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Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves centre stage, irking secularists By Reuters


© Reuters. FILEPHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Turkey is accompanied by Ali Erbas from Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. He prays during opening ceremonies of mosques in Istanbul (Turkey), May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo


By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – When President Tayyip Erdogan opened a new court complex this month, Turkey’s senior cleric sealed the ceremony with a Muslim prayer, triggering protests from critics who said his actions contravened the secular constitution.

Ali Erbas spoke in support of the opening, saying that “make this amazing work beneficial and blessed to our nation, My God.” He added that “many judges” had worked “to bring (God’s) justice.”

    The opposition’s criticism of Erbas’s comments at the Sept. 1, Ankara ceremony and his appearance reflect the rising stature of Erbas as the leader of an state-run religious organization and its growing power under Erdogan.

His ruling AK Party, which is rooted in politics Islam, overtook decades-old religious restrictions imposed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in modern Turkey. This has allowed him to place Islam at the centre of political life.

Erbas was the first to preach in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine-turned-museum church that had been converted into a mosque. As a traditional practice for the preachers of mosques that were conquered, Erbas held a sword and did so clutching it. In 1453, Ottoman forces captured the church.

    His Diyanet state organisation (or Religious Affairs Directorate) has its own television station and is actively recruiting 30 more staff. Its budget, which already matches that of an average ministry, will rise by a quarter next year to 16.1 billion lira ($1.86 billion), government data shows.

    Erdogan also endorsed Erbas, by giving the Diyanet a second term. Erdogan was in New York with Erdogan on Monday to recite a prayer during the official opening of a Skyscraper which will be home to Turkish diplomats.

    Erdogan’s political opponents claim Erbas is growing in popularity against the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution. This shows that Erdogan is using religion as a way to improve his ratings before the next election, scheduled for 2023.

    Bahadir Erdem (deputy chairman of Iyi Party), said that it was unacceptable that the Religious Affairs Directorate be politicized by the AKP.


“The reason for Ali Erbas repeatedly making statements that polarise the nation is very clearly the government using religious sensitivities of those whose votes it thinks it can win,” he said.

The Diyanet’s rise to prominence is not the only concern. Secularists are also concerned about a sharp uptake in religious Imam Hatip’ schools and a 10% increase in mosques over the past decade. They also worry about the lifting of the ban on Muslim headscarves from state institutions, as well as the control of Turkey’s military. This was once an oasis of secularism.

In response to critics about the Diyanet the presidency posted a photograph of Ataturk in prayer alongside a Muslim cleric during a ceremony at Turkey’s 100th anniversary parliament. It suggests that Erdogan, founder of the secular republic, allowed religion and politics to co-exist.

Erdogan is being accused by the main secular opposition Republican People’s Party of (CHP), of using Erbas in order to divert attention from Turkey’s economic woes.

Faik Oztrak, a spokesperson for the CHP said that Erdogan had made the Religious Affairs Directorate Chairman “a pawn”.

Turkey’s constitution states that the Diyanet should act according to the principles of secularism and not express any political views.

Erbas is a former professor of theology who was elected to office in 2017. He hasn’t addressed criticisms directly, but said that his responsibility is restricted to providing religious guidance.

He stated in speech last week that “In accordance with the obligation set forth in the constitution, our directorate works to communicate to our people the best principles of Islam.”

This message doesn’t reassure secularists.

Soner Cagaptay from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that Erbas’s regular presence at Erdogan’s side indicates a “very substantial elevation of Sunni Islam’s role in Turkish government.”

He said that the secularist firewall established by Ataturk, which was protected by his successors and has divided religion from government and religion, had “completely collapsed.”

In the past, Erbas was a source of controversy. Erdogan’s AKP and Turkey’s lawyers’ organizations clashed last year over Erbas’s suggestion that homosexuality could cause disease.

Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bakceli has supported him.

He said that Turkey is a Muslim nation. The incurable case of a severe allergy to the Islamic faith is caused by those who are evil and have cut off all ties with national and spiritual values.