Diyanet, Turkey’s powerful tool for social engineering

Diyanet has nearly 115,000 employees, most of them imams, on the state payroll.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (L) and Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate at the Melike Hatun Mosque in Ankara. (AP)
Operational sway. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (L) and Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate at the Melike Hatun Mosque in Ankara. (AP)

It’s been overshadowed by an acrimonious foreign policy in the neighbourhood and an antagonistic attitude to the West but Turkey’s Sunni Islamisation, driven by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, deserves careful consideration.

There were high hopes for new beginnings when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took charge 16 years ago. The new government made a determined push towards EU membership. The hope was that Turkey was turning a corner and that the powerful armed forces would no longer constrain civilian politics, as they had for 80 years.

After all, modern Turkey was meant to have two main guiding entities — the chief of the general staff or commander of the armed forces and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

When the AKP took office, reformists hoped that the AKP would give way to civilian politics. Diyanet, too, the reformists thought, would become more representative and incorporate Alevi and non-Muslim elements into its all-Sunni make-up.

Nearly two decades on, it’s clear that only the strongman has changed, the authoritarian DNA of the Turkish state has not. The army has de facto submitted to an autocratic ruler even as it abandons its non-religious traditions. Diyanet has been pushed to the fore as the chief engine of Turkey’s transformation into a conservative Islamist society.

Diyanet’s role in Erdogan’s Turkey is ironic. It was meant to prevent excesses of piety that the state could not control. The military junta, architect of the 1980 coup, beefed up its budget and used Diyanet against the “communist threat.” By the end of the 1980s, Diyanet was a social engineering tool.

Political Islamists are using it as such, with Diyanet having become particularly useful when the AKP abandoned the dream of EU membership. Diyanet’s cadres were systematically replaced by AKP loyalists and its budget has risen year on year. It controls funding equal to that of at least ten other ministries combined. Diyanet has nearly 115,000 employees, most of them imams, on the state payroll. This year, a record number of new recruits — 9,500 — are to be added.

Diyanet, which issues the texts of Friday sermons, has become an effective tool for the AKP government. Apparently, on AKP orders, Diyanet instructed the imams on the night of the failed 2016 coup. The imams were told to call from mosque minarets, urging the masses to take to the streets.

Nowadays, Diyanet is sending out messages in favour of the Afrin offensive through Friday sermons.

The real change is in the educational sector with Diyanet, the Ministry of Education and AKP-controlled municipalities joining together. Minister of National Education Ismet Yilmaz said the number of kindergartens more than doubled in a year.

However, the minister has not answered questions from opposition parties about Diyanet’s operational sway. In what capacity is it running the kindergartens? the opposition asks. The minister has no answers. What’s clear is that early years’ schooling is a way of shaping the mindset of a whole generation.

Erdogan has not troubled to hide his desire to raise a “pious generation that will work for the construction of a new civilisation.” Scaling up Sunni cultural references in pre-school education runs parallel to the massive revival of Imam Hatip (or Imam and Preacher) schools across the country. It’s part of Erdogan and the AKP’s attempt to put religion at the heart of national life.

Reuters reported that government spending on Imam Hatip upper schools for children aged 14-18 will double to $1.68 billion this year. That’s nearly one-quarter of the budget for upper schools. Even though the 645,000 Imam Hatip students make up just 11% of Turkey’s upper school population, they receive 23% of the funding, double the per pupil spending at mainstream schools.

From 2012, when Imam Hatip education was extended to middle schools for pupils aged 10-14, student numbers have risen fivefold to 1.3 million in more than 4,000 schools. The government intends to build 128 Imam Hatip upper schools this year and has plans for a further 50. Turkey has increased religious education at regular state schools, some of which have been converted into Imam Hatip institutions. The government declined to say how many.

This leaves a fundamental question: Is the Islamisation of the Turkish state irreversible?

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