Turkey Casts the Diyanet

Ankara's Religious Directorate Takes Off

Sun sets behind the sixteenth-century Ottoman era Blue Mosque in the old city of Istanbul, September 26, 2005. Fatih Saribas / Reuters

On an April visit to Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that U.S. President Barack Obama had agreed to join Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of a $100 million mosque in Maryland later this year. 

The news attracted considerably less notice than it likely deserved.

A year after founding modern Turkey in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and created a government directorate of religious affairs, or the Diyanet. Through the management of mosques and religious education, the new body would make Islam subservient to the state to secure the republic’s ostensibly secular identity.

A statue of Ataturk with a mosque in the background in Kirikkale, central Turkey, March 4, 2014.
A statue of Ataturk with a mosque in the background in Kirikkale, central Turkey, March 4, 2014. Umit Bektas / Reuters
Today, the Diyanet has largely been turned on its head. In the lead-up to June parliamentary elections, Western news outlets have fretted about Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech and his broader authoritarian drift. Meanwhile, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, has wielded a beefed-up Diyanet to promote a conservative lifestyle at home and, increasingly, to project Turkish Islam abroad.  

Since 2006, the Diyanet’s budget has leapt fourfold, to 5.4 billion lira (just over $2 billion). Its share of government spending has increased by about a third and its staff has doubled, to nearly 150,000. Its budget allocation this year is 40 percent more than the Ministry of the Interior’s and equal to those of the Foreign, Energy, and Culture and Tourism ministries combined.

The directorate oversees Turkey’s 85,000 mosques, writes Friday sermons, and issues halal certificates to food producers. It also runs a 24-hour television station, Diyanet television, available via satellite, cable, and YouTube, and manages a Facebook page (with nearly 230,000 fans), two Twitter accounts (more than 50,000 followers), and an Islamic lifestyle hotline. Recent Diyanet-issued fatwas have condemned as haram the celebration of the Gregorian New Year, playing the lottery, tattoos, and abortions.

It is impossible to say whether the Diyanet issues these at AKP’s request, but the measures do jibe with AKP social policy. Further, the AKP seems to have little compunction about using the Diyanet for political

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