATIB mosques
  • According to eyewitness reports, busses have been organized to transport people from ATIB sites to AKP-friendly demonstrations led by UETD (President Erdoğan’s lobbying and propaganda group in Europe)
  • ATIB communities have been abused to spy on oppositional groups such as the Gülen movement, as leaked documents of the Turkish embassy in Austria clearly attest.[20]

Austria is generally a good example of how different foreign Turkish institutions are linked together, creating a powerful and influential network in the respective host country:

  • ATIB’s former chairman, Fatih Mehmet Karadas, simultaneously also held the office of the attaché for religious affairs of the Turkish embassy. Hence, he was chairman of Austria’s Diyanet division and a member of the Turkish foreign service at the same time. Karadas had to leave country, being the center of attraction in a spy affair, as he and ATIB were accused of spying on Gülen supporters among the Austrian Turkish population.[21]
  • The official council of overall Muslims in Austria (IGGIÖ), established in 1979, has subsequently been taken over by ATIB. The current president of IGGIÖ, 28-year-old Ibrahim Olgun, is also an active member of ATIB and regarded to be an example of the young, already AKP-socialized “generation Erdoğan”, as Austrian scholar and Islamism expert Thomas Schmidinger puts it.[22]
  • Austria’s founded party Neues Bündnis Zukunft (NBZ), which stood for parliamentary election in 2017 for the first time[23], is another example of the rising AKP friendly network. Many of NBZ’s founding members were reported to have close links and active memberships at ATIB, and ATIB actively supports the party.

AKP party not only uses the local network for political purposes, but also for enforcing its religious and ideological agenda:

  • As leaked documents of the Turkish embassy uncover, imams should educate young Turkish people according to “nationalist and conservative“ values, which basically means indoctrination.[24]
  • After some controversy, IGGIÖ president Olgun officially refuses the evolutionist theory[25], obviously to be in line with Ankara. The Turkish government has published its decision to stop teaching evolution in schools, as part of a new conservative religious curriculum.

DITIB – Diyanet’s branch in Germany

DITIB was founded in 1984 and is presumably the biggest Turkish umbrella association in Europe, responsible for more than 1,000 local mosque communities and imams. There are between 5,3 and 5,6 million Muslims[26] living in Germany, thereof around 3 million people are of Turkish descent. According to DITIB’s own estimations, 70% of the total Muslim population in Germany is represented by the organization.

DITIB is another direct division of Diyanet in Europe. As usual within the Diyanet network, imams working in the mosques are directly appointed and paid by Ankara. Weekly Friday sermons are written in Ankara, sent to Germany and the imams read the texts out.

Just like in the case of the Austrian sister ATIB, the association’s statutes guarantee full control for the Turkish state. There are privileges and special rights for Diyanet’s representatives in terms of supervision, leadership and intervention, as the German Parliament stated.[27]

Parallels in the statutes’ key paragraphs cannot only be observed between the Austrian and German division, also the Danish Diyanet branch, for example, uses a comparable set of rules, underlining the overall picture of general dependence of this network on the Turkish government. Same as in Austria, AKP party has already taken advantage of DITIB’s capacities and infrastructure in order to promote its goals:

  • Imams have offensively advertised for President Erdoğan’s constitutional referendum in DITIB mosques. Attempts to influence people often don’t take place publicly, but instead in a rather discrete way, for example during the Friday sermons. AKP party would not be so mighty in Germany without these influences.
  • In at least two documented cases, DITIB has organized buses to public appearances of AKP politicians in the context of Turkish parliamentary elections and distributed AKP flyers.[28]
  • Since the texts of Friday sermons are written by Diyanet and the Turkish government, there are reports that weekly sermons have been used to agitate against AKP opposition.
  • Like in many other countries, imams of DITIB mosques are currently accused of spying on members of the Gülen-movement and denouncing people to Ankara, in reaction to orders from Diyanet.
  • Precise references on DITIB spying activities are reported from the German federal state of North Rhine Westphalia. Its local government has suspended cooperation with DITIB after reports have been published that DITIB imams have presumably spied on five teachers from state-run schools.

Diyanet’s construction activities

Another significant, maybe yet not so well-known aspect of Diyanet’s growing network is its massive mosque building program. Constructing mosques is in fact not a formal task of Diyanet itself. In Turkey, local Muslim organizations collect money to build mosques, after which Diyanet takes over the management and appoints imams.[29] Diyanet’s own charity arm however, the Diyanet Vakfi Foundation (TDV), has helped to build mosques worldwide since its foundation in 1975.

Under the rule of AKP party, Turkey has seen a rigorous rise of new mosques: As of 2016, Turkey numbered 87.300 mosques in total, which is an increase of 9.000 buildings or 10% compared to 2006.

