The Islamist Populism, Anti-Westernism and Civilizationism of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is seen during a public rally in Istanbul on the second anniversary of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

In Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Friday sermons of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

Over the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has cemented itself as the country’s hegemonic ruling party by appealing to the conservative Muslim majority of the country. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven exceptionally adept at uniting Islamism and populism, fusing the two into a powerful and pervasive political force with which he has established a stranglehold over Turkish politics and society while exporting this ideology abroad via its transnational apparatuses and networks (Yilmaz, 2021a). Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) controls all mosques (more than 90,000) in Turkey, many thousands in the West, and employs imams for these mosques. It has become one of the powerful instruments in propagating the AKP’s Islamist populism and anti-Western civilizationism.

The AKP did not begin its rule as an authoritarian party. Initially, the party—though populist in orientation—promised a more liberal and inclusive society. Throughout the 2002–2008 period, Erdogan called for Turkey to join the European Union and enacted a series of reforms that sought to eliminate the secular authoritarian tutelage of the Kemalist institutions. However, after 2008, and when the European Union refused in practice to accept Turkish entry into the organization and with increasing economic problems, the AKP began a slide into right-wing nationalism colored by Islamism.

Here, Islamism is understood as a politicized version of the religion of Islam, a counter-hegemonic paradigm, which “refers to turning religion into an ideology and an instrumental use of Islam in politics […] by individuals, groups and organisations in order to pursue political objectives” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 104). It is also important to note that “Islamism is not a coherent ideology – it focuses on identity politics rather than ideas and an appeal to emotions rather than intellect” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 105). Thus, this Islamist ideology relying on antagonistic binaries where the Islamists are constructed as the true and only legitimate representatives of the pure people against the corrupt elite and their international supporters is inherently populist (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 5; Laclau, 2006; Wojczewski, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020).

The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests—in which mostly secular young people in cosmopolitan Istanbul protested against the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption—shifted the party further toward the right, as it sought alliances with conservative, religious elements in Turkish society. The failed 2016 coup d’état, a somewhat mysterious event, appears to have convinced Erdogan to abandon any pretense of liberal democracy and to embrace authoritarian religious populism instead.

The AKP’s turn toward authoritarian religious populism has proven largely successful. Erdogan remains a popular political figure, and—having purged the military, bureaucracy, and the universities of so-called undesirable citizens (especially secularists, leftists, and Gulenists)— the AKP now controls Turkey’s most important and influential institutions (Yilmaz, 2021b: 203-220). Through this power, the party has re-shaped Turkish identity in ways that suit the ruling regime. Fusing their populist ideology, which emphasizes the battle between “elites” and “the people” with Islamism, the AKP created a new type of Turkish nationalism in which “the people” and the state are identified with orthodox Sunni Islam. Adding this religio-civilizational element to their populism, the AKP gained the ability to portray Turkey’s domestic political battles and antagonisms as part of a wider cosmic religious war between Islam and its enemies, especially the “Judeo-Christian” West. The internal or domestic enemies, especially secular “elites” and Gulenists, were thus branded enemies of Islam who posed an existential threat to Turkey and – more broadly – the entire ummah (Yilmaz, Shipoli & Demir, 2021).

The AKP has tried to re-shape Turkish national identity through a variety of means. The party’s ability to set a national curriculum, dominate the media (traditional and new), and direct Turkey’s religious authority – the Diyanet – is highly important. The Kemalists established the Diyanet following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to bring Islam under greater government control. The Kemalist regime was a secularizing force in Turkey and often hostile toward religion and Islamic bodies. The Diyanet was thus created to help secularize Turkey and was intended to reduce the power of Islamic authorities and increase the power of the secular state.

Under Kemalist hegemony, the Diyanet was a promoter of sovereignty, national unity, and freedom, and it glorified the founding father of Turkey. It was restructured under the AKP regime to build the “new Milli [national]” (Mutluer, 2018) citizens the AKP desires. When the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002, instead of eliminating this institute, they ironically captured and widened its capacity boosting it financially and employing it to create an Islamist–populist appeal.

Thus, the Diyanet’s importance rapidly increased after the election of the AKP in 2002, particularly after the party’s turn toward Islamist populism in the 2010s. The AKP increased the religious directorate’s budget and encouraged the body to have a more socially and politically active role. Erdogan appears to have decided that the Diyanet was an ideal vehicle through which he could communicate and disseminate his religious populist rhetoric and ultimately increase his party’s political power.

