Diyanet is not a very much debated institution in Turkey. Which is kind of strange, when you think of it as one of those that protect the existence of the secular, kemalist Turkish state. In that perspective, you can compare Diyanet to, for example, the army or the judiciary. Those two institutions are widely discussed, especially since the AKP government has been trying to curb their power, but Diyanet is hardly ever in the spotlight. Even though, of course, a very interesting question can be asked: does the AKP use its power to influence the policies of Diyanet?
For those who don’t know, Diyanet is the ‘directorate of religious affairs’, the state body in charge of religious affairs. They arrange, or more precisely, control religious life. The directorate owns the country’s mosques, educates and pays the imams and tells them what to preach about in the Friday service. That all sounds strange when you know Turkey is a secular country. Turkish secularism, though, is not aimed at strictly separating religion and state, but at protecting the state against the influence of religion. Because Diyanet keeps religion under control instead of letting it flourish freely, the existence of the secular state is ensured.
There is a lot of suspicion against the AKP. One of the fears is that the party wants to Islamize the country and eventually even annul the secular republic and found an Islamic state. How ideal, you could reason, that there is already a state institute for religious affairs: the AKP only has to put its own ‘puppets’ in there, slowly and imperceptibly change the religious guidelines it works under, and the institute can then contribute to getting people ready for, for example, sharia law.
Now for the first time research is being done into the question of whether the changes in the religious and political power relationship in Turkey affect the position and agenda of Diyanet. This is a project by two Dutch universities* in cooperation with a university in Istanbul and another in Ankara. The results will be published soon. I got a pre-taste at a lecture the researchers gave in Ankara this week.
The outcome of the research is somewhat disappointing for a journalist. So you can guess the conclusion: No, the fact that the AKP is in power did not drastically affect Diyanet. Not budget-wise, not policy-wise, not in personnel. So, that’s it? No, that’s not it. Turkey is changing, and the role of religion in society is changing, so Diyanet will change too, inevitably.
Diyanet, according to researchers Prof. Thijl Sunier (Islamic Studies, Free University, Amsterdam) and Dr. Nico Landman (European Studies, Utrecht University) has to adept to the changing role of religion in society that also brought the AKP to power. Over the last ten, fifteen years, urbanisation and economic growth have made Islam in Turkey much more of a religion practiced in the cities rather than the villages, by people who have more economic power than they used to have. They want more religious freedom than the secular state offers them now, and that challenges Diyanet. A totally centralized, top-down structured Diyanet, like it is now, might in the long run not be suitable any more. The directorate will have to make some effort to keep people connected to them – the mosques in Turkey are all theirs, but there are other groups that also attract the growing group of self-conscious, well-educated Muslims, like the movement of Fethullah Gülen, or the conservative organisation Milli Görüs.
Interesting in this respect is the situation in the Netherlands, which was also studied by the above-mentioned researchers. There Diyanet is not the only official player in the religious field, like in Turkey. Diyanet sends imams to the Netherlands to work in Dutch Diyanet mosques, but Turks can also decide to go to a Milli Görüs mosque, or to mosques belonging to other Turkish groups. Diyanet, in other words, has to compete. And it is increasingly trying to do that by connecting more directly with the believers and offering other things than just a place for prayer.
Other religious groups have always done that: they started from the grass roots, organized by immigrants in the sixties that wanted a place for prayer and coming together, and they have offered for example language courses, homework classes for schoolkids, bicycle riding courses (I’m not making that up!), or even soccer tournaments. Diyanet never did that. They came to the Netherlands purely as the top-down organisation they have always been, offering basically a place for prayer. Just like the Turkish state view on religion required them to: the practice of religion should be limited to praying in the mosque or at home, and in other segments of society it has no place. Now they have come to realize that that is not enough to ‘survive’ in the Netherlands. No Diyanet soccer tournaments yet, but they are changing more in the direction of mosques that offer more than a building. Since there are of course close connections between Diyanet in the Netherlands (and other European countries) and Turkey, you could wonder whether Diyanet in Turkey might take this ‘community based religion’ as an inspiration for Turkey.
The first signs of change can be seen in Turkey. Diyanet doesn’t, for example, hand out the Friday sermons written in Ankara any more, but gives imams the freedom to fit the topic of the sermon to the local circumstances. The one hundred percent top-down character of the organisation is being carefully broken, Diyanet is opening itself up more to influences from society. But, I concluded from the lecture, change is going slowly. Not surprising of course, since it was – like the army – never really questioned. And like I said, Diyanet is not, like the army, all over the papers and being discussed in parliament as a state institution that needs to adjust to power shifts in a democratisation process. But it is inevitable: in a changing Turkey, Diyanet can just not stay behind.