Moderation in Islam: The Turkish Experience, Mission and Vision of the Diyanet as a Public, Independent and Civil Institution Utah USA *
|Prof. Dr. Ali Bardakoglu|
|President of Religious Affairs|
Modern Turkey is trying to find a balance between religion and secularism by constantly improving its democratic culture. In my opinion, Turkey offers an excellent case study to find the answers to the following questions: What makes Turkey different from other Muslim countries? What are the sources of moderate perception and understanding of Islam in Turkey? Can Islam and democracy coexist? How far can democracy establish freedom for religious diversity? I will try to answer these questions in my paper.
There are a number of agents and institutions in Turkey which contribute to how Islam is perceived, understood and practiced in society. Broadly speaking, we can divide these individuals and institutions into three categories.
The first category involves official agents and institutions, such as public and private education, schooling and courses. The second category involves nonofficial agents and institutions such as religious communities, civil organizations, religious networks and organizations. The third category involves the mass media (TV channels and newspapers), books, magazines and communication networks, such as the internet. All of these agents, to various degrees, play a role in the promotion and transmission of religious knowledge to the public. There is no doubt that the content and methods of such transmissions have an impact on how Islam is perceived by the masses. It would be a very useful exercise to examine the role of these agents and their impact on how Islam is perceived in modern Turkey. However, due to time constraints, I will only offer some thoughts concerning the role of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, known in Turkey as the Diyanet.
The Presidency of Religious Affairs has a particular role as a public institution in the production and transmission of religious knowledge. It holds the responsibility of organizing and providing religious services to Muslims in Turkey.
I argue here that without understanding the role and function of the Diyanet, our analysis of religion and society in Turkey will remain incomplete. Therefore, I will briefly touch upon the mission and vision of the Diyanet as a public, civil and independent institution. Before explaining what I mean by these aspects of the Diyanet, let me talk about the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Turkish Republic, as far as the management of religious affairs and its links to the state and politics are concerned.
Although the Sultan, as head of state, in theory had political and religious authority, in the Ottoman Empire religious affairs were run by a Şeyhülislam on behalf of the Sultan and the state. The state provided the means and independence for the Şeyhulislam to organize and administrate religious affairs. In short, the state took responsibility for the organization and administration of religious affairs via the Şeyhülislam.
However, responsibility and authority of the state during the Ottoman Empire were passed to the modern Republic of Turkey in a different way. Here, one can see a certain degree of historical continuity in state-religion religions, although it differs somewhat.
In modern Turkey, the state also claims the responsibility for the organization and administration of religious affairs. However, during the transition from the Ottoman Empire to a secular republic, the Diyanet was established as a public institution. It was intended that the Ottoman methods should be continued to some extent, and that such activities would be in conformity with the secular structure of the state. The Diyanet was made responsible for the administration of religious affairs in the areas of Islamic faith, practices and moral principles. The organization of mosques and informing people about Islam also became primary responsibilities of the Diyanet. When we look at the aims and the organization of the Diyanet, we can see that it did not merely emerge as a bureaucratic institution, but rather as part of a project to establish moral religiosity.
Here I should also mention that there is frequent mention of the argument, presented by many people, that there is no clergy in Islam. From an Islamic point of view this means that there is no clergy, an especially equipped class that can talk on behalf of God. Yet, from the formative period of Islam on there has been a special group of people and scholars who have conducted religious affairs, such as leading prayers and teaching Islam.
Religious services emerged as an aspect of practical daily life and a number people were charged or claimed responsibility for the provision of such services. The emergence and organization of people who were to be responsible for the provision of religious services took place according to the social structures and political realities of Muslim societies. In addition to social conditions and political realities, the dominant cultures and customs also helped to shape the institutions which became responsible for the day to day running of religious affairs and the provision of religious services in the Muslim world.
Dependent on these factors, civil, independent, semi-public and public institutions emerged to organize and administer religious affairs. In Turkey, the establishment of the Diyanet with its current status and function is not in contradiction with the idea that there is no clergy in Islam. We can argue that the Diyanet emerged as a response to a social need for the organization of religious affairs and in order to provide religious services.