On an international scale, there have also been strong efforts to realize many new projects. The Diyanet Foundation has financed more than 100 mosques in 25 countries so far, many of them in recent years, and there are least 25 more big international projects in the pipeline. Target countries include the Balkan States, Western Europe, USA, Central Asia (Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), Djibouti, Mali, the Philippines and even Haiti. Current projects alone are expected to cost at least 200 million USD.[30]

Apart from the activities of the Diyanet foundation, many local communities in Europe get help from Diyanet by the provision of loans for building initiatives. As a result, the Diyanet organizations have become the largest mosque builders in Europe.

Most of the new mosques represent the same uniform architecture in terms of a neo-Ottoman style. According to political observers, Diyanet’s construction activities are in line with the regime’s overall foreign policy: The program’s purpose is to extend prestige, power and influence on Muslim communities abroad. The mosque building diplomacy is another tool of soft power for the current Turkish regime, using the Diyanet network as a multifunctional and multidimensional vehicle.[31]

Diyanet, Imam Hatip schools and the Maarif foundation: AKP ideology in the classroom

Education can be regarded as one of the most important fronts in the cultural war between supporters of traditional secularism and Islamist groups in Turkey. 100 Turkish imam and preacher schools, called Imam Hatip schools, are particularly in the spotlight in this context.

Imam Hatip schools are institutions of secondary education and had originally been designed to train government employed imams. Islamists however see the schools as a useful tool to increase the Islamic consciousness of the young generation, aiming at a parallel system of education that provides a voting base and manpower for Turkey’s Islamist movement.[32] With rising influence of Islamic groups, these schools have become more and more popular within the last 30 years.

Since AKP party came into power in 2002, Imam Hatip schools have been reopened on large scale, numbers have nearly drippled. Today approx. 800,000 students attend around 1,400 Imam-Hatip schools nationwide, which is a share of 11,5% of all high school students as of 2016.[33] These figures stand for a lot more potential imams and muezzins than Turkey will ever need, but the real purpose of the schools has shifted anyway. The trend is expected to continue, since there are reports that the government repeatedly tries to convert more secular schools into Imam Hatip schools.

The expansion of the national network of religious schools is both driven by the Diaynet foundation TDV and – to a much larger extend – by the so called TÜRGEV foundation, which is reported to be under direct control of the Erdoğan family, as the president’s son Bilal Erdoğan is a member of the foundation’s board.

The spectacular comeback of Imam-Hatip schools under AKP rule however has to be put into a broader perspective: The government has initiated steps leading to an entire change of the education system:

  • The minimum age to attend Qu’ran courses has been abolished. Hence even early age Qu’ran lessons are now allowed. In 2016, the first religious kindergarten was opened in cooperation with the Diyanet and the Diyanet Foundation.[34]
  • Girls as young as the age of ten have been allowed to wear the headscarf in schools.[35]
  • The number of compulsory Qu’ran lessons in public schools has been increased.
  • Courses in human rights, citizenship and democracy have been abolished.[36]
  • Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is no longer part of the curriculum.[37]
  • The concept of Jihad will newly be part of the curriculum, supplementing Islamic law and religion classes.
  • In the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, reportedly 40.000 teachers have been removed from their posts for allegedly supporting Gülen.[38] It is not difficult to combine that not only Gülen supporters may have been affected by the purge, but also secular opponents of the current regime.

All in all, according to scholars, official Islam and the education system in Turkey have undergone monumental changes with far-reaching consequences. These shifts, from the mosque to the classroom, are intended to enable Erdoğan and his entourage to shape and mold the worldview of generations of Turks.

The rebuilding of the Turkish education sector has also strong effects on Europe. The Diyanet foundation TDV and many other associated organizations run Imam Hatip schools, primary schools, kindergartens, universities, colleges and other educational institutions in a worldwide network. There are altogether already about 2.000 schools abroad which are directly controlled by the Turkish state.

The Maarif Vakfi foundation, another subsidiary of the government, has decided to open even many more educational institutions abroad, cooperate with the existing ones and implement a whole new infrastructure which is adjusted to the respective countries and school systems.[39] According to their own statements, Maarif is active around the world, and offers a “visionary Turkish-style education”, promoting Turkish language.[40] Political observers however assume that one of the foundation’s main goals is to take over the numerous formerly Gülen associated schools outside of Turkey.

In any case, the activities of all these foundations and the development of Turkish educational institutions abroad should be observed with the greatest possible care. There is a real threat that Europe faces a slowly progressing Islamization through the backdoor of school classrooms, just like it already happened in Turkey.

References

[1]    Feyzioğlu, Turhan. (1982): ‘Secularism: cornerstone of the Turkish Revolution’, Turhan Feyzioğlu (ed.) Atatürk’s Way, A Cultural Publication of Otomarsan. İstanbul, pp. 188-216.

