Religious Affairs Directorate’s sphere of authority should be redefined

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Turkey’s political agenda has become extremely complicated in the aftermath of the corruption operation and probe that started on Dec. 17. This state of complicated affairs negatively affects economic indicators as well as the political situation in the country.

It is also causing serious disruptions to the normative political outlook. In addition to declining trust in the current actors on the political stage, the lack of trust in the political institution itself threatens the present and the future of the society. Unfortunately, this disorderly structure of the agenda drives actors with political ambitions to be concerned about their own interests rather than acting rationally and this leads them to fail to see the dangers ahead. More precisely, the prime minister, members of government and other ruling party figures are at risk of transforming the current chaotic environment into a catastrophe because of the language they rely on in this environment.

Undoubtedly, as noted earlier, this crisis in Turkey is causing serious and potentially irreversible problems. In addition to individual problems, the flaws in politics and its bureaucratic structure have become more visible. The ambition for greater power observed in government circles is turning the political stage into a venue where further problems are generated, while it is supposed to serve as a venue for the resolution of problems.

It is also possible to say that, with a few exceptions, we now we have a bureaucratic structure that is assuming roles because of this ongoing tension. We are all experiencing a period in which the executive branch believes that the power it currently holds will last forever, where the executive branch ignores the fact that its role is meant to be serving the interests of the people and where figures in crucial roles make illusory assumptions that they are indeed acting on behalf of the nation. Of course, such an illusion refers to a troubled approach to what is happening. However, the problems with the bureaucratic and relatively autonomous structures in Turkey lead them to make unusual statements that are not compatible with their roles and the course of events.

Noting that time is transformative and that this transformation could be made constructive via human efforts, I believe it would be useful to stress that this troubled period being experienced in Turkey is temporary. To get better results out of this process, the institutions failing to perform their roles and duties properly and which display structural and historical problems in terms of their missions should be identified so that Turkey will not experience similar problems in the future. Of course, many institutions could be subjected to such a review and critical approach, but the path the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DİB) is choosing for itself merits particular attention. To this end, academics, intellectuals and other relevant actors should think about the directorate and consider the current developments. The directorate should not be made an actor that will play roles that do not fall within its domain. To take this action, state-religion relations in Turkey should be properly analyzed and the historical roles of the directorate and their meanings should be clearly identified. State-religion relations in Turkey have always been troubled and complicated because of an intricate structure and historical baggage.

The directorate is the principal actor in this sphere. Despite its historical and contemporary significance in terms of its role in religious and public affairs, the directorate has been the subject of only a small number of academic studies. Other than a book by Prof. Dr. İştar Gözaydın, “Diyanet: Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Dinin Tanzimi” (Religious Affairs Directorate: Regulating the Sphere of Religion in the Republic of Turkey) there are almost no academic studies in this area. This book reviews in detail the historical significance of the directorate, its legal status and its impact upon relations between the state and religion. The remaining academic accounts on this matter extensively rely upon Gözaydın’s work.

There has always been an entrenched, rigid state mindset in Turkey that has been able to change the course of events in its favor, regardless of the worldview of the ruling party. With the exception of some minor deviations in the form of nuances, ever since the declaration of a constitutional monarchy in Turkey, this has remained unchanged and became an approach to state-religion relations that included the use of some usual patterns and methods. In other words, the methodology and structures of the state mentality and its perception of daily life remain unchanged. The policies implemented during the Ottoman era designed to regulate daily life in the form of resisting change were legitimized and justified by Islamic scholars who made them religiously acceptable to the public. This approach has also survived in the republican era as well; the directorate played this role in the new era. That is to say, the directorate was designed in the republican era to serve as a balancing force between the state and society so that the Turkish type of secularism would attract greater support. However, the directorate has actually deviated from this traditional role by adopting a pro-government stance regarding recent events. In short, the directorate remains a tool that the state mindset relies on when the state fails to resolve major problems.

At this point, the sphere of authority of the directorate needs to be redefined. One of the views on its status and probable role that has gained acceptance in recent discussions suggests that it should be abolished altogether. At the moment, it is obvious that such a radical move would not be proper. It is clear that this would be impossible to implement, given that, as noted by Aristotle, nature hates a void. The question as to who or what would fill the void left after the abolishment of such a longstanding and critical institution that has survived since the Ottoman era is crucial at this point. An abrupt change or a sudden move to abolish this institution would lead to social and political chaos. Instead, its role and sphere of responsibility should be redefined normatively. The majority of Turkish people are Sunni Muslims; however, there are also many Alevi people in Turkey. Turkey is home to many different beliefs and sectarian orientations. This makes Turkey a true mosaic in terms of religious beliefs. In addition, despite the fact that religion has always played a significant role in politics and social affairs in Turkey, the state defined a unique version of secularism early in the republican era. The directorate is one of the flawed institutions in Turkey that has exhibited serious shortcomings, primarily because it serves as a focal institution for members of a single sect and religion and it does not act impartially with respect to political affairs because of its organic ties with the government.

To this end, with respect to the problems currently being experienced in Turkey because of some government actions, the directorate is adopting a position for itself. This position and this preference are clearly outside the directorate’s purview as outlined in the relevant legislation. More precisely, as underlined in the law that creates the directorate, this institution was set up to carry out the affairs and tasks relevant to the Islamic faith, practices and ethics; to offer insight for the people with respect to religious precepts and to administer places of worship. This means that involvement in daily political affairs contradicts its mission. Turkey’s political and social history as well as current developments show that a redefinition should be made and that it should be comprehensive. At this point, even if it is a cliché suggestion, the institution should be transformed into a structure that encompasses all religious groups and responds to their demands.

I strongly believe that what needs to be done in this respect should include the introduction of legal and normative changes that will transform the directorate into an autonomous structure. Changes made to this end will ensure that the institution will become more inclusive and that previously excluded groups will gain greater representation. Such a transformation will lead to some procedural advantages and in addition, they will also change the perception that the directorate acts partially on some crucial matters. This is essential for social peace. In other words, though it is historically troubled and flawed, this institution should be reformed and redefined: It should no longer serve as a playground for political actors and should be made an autonomous entity.