The establishment of the Diyanet can also be seen as a response to the problem of sustaining public stability in the area of religious affairs and as a way to meet the public demand for satisfactory religious services. Here, I would like to underline the fact that the absence of a clergy in Islam does not mean that religious affairs are administered casually or that religious services are provided in a disorganized manner in Muslim societies.
Now I would like to move on to explaining the three characteristics of the Diyanet which were mentioned earlier.
1. The Diyanet is a public institution: By structure, the Diyanet is a public institution; it is part of the state machinery and the bureaucratic system. The Diyanets place in the state organization and whether this contradicts the secular nature of the state has been an ongoing controversial issue among legal experts and scholars. This issue is related to how one understands secularism. The position of the Diyanet within the state organization is not in contradiction with secularism according to the following principles that are upheld in Turkey: 1) Religions should not be dominant or effective agents in state affairs. 2) The provision of unrestricted freedom for the religious lives of individuals and religious liberty are under constitutional protection. 3) The prevention of the misuse and exploitation of religion is essential for the protection of the public interest. 4) The state has authority to ensure the provision of religious rights and freedoms as the protector of public order and rights.
What we see here is the protection of religious liberties on the one hand, while at the same time there is a mechanism to control the expression of religious demands that might threaten social order. There is also a principle here that is concerned with public rights, aimed at establishing a balanced policy regarding public demands that stem from religious matters.
Providing sound religious information and the organization of religious affairs and making efforts to meet the needs of citizens are important duties for modern societies. The public character of the Diyanet relates to its organizational affairs. The Diyanets public dimension is not related to how it will produce religious knowledge or illuminate people in religious matters. Its public character pertains to the fact that it provides an organizational structure and policy, which is required by public order, while rendering religious services. Its public character also pertains to establishing a balance between demands and freedoms.
2. The Diyanet is an independent institution: The Diyanet is an independent (public) institution because it enjoys freedom in scholarly activities, in intellectual discussions of Islamic issues, in the production of religious knowledge and its dissemination to the public. I would like to emphasize that, no matter how it may appear from outside, the Diyanet under my presidency conducts its affairs freely when providing religious services.
We plan and execute our policies and practices based on scholarly accumulation and experience. While doing this, we give the utmost care in making the best choices and finding the most original solutions among all available interpretations, without external influences. At this point I would like to draw your attention to our understanding of secularism. Here, secularism does not mean the intervention of the state in the interpretation of religion. Nor does it mean state intervention into how a religion should be explained or communicated to the people.
Secularism does not mean an interpretation of religion by the state. It means providing freedom to individuals and to public institutions in the interpretation of religion and in the production and transmission of religious knowledge. The definition of religion by the state will contradict the very essence of secularism. Therefore, the Diyanet has scholarly and intellectual freedom in regard to these matters, as its religious interpretations used when informing people and providing religious services are all related to individual and institutional capacity and to the experiences of those involved in Turkey and even to the legacy of the Muslim world.
One of the original aspects of the Diyanets approach to religion and its interpretation is the fact that we see religion as more than a mere theoretical belief system. As we know, the perception and interpretation of Islam varies according to geographical areas and the dominant local traditions and cultures. Therefore, religion is seen to be a social experience and a sociological phenomenon. Sociological facts, historical legacy and experiences explain the boundaries of freedom in the organization of religious affairs; this is the challenge facing the Diyanet today.
These sociological realties and traditions draw the boundaries of how far an institution can be free in interpreting religion. Such factors indicate that our freedom is limited. However, this restriction does not stem from religious texts, but rather from traditions and historical legacies. Thus, this restriction is not embedded in the public character of the institution itself. There is a wide but misconceived tendency in Turkey on the part of some people to explain the religious services of the Diyanet and the hesitant behavior of scholars at theological faculties to interpret the religion in relation to the public structure, i.e. the state. In my view, the sensitivity of the Diyanet and the hesitancy of scholars in interpreting the religion and the conformity of their views to the main body of scholarship should not be attributed to their links with the public structure or to the public nature of these institutions. Such positions are related to the methodology of producing Islamic knowledge.
3. The Diyanet is a civil institution: The third characteristic of the Diyanet is its civil nature which is a result of democracy. The Diyanet emerged as a response to the religious needs of Muslim believers. Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population and the people need to learn about their religion freely in the light of authentic scholarship. The Diyanet was established to meet such needs in society; it therefore has a democratic and civil basis.
