The Theological Battle Between ISIL and the Turkish State


The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recently declared Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs – the “Diyanet” as it is often referred to – an apostate. The Diyanet is in charge of Turkey’s nation-wide network of mosques, making this an attack on mainstream Sunni Islam in Turkey. The third issue of ISIL’s Turkish-language magazine argued that the Diyanet was Turkey’s tool of “adjusting the religion of Islam to the new religion of secularism.” The article featured photos of Görmez with the Pope and the Bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as photos of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularizing leader of modern Turkey, all of which, to ISIL, is akin to shaking hands with the devil. “The mosques of Diyanet are these people’s schools of jahiliya [the time of ignorance before the prophet],” the article says, “and its teachers are the regime’s imams who have sold their religion for a pittance.”

ISIL has never been shy about expressing its opinions about Turkey’s government, but it did not start this particular fight. The Diyanet did.

In late 2015, Diyanet scholars published a report defining, and thereby repudiating ISIL. The report sees the group as “a religious manifestation of false pedigree” and only begrudgingly describes it as being Salafist, or “close to the Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.” This means that ISIL’s roots can be traced to the Hanbeli school prevalent in the Arabian Gulf, but that ISIL today favors a literalist reading of the religion that eschews the four mainstream schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam. According to the Diyanet report, ISIL is merely part of a new trend of “thousands of kinds of new viruses multiplying behind the mask and brand of ‘Salafism,’ fraying the essence of Islam under the pretense of striving for it.” The Diyanet has since held conferences with Islamic scholars from across the world, and is preparing to publish a new, much more encompassing report on ISIL.

To understand the relationship between ISIL and the Diyanet, it is useful to go into the institution’s history and place in Turkish public life. The Ottoman Empire assumed the mantle of the Caliphate after conquering the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In that sense, it was akin to the Holy Roman Empire – a fusion of high political power and religious authority. Istanbul was home to a strict hierarchy of Islamic scholars (ulama), at the head of which was the Sheikh-ul Islam. These were highly accomplished scholars who would oversee the empire’s lawmaking and executive activities.

The Sheikh-ul Islam was of the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, of the Maturidi school of philosophical leaning. The Hanafi-Maturidi tradition fostered a culture of pluralism developed in the great cities of Samarkand and Baghdad, the heartland of the Islamic Enlightenment between the 9th and 12th centuries. Through its new seat in Istanbul, this school reached Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, as well as the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ottomans recognized the other schools prevalent across their vast geographical reach, but in matters of public order, ruled through Hanafi law.

When the empire collapsed and a cadre of soldiers founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923, they adopted the stringent French model of secularism. Led by Mustafa Kemal, the new government abolished the Caliphate and banned religious lodges. The Ottomans had already been reforming their legal system, but these new changes were revolutionary in scale. Mustafa Kemal jettisoned whatever remained of the centuries-old body of Hanafi law, practically overnight, in favor of newly drafted civil law.

Still, there were parts of the law where the new system rhymed with the old. The founders diverged from the French model in that they refrained from entirely eliminating the position of state-sanctioned religion. Law number 429, dated March 3, 1924 states that the Diyanet’s purpose was to “execute the affairs relating to the creed [itikat] and worship [ibadet] of the religion of Islam and administer religious institutions.” This meant that the Diyanet was still supposed to continue publicly administering Hanafi doctrine, but was confined to a very narrow space. As the republican bureaucracy evolved, the Diyanet occupied a mid-ranking position under the Prime Ministry’s long pecking order.

In the switch from caliphate to republic, the Diyanet was meant to fulfill the public need for religious authority while bending its practice to their more secular tastes, and keeping religion out of politics. But now-infamous experiments such as reciting the call to prayer in Turkish show that it went too far. Serious conservatives turned away from the Diyanet and refused to recognize it as the continuation of the Sheikh-ul Islam.

Mainstream conservatives in Anatolia stood firmly on this. While they were cowed by the republican-imposed system and even participated in it, they never accepted its religious legitimacy. Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a renowned thinker and poet who would later be viewed by the AK Party leadership as a hero, did not mince his words on the topic. A 1951 obituary of Diyanet chief Ahmet Hamdi Akseki in Büyük Doğu, a magazine published under Kısakürek’s leadership, entails a revealing dialogue between the men. “Would you not rather be a sewage worker and carry excrement on your back,” asks Kısakürek, the then-deputy head of the Diyanet, “than be in your seat under present conditions?” The poet’s words were characteristically blunt, but Akseki took it well. “You are right!” he reportedly said, “I am only here to prevent worse from happening.” Akseki is remembered in the obituary as an above average member of the Diyanet, but the contrast between principle and acquiescence would not have been lost on Büyük Doğu’s readership. The message was clear: taking part in Diyanet clergy working for a state hostile to Islamic values was unacceptable.