Seeing the Diyanet’s potential in this way paved the way for the elevation of the President of the Diyanet (Başkan) from directorate to permanent undersecretary (Müsteşar), and the protocol ranking of the Diyanet director’s hierarchy being elevated from 51st to 10th under the AKP. This can be considered both symbolically and practically one of the greatest prerogatives given to the society’s conservative segments. This new status of the Diyanet and its increased budget allowed the organization to establish radio and television channels. The Diyanet’s mandate was expanded to provide religious services outside mosques, from foreign policy (Özturk, 2021) to prisons, retirement homes, and women’s shelters and families (Adak, 2020). Also, the Diyanet generates the Friday sermon, which all mosques in Turkey deliver in its exact form.

Weekly Friday prayers have been considered theoretically by both Kemalists and Islamists as a very important tool to control Turkish citizens’ perspective about Islam and to construct “good citizens.” Friday as a day and Friday prayers as a ritual has a significant place in Muslim religious life. Mid-day prayer on Friday was replaced by Friday prayer, and the sermons are an inseparable aspect of this weekly prayer. Thus, a proper Friday prayer necessitates delivering the sermon. Today in Turkey, in all mosques, it is estimated that more than 15 million male citizens (women are not provided space for Friday sermons) participate in weekly Friday prayers as the audience of Friday sermons. To put this number into perspective, when including adult female relations, the number of attendees equates to roughly 30-40 million voters or around 50 percent of the entire electorate. Friday sermons continue to have a special religious status among Muslims, and attendees are forbidden to speak among themselves during the delivery of sermons.

It is not surprising, then, that as the AKP shifted from liberalism to authoritarian Islamist populism, Diyanet’s Friday sermons reflected this change. Sermons began to echo, in particular, Erdogan’s Islamist–populist narratives. For example, the Diyanet began to stress the oneness of the ummah and the notion that Turkish Muslims were victims of ever hostile Western powers. For example, one sermon asserted that “One of the most important duties of Muslims is to be one voice against unbelief and to be united before the oppressor. However, it is possible to achieve this by basing not on each other’s sect, legitimacy, race, language, geography, and ideology, but Islam’s understanding of oneness and unity. The road to unity, amity, and peace; the way to know the friend and the enemy; make the ummah smile, not the others [the Western powers] passes from here” (April 8, 2016).

Reflecting the AKP’s assertion that Turkey is the “guardian of the ummah,” Diyanet sermons began to frame Turkey as the hope of the Muslim world and indeed of all oppressed peoples. One sermon read: “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who have nobody by their side, and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (October 11, 2019).

Diyanet sermons, particularly after the AKP’s slide into Islamist populism after 2013, have increasingly used religio-civilizationalist rhetoric and framed contemporary events within a larger, almost cosmic religious war between Islam and the West.

Following the Turkish Armed Forces’ offensive into Syria in October 2019, one sermon invoked Islamic principles to justify this operation. The sermon claimed: “…. believers never consent to the violation of the values ​​of which the religion of Islam regards as sacred and untouchable, such as the occupation of homelands and homes. They do not hesitate to launch an honorable struggle to correct the deteriorating balances, to establish an environment of peace, and to ensure justice.”

Another sermon, which coincided with Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, portrayed Turkey and the Islamic ummahas a single entity and the target of external attacks. It urged unity among Muslims to prevent further attacks: “In recent years, we have been passing through the circle of testing both as the ummah of Islam and within our nation […] By threatening our unity and vitality, the hopes of the Islamic ummah are actually being consumed” (January 26, 2018).

It is also important to note that the Diyanet has embraced victimhood rhetoric in its sermons, portraying Muslims as victims of the West, which they accuse of opening “holes of fire in the Islamic territory.” Without naming the exact enemy, the sermons often claim that all Muslims have been victimized by “certain” enemies, enemies who even today are conspiring against Muslims, their religion, their unity, and their hopes. References to these unnamed enemies are kept obscure, and therefore are open to loading in parallel with the changing context, especially in horizontal and vertical dimensions.

In a majority of passive and hostility-loaded sentences in Friday sermons, the hidden subject refers to the enemy(ies) of Muslims as Judeo-Christian Western civilization. For example, the sermon delivered on Friday, January 26, 2018,reads: “We have been going through certain trials as a nation and as the Islamic ummah in the recent years. Those who want to weaken us and to pit Muslims against Muslims are coming at us with the weapons of sedition, terror, and treachery. They are trying to pull our country into the pits of fire they have opened in all corners of the Islamic geographyOur independence and future are targeted through various tricks and plots, plans, and traps. They are trying to drive the Islamic ummah to despair by threatening our unity and peace.”