[2]    Gözaydın, İştar (2009): Diyanet: Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Dinin Tanzimi (Diyanet: Arranging Religion in the Turkish Republic). İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları. Gözaydın 2009, p. 286

[3]    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2015-05-17/turkey-castsdiyanet

[4]    www.hurriyetdailynews.com/diyanet-gathers-intelligence-on-suspected-gulenists-via-imams-in38-countries.aspx?pageID=238&nID=107028&NewsCatID=341

[5]    Ahmet Erdi Öztürk (2016): Turkey’s Diyanet under AKP rule: from protector to imposer of state ideology? Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, p. 10.

[6]    Gözaydın, İştar: Diyanet: Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Dinin Tanzimi (Diyanet: Arranging Religion in the Turkish Republic). İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları. Gözaydın 2009, p. 224

[7]    Thijl Sunier et al.: Diyanet – The Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs in a changing environment, VU University Amsterdam, Utrecht University, p. 70.

[8]    Ahmet Erdi Öztürk: Turkey’s Diyanet under AKP rule: from protector to imposer of state ideology? Southeast European and Black Sea Studies p. 9

[9]    https://www.nzz.ch/international/tuerkische-religionsbehoerde-diyanet-abrechnung-mit-guelenld.1308248

[10]   http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/happy-illicit-new-year.aspx?pageID=449&nID=76336&NewsCatID=497

[11]   http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/repent-over-your-tattoos-turkeys-top-religious-bodysays.aspx?pageID=238&nid=76668&NewsCatID=341

[12]   http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-religious-body-fires-officials-responsible-forcontroversial-fatwa.aspx?pageID=238&nid=93894&NewsCatID=393

[13]   http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-religious-body-fires-officials-responsible-forcontroversial-fatwa.aspx?pageID=238&nid=93894&NewsCatID=393

[14]   http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turkish-government-publishes-cartoons-glorifying-7685101

[15]   http://www.turkeyanalyst.org/publications/turkey-analystarticles/item/463-the-rise-of-diyanet-the-politicization-of-turkey%E2%80%99s-directorate-of-religiousaffairs.html

[16]   https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/06/turkey-builds-mosques-abroad-global-soft-power/590449/

[17]   Ahmet Erdi Öztürk: Delectation or Hegemony: Turkey’s Religious Actors in South Eastern Europe and Central Asia, p. 23.

[18]   Kerem Öktem: Global Diyanet and Multiple Networks: Turkey’s New Presence in the Balkans,

Journal of Muslims in Europe, p. 43 et seq.

[19]   Thil Sunier, Nico Landman: Diyanet. In: Transnational Turkish Islam: Shifting Geographies of Religious Activism and Community Building in Turkey and Europe., p. 46-56.

[20]   Peter Pilz: „Sei wachsam, Türke!“ Erdogans Angriff auf Österreich. Der grüne Bericht zu MIT, UETD, ATIB und IGGÖ, p. 21.

[21]   https://kurier.at/politik/inland/spitzel-affaere-tuerkischer-diplomat-wird-oesterreich-am-sonntagverlassen/246.054.950

[22]   https://kurier.at/politik/inland/erdogans-einfluss-auf-die-iggioe/205.513.257

[23]   https://kurier.at/chronik/oesterreich/migrantenpartei-will-ins-parlament/266.062.780

[24]   Pilz: p. 22.

[25]   https://kurier.at/politik/inland/muslime-chef-olgun-lehnt-nach-protest-aus-der-tuerkei-die-

evolutionstheorie-doch-ab/276.176.396

[26]   https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Deutschland

[27]   https://www.bundestag.de › wd-1-004-15-pdf-data

[28]   https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article154689954/So-naehren-Erdogans-PredigerIslamismus-in-Deutschland.html

[29]   Thil Sunier, Nico Landman (2015): Diyanet. In: Transnational Turkish Islam: Shifting Geographies of Religious Activism and Community Building in Turkey and Europe., p. 46.

[30]   https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21688926-turkey-sponsoring-islam-abroad-extend-itsprestige-and-power-mosqued-objectives

[31]   See The Economist above

[32]   http://www.turkeyanalyst.org/publications/turkey-analyst-articles/item/463-the-rise-of-diyanet-the-politicization-of-turkey’s-directorate-of-religious-affairs.html

[33]   http://sgb.meb.gov.tr/www/resmi-istatistikler/icerik/64

[34]   https://www.trthaber.com/haber/turkiye/diyanetin-anaokulundaegitim-basliyor-266048.html

[35]   https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2014/09/turkey-headscarves-early-education-allowed.html

[36]   https://t24.com.tr/haber/kuran-dersi-6-saate-cikiyor-insan-haklari-dersi-kaldiriliyor,279205

[37]   https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/23/turkish-schools-to-stop-teaching-evolution-official-says

[38]   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/turkey-referendum-erdogan_us_58ee2b78e4b0df7e2046ff37

[39]   https://www.odatv4.com/guncel/devlet-cemaate-artik-rakip-oldu-1706161200-95957

[40]   https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2017/02/13/maarif-foundation-head-we-aim-to-offer-an-education-that-reflects-turkish-vision-promote-turkish-language