“Islam curses homosexuality. What is the wisdom of this? It is that homosexuality brings diseases and causes the generation to rot.”

These remarks were uttered during the Friday sermon by Ali Erbaş, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, to mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The manifest homophobia in the religious chief’s language was criticized by the Ankara Bar Association of Lawyers, as inciting hatred against the gay community while ignoring the cases of child abuse and misogyny.

President Erdoğan immediately came to the rescue: “An attack against the head of Diyanet is an attack on the state. What he said was totally right”.

Inspired by this magisterial backup, the divine directorate made a terrestrial complaint against the lawyers, which punctually led the prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation against the bar association for “insulting religious values”. Pro-government media outlets joined this counterstrike. Among them, daily Sabah’s revelation of Ankara bar association’s “sin” was exemplary: “The Ankara Bar sorely caught!”. Doing what? would be the logical question to follow. Answer: “It has been exposed that the Ankara bar association founded a LGBT rights center by the decision of its board of directors on December 5, 2018.” Shame on them! These “allegations” would in fact serve as the pretext of a further presidential blow: Erdoğan has ordered a comprehensive revision of the structure of the bar associations and professional chambers.

Designing the nation twice 

This controversy seems to be indicating the beginning of a new stage in the president’s efforts to redesign the country “after his own image”. Since the 2010 referendum, the judiciary, the police and most significantly the military have been through a comprehensive transformation, along with media institutions, the education system and universities. When the state apparatuses are thus increasingly exposed to the presidential intervention, the bells must now be ringing for civil society.

Transformation of society has been the main task of the republican leadership for some 97 years, defined by the Kemalist motto of “rising to the level of contemporary civilizations”.Ottoman reformers had mainly focused on the modernization of the state institutions, but for the republican leaders, in their determination to create a nation “after their own image”, modernization had to apply to the society as a whole. Although secularism is officially defined as the separation of the state’s affairs from the sphere of religion, the precondition of this task was believed to be to break down the cultural and moral influence of religion over social life. Consequently, the main aim of the Kemalist/secular reforms that were imposed in the formative years of the republic, from the compulsory secular education to the “hat revolution” banning the donning of headwear deemed of a religious nature and from there to the crackdown of the Islamic orders and closure of the dervish lodges, was to transform the traditional communities and conservative mentalities (“taassub ve cehil” – conservatism and ignorance, in Atatürk’s words).

The secularist reforms amounted to an attempt to de-Islamize society, by outlawing the unofficial Islamic structures and keeping religious practices in check. On 3 March 1924, the day when the Caliphate was abolished, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was established with this philosophy to run the mosques and reorganize the religious personnel as civil servants.The directorate operated under strict state observation; nevertheless it provided a breathing space and a source of employment for conservative pious communities. Consequently, throughout the republican history the Diyanet fulfilled two contradictory functions: it exercised state oversight over religious affairs to ensure that religion did not challenge the Turkish republic’s ostensibly secular identity, while at the same time facilitating grounds for the outlawed religious communities and Islamic orders to infiltrate the state structure and the bureaucracy. The position of a state cleric offered a lot to pro-Islamist propagandists under Kemalist conditions. 

The transition to multi-party system led to a compromise in strict secularist principles, although “Islamic reactionarism” was kept on the statute book of major threats to the republic. As the number of mosques increased, so did the budget of the Diyanet. In the 1980s, the number of mosques around the country grew and Diyanet officials, graduates of imam hatip and Quran instruction schools, increased dramatically in quantity. However, the heyday of the directorate arrived with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. In 2010, Erdoğan appointed Mehmet Görmez as the head of the Diyanet, further sweetening the appointment with the allocation of an expensive armoured car and a jacuzzi. By 2015, the directorate’s budget had increased to over $2.0 billion, with staff numbers rising to nearly 150,000, much larger than many government ministries. The directorate has become a supersized government bureaucracy for the promotion of Sunni Islam.

The Diyanet currently operates 85,000 mosques in Turkey and more than 2000 mosques abroad. It runs a TV channel, a publishing house, issues fatwas on demand and provides Quranic education to “enable the full immersion of young children in a religious lifestyle”. The flourishing of the budget, personnel and the functions of the Religious Affairs Directorate have gone hand in hand with a re-definition of this giant institution’s mission: promoting a conservative life in line with mainstream Sunni Islam, and projecting “Turkish Islam” abroad.

The Diyanet exclusively follows the Hanefi creed of Sunni Islam, which alienates some 30 per cent of Turkey’s population, among them being the largest non-Hanefi followers of about the country’s 15 million Alevis and some 13 million Shafi’i Kurds.

With these features, the Diyanet of our time probably symbolizes the end of the conventional tensions between the republican state and religious conservatism in Turkey. As the state comes to terms with the mainstream Islamic identity, religion is escalated to operate as an essential ideological state apparatus. In summary, the Diyanet was originally designed by the republican regime as a tool of “de-Islamization”, but it has ironically turned into an instrument of “re-Islamization” of society under the AKP regime.

“For the governments that form policies over religious sensitivities, the Diyanet has been an exceptionally important institution”, says Professor İştar Gözaydın, the author of the book Diyanet (Iletişim, Istanbul 2009) and renowned for her research on religion and politics in Turkey. She observes an increase in the social and political weight of the directorate during the AKP rule but notes that it does not operate autonomously vis-à-vis the political power, that is, President Erdoğan. About the chief of the directorate’s remarks on homosexuality, Professor Gözaydın comments: “The language and the message of the sermon are regrettable. It is a serious hate discourse based on assertions that have been medically refuted. The government’s reaction against the critical reflections is an authoritarian reflex, which only serves to erode the notion of a state of law”.

The then chief of the Diyanet, Mehmet Görmez, played a crucial role in the suppression of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt by mobilizing its personnel around the country to call from minarets for the public to resist the coup. Later, however, he would resign amid allegations that he had sent a signed copy of a Diyanet publication to Fethullah Gülen, the alleged leader of the group behind the coup. The current chief, Ali Erbaş, replaced him. 

The fatwas issued by the directorate on the use of toilet papers, eating with left hand, tattoos and piercings and most controversially a man’s lust towards his daughter have led to disputes. Critics view these religious recommendations as the state power’s attempts to monitor and regulate privacy, in parallel to Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism. The recent sermon on homosexuality has consequently been perceived as a dangerous intervention by the political authority into the private space.

The plague and the demagogue

Implying that the country’s gay community was responsible for the current epidemic inevitably evokes the centuries-long war by the church authorities against the traditional healers, mostly women, in desperation against the outbreaks of black death in Medieval Europe. American writer Arthur Miller, famously associated Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations with the 17th Century witch hunt episode in rural American town of Salem, in his play “The Crucible”. His remarks on the recurring collective urge to find scapegoats are striking: 

“These surges of intolerance usually come where there is a social dislocation beforehand. They don’t come to a healthy society but a society which is sick and it has run out of solutions and it doesn’t know where to look. That is when the demagogue can get up and start evoking vague dangers from vague quarters”.