The Diyanet did not emerge without having any relation to the demands and needs that pertain to the religious life of Turkish society. Therefore, while providing religious services and informing people about their religion, we take their demands, their traditions and their experiences into account. We also preserve our scholarly independence. The Diyanet pursues stable ideas and experiences which ensure social peace and trust. It promotes such aspects of religious experience; it does not promote extreme ideas. This makes the Diyanet rather different from an academic institution.
The Diyanet does not pursue a policy of causing injury to the peoples beliefs, or undermining their experiences of religiosity or their preferences. The Diyanet does not despise what the public believe and practice today. In that sense, the Diyanet does not have a policy of imposing a particular model of religiosity on people. The Diyanet does not support an essentialist idea of Islam.
The Diyanet takes religious demands and traditional forms into account when delivering its services. However, if and when there is a departure from the shared and sustained perception, the Diyanet then promotes authentic knowledge; it strives to educate people about their religious beliefs and practices in the light of sound knowledge and scholarship. It is in this that the civil nature of the Diyanet lies. At this juncture, an observation of civil demands and freedom is as important as an observation of public concerns (concerns of the state).
These three (public, independent and civil) aspects of the Diyanet explain its current structure and function. They also indicate that the Diyanet faces numerous challenges as an institution. As I argued earlier, there is no clergy in Islam. Muslims do not derive their authority, power and respect from those who have been appointed to represent them before God.
Then where do Muslims get their authority, power and respect? They derive these from the knowledge and interpretation of the tradition which conforms to authentic sources of Islam. The Diyanet derives its independence from its expertise in Islamic knowledge and scholarship. It has to establish a balance between its independence and its respect for civil initiatives. For the Diyanet, it is important to observe its public structure as a state organization, as well as its scientific (scholarly) independence and its pursuits of civil concerns in Turkish society.
Sound knowledge means fighting superstitions, ignorance, false ideas, misuses of religion and abuses in the name of religion. In Islamic history, Muslim scholars took responsibility for fighting superstitions, ignorance and fanaticism. They took this responsibility because religious knowledge requires, by its very nature, such a struggle. The Diyanet gives priority to providing healthy and sound religious knowledge to society. The intention in doing this is to educate people and to promote the tolerance of various religious trends in society. The Diyanet promotes a religiosity based on scholarship, sound knowledge and interpretation. Sentimental religiosity is introverted, and closed to the external world. Sentimental religiosity may lead to total self closure, and for such people it will be difficult to open their minds to critical thinking.
Turkeys Unique Position among Muslim Countries
Now, let us move on to discuss Modern Turkey. Modern Turkey has a unique place among modern Muslim nation states. Turkey lies at the crossroads between Eastern and Western civilizations. Turkey has the privilege of having a history which contains the diverse cultural and religious traditions of both the East and the West. These multiple traditions have played a major role in the construction of the political and cultural identity of Turkish society. Both domestic and external forces that have existed in and around Turkey over the centuries have had their effects.
Now, let me move on to discuss Turkish experience in relation to moderation in Islam.
Modern Turkey was established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and inherited an imperial legacy. The Ottomans launched modern reforms during the eighteenth century in political, legal, administrative, educational, and cultural fields. The founders of the republic of Turkey adopted these reforms and pursued the modernization process in Turkish society. Although some of the reforms in the early republican period caused a cultural rupture, the resources and cultural references that make up Turkeys unique identity were preserved in the fabric of society.
As Bernard Lewis points out, despite the striking changes that Turkish society has faced, the Islamic imprint still remains alive:
Islam has profound roots among the Turkish people. From its foundation until its fall the Ottoman Empire was a state dedicated to the advancement or defense of the power and faith of Islam
After a century of Westernization, Turkey has undergone immense changesgreater than any outside observer had thought possible. But the deepest Islamic roots of Turkish life and culture are still alive, and the ultimate identity of Turk and Muslim in Turkey is still unchallenged.
Although the majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim, Islam is not a monolithic religion in this society. The majority of the Muslim population belongs to the loosely defined Sunni interpretation of Islam. But the current perception and practice of Islam varies from mystical and folk Islam to conservative and more moderate understanding of Islam. This situation is a result of the exposure of Turkish society to various cultural currents throughout the centuries. The Diyanet acknowledges this diversity and promotes a moderate, tolerant and embracing perception of Islam. Several non-Muslim religious groups also exist in Turkey. Most of them are concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities. Their existence adds to the great diversity which we enjoy today in Turkey.