The Friday sermon dated October 4, 2014 reads as follows: “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e., the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence, and hostility [between Muslims].” Another sermon dated October 11, 2019 echoes many of these earlier themes: “Unfortunately, the world today was turned into a place full of dark and evil traps. Those who claimed to bring so-called independence to some places have rather invaded those places […]. Those who plan to dig pits of fire all around the Islamic world have used weapons of sedition, terrorism, and betrayal to cause brothers to hit one another. Using various plots, plans, tricks, and traps, they have targeted our existence and future survival, as well as our freedom and future. They have attempted to bring us, our noble nation, to have been the flagbearer of the Muslim ummah for hundreds of years to our knees.”

This rhetoric, which closely echoes Erdogan’s religio-civilizationalism—namely, his contention that the ummah is involved in a defensive religious battle against non-believers— assists the AKP in two ways. First, it creates demand for populism by activating emotions of fear and anger. The AKP has instrumentalized Friday sermons to help construct a populist narrative that serves the party’s agenda. Through Diyanet sermons, the majority population of Turkey (i.e., Sunni Muslim Turks) is presented with statements and fatwa that evoke negative emotions and play on their sense of victimhood, their feelings of being part of an ummah oppressed by Western powers. The AKP uses this fear of and anger toward the West via the Diyanet to create a sense of permanent crisis and a belief that only the AKP can defend Muslims from a mighty opposition made up of non-Muslim powers who hate and wish to harm the ummah.

The Diyanet’s sermons serve the AKP’s religio-civilizationist populist division of society. Friday sermons have increasingly supported the AKP’s attempts – largely successful – to construct populist binaries based on religio-civilization identification. The sermons promote the notion that “we” (Sunni Muslim Turks) are the ummah, while secularists, non-Muslims, Gulenists, and certain other groups are implacable enemies of the ummah. This binary can then be used to mobilize “the people” to support the authoritarian Islamist–populist regime, which purports itself to be fighting on the people’s behalf against a non-Muslim civilizational enemy.

The AKP is hardly alone in using religion to aid its populist agenda and constructing antagonistic binaries and the sense of crisis upon which populism relies. Indeed, like other religious populist parties and movements, Erdogan’s AKP couches the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational frame. By this, we mean that the typically populist vertical division between “the people” and “elites” and horizontal division between “the people” and “others” is framed by a larger religio-civilizational concern or within a belief that religion-based civilizations are doomed to clash. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the Diyanet’s Friday sermons frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the AKP’s fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

The AKP’s ability to instrumentalize the Diyanet has played an important role in the party’s increasing domination of Turkey’s political and social life. The Diyanet’s Friday sermons have assisted the AKP in fundamentally altering notions of how an ideal citizen of Turkey should appear and behave. Under AKP rule, the ideal Turkish citizen is an Islamist and a nationalist, albeit one with neo-Ottoman aspirations for Turkey. Moreover, the AKP’s ideal citizen believes that Turkey is at the forefront of a clash of civilizations and must therefore act as a defender of Muslims worldwide while also remaining vigilant at home where anti-Muslim actors—secularists, liberals, Gulenists—continue to threaten “the people.”


References

Adak, Sevgi. (2020). “Expansion of the Diyanet and the Politics of Family in Turkey under AKP Rule.” Turkish Studies. 22:2, 200-221, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2020.1813579. 

Katsambekis, Giorgos. (2020). “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective.” Journal of Political Ideologies. doi:10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.

Laclau, Ernesto. (2006). “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 646–80. 

Mutluer, Nil. (2018). “Diyanet’s Role in Building the ’Yeni (New) Milli’ in the AKP Era.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5953https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337811594_Diyanet%27s_Role_in_Building_the_%27Yeni_New_Milli%27_in_the_AKP_Era_httpsjournalsopeneditionorgejts5953langde(accessed on May 16, 2021).

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Wojczewski, Thorsten. (2020). “‘Enemies of the people’: Populism and the politics of (in)security.” European Journal of International Security. 5: 5–24, doi:10.1017/eis.2019.23.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12: 301. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12050301 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 2nd Edition, 170-187. London and New York: Routledge.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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