Today, Turkey sets a good example of a country that supports a moderate, tolerant and inclusive perception of Islam. The widespread perception of Islam in Turkey is not radical, fundamentalist or exclusive. One of the reasons for such a moderate understanding of Islam in Turkish society is the fact that democracy has existed in Turkey for nearly eighty years. Since its establishment, Turkey has improved its democracy and now it acts as a good example among other Muslim countries. What we see in Turkey is that democratic culture promotes tolerance, participation, a civil society and moderation. It is clear that other Muslim countries and societies also need democracy more than at any other period in history.
When we look at the Muslim world today, we see numerous problems regarding democratization and state-religion relations. We see that in some countries Islam is used to justify non-democratic politics and authoritarian regimes. It is time to take a critical look at the problem of the misuse of Islam for political justification. Islam promotes human rights, political participation, civil initiatives, and justice and equality; it does not oppress ideas in the name of God. If we have a moderate perception of Islam in Turkey, we owe this to the establishment of the democratic culture in Turkey, despite all the problems.
I would like to point out that moderate perception of Islam in Turkey is also rooted in the fact that different trends, ideas and views of Islam can be expressed in Turkey. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the Turkish population are Muslims. But Islam does not have a monolithic nature in Turkey. The interpretation of Islam may differ from group to group. There is room for all views and interpretations.
Intellectuals, scholars and leaders of religious groups can freely express their views of Islam. There is no restriction on critical thinking in Islam, and Turkey enjoys such a diversity of views. Many other Muslim countries lack such a free platform. In some Muslim countries there is strict support only for one school of thought and there is a state policy to suppress opposition. In such places there is no liberty to express diverse interpretations of Islam. This policy produces a rigid understanding of Islam and uniformity. And such rigid, hard-line interpretations leave no room for moderation and tolerance. If this rigid and monolithic interpretation of religion is enforced on people, it may in the end lead to fanaticism. This is what we see in some Muslim countries. Turkey differs greatly in this regard because there is a room for all views.
Today, Muslims should be aware of the fact that democratic culture and democratic values do not contradict Islam. The Muslim world should look at the achievements of Turkey in this field. Muslim scholars should no longer support authoritarian regimes and oppressive political cultures. They should not provide religious justification for such leaders and governments.
Moderation also requires acceptance of the co-existence of different religions. Turkey sets a good example of this, as the members of various religious communities are protected by the constitution and are seen as Turkish citizens. In the past, the Ottoman Empire showed a similar example of peaceful co-existence. Cultural diversity thrived under Ottoman rule by adopting a policy of recognition and toleration for other cultures. There is no reason why Muslims should not pursue such a policy today. Muslim scholars should promote the idea that Islam is not opposed to the presence of different religions or religious groups in a Muslim society. There should be no fear of forced conversion or Islamization for non-Muslims. Islam fully supports the idea that every one should practice his/her own religion. In a similar way, the Western world should not pursue a policy of converting Muslims or other religious communities to Christianity, nor should they lend support to such policies pursued by some churches. Social and/or economic disadvantages and poor living conditions should not be manipulated for proselytizing.
I should point out here that one of the main differences between moderation and extremism is tolerance, which is embedded in moderate thinking itself. That is, moderation can tolerate the other, but extremism does not have room for the other. If you cannot tolerate extreme or opposing ideas and views, then your moderation may become another form of extremism in the name of moderation. Today, we not only need to moderate our current understanding of Islam or that of other religions, but we must also moderate our approach to life in total, including politics, welfare, human rights, gender equality, globalization, international relations, war and conflict.
I would like to conclude that the perception of Islam in Turkey is one of a moderate nature. Democratic culture and democratic values have contributed to the emergence of such moderation. The moderate understanding of Islam in Turkey is also reflected in the fact that other religious communities also enjoy freedom of religion. The current picture may not be perfect, but it looks far better than that of other Muslim countries.
* Paper presented at the international conference on Moderation in Islam, Middle East Center, University of Utah, USA, 21-22 February 2004