The notion was widespread among organized “jamaat” groups as well. The “Süleymancılar,” strongly condemned the Diyanet as the instrument of the secular system to confine Islam. Going as far back as the 1950s, the group protested Diyanet mosques even for Friday prayers, which left its followers no other choice but to use the masjids (prayer rooms, rather than full mosques) in the group’s dormitories. Many in the group are still uncomfortable with it.

A separate strand of hardliners also developed in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by Islamist literature coming out of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These were often nominally Hanafi, but had adopted many ideas that are associated with Salafism, emphasizing their own readings of the Quran and Sunna, which are relations of the prophet’s deeds. While moderate Islamists were hostile to French-style secularism rather than the idea of the Diyanet, these hardliners argued that the institution should be abolished altogether. One such group was Hizb-ut Tahrir, an international outfit bent on re-establishing a caliphate. It told its supporters in its internal manuals (obtained by the authors) that the preaching of the Diyanet’s imams were not to be taken as a standard of practice.

But the state eventually softened its stance towards moderate Islamists. In 1993, President Turgut Özal, a strong right-of-center leader from a pious background,  gave a speech in an Ankara symposium entitled “Islam During the Process of Change.” The political elite had long seen Islam as an embarrassing relic of the Ottoman past. Özal’s speech marked a shift towards readmitting it into the Turkish state’s political and policy circles. In later years, Milli Görüş, an Islamist movement, split and gave way to the AK Party government in 2002, led by Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This group had come up reading Büyük Doğu and were critical of the Diyanet, but once in power, they built on Özal’s centrist legacy. Prof. Dr. Sait Yazıcıoğlu, who had been Özal’s chief of Diyanet, joined the AK Party and became its Deputy PM responsible for Diyanet affairs.

To radical Islamists’ dismay, the AK Party government, far from disbanding the Diyanet, upgraded it. The institution was elevated in the hierarchy, and its place in the order of precedence rose from 51st to 10th, surpassing all cabinet ministers. Its budget rose from 1.1 billion Turkish Lira in 2005, to 5.7 billion in 2015. It then requested a 6.7 billion Turkish Lira budget. Part of the increase probably comes from the Diyanet’s recent move into a shiny new building with a large, new modern mosque in front of it. It also has new staff positions for well-paid experts. The head of the Diyanet at times appears in cabinet meetings and frequently accompanies the president and prime minister on foreign visits.

In its current form, the Diyanet is shaping up to become something like the Church of England before the 20th century – a state institution that organizes the most dominant religion in the country. Just like schools, hospitals, and police stations, all mosques in Turkey (and many Turkish mosques abroad) are linked to one institution in Ankara that determines policy and administrative matters. Citizens can also ask the Diyanet about doctrinal matters and are guaranteed responses in the form of fatwas – non-binding religious rulings.

Diyanet vs ISIL

Some observers in the West might see the growth of the Diyanet and think that this could push Turkey even further into the region’s sectarian conflict, but this would be a misreading of the situation. Salafi radicalization in Turkey, including ISIL networks, is not taking place in Turkey because of the increasing power of the Diyanet, but in spite of it. Contrary to popular perception, the Muslim world’s division into sects is a moderating force. Sects, or “madhab,” are the accumulation of certain schools of interpreting the two holy sources of Islam: the Quran and Sunna. These schools accumulate bodies of law and tradition, and allow individuals to disagree on the basis of interpretation. This leads to a certain amount of legitimate diversity in thought. That is why, for centuries, Muslims the world over have had slight variations in their practice, but accepted each other as fellow Muslims. Salafi movements however, reject tradition as a means for practicing Islam, and claim to draw their understanding of the religion directly from their reading of the Quran and Sunna. To Salafists, this leaves no room for debate, since any criticism of them amounts to an offense against the holy sources. The problem is therefore not that Islam is split into sects, but that there is a group that believes that is has transcended that sectarian structure.

While Turkey is overwhelmingly Hanafi, as we note above, there have been some trends among the country’s more hardline Islamists that resemble Salafist beliefs. Islamists are often uncomfortable when this division is pronounced, since they feel that pious Muslims should accentuate unity over division. The appearance of ISIL however, is polarizing the scene. There has been pressure on the Diyanet to reassert its Hanafi contours and preach against ISIL, which it is doing with increasing intensity. Mosques in Turkey and abroad vocally condemn ISIL attacks and emphasize Islam’s message of mercy and coexistence. A sermon after the Paris attacks stated “the greatest murder on earth is to group these lawless and immoral massacres as ‘jihad.’”

The Diyanet’s influence is perhaps most pronounced among Turkish communities in Europe. These communities are attached to their own, relatively insulated linguistic and cultural groups. The modality of Turkey’s Islam – even among very pious people – is shaped in and around mosques funded and run by the Diyanet. There are patterns that set these mosques apart – people almost never loiter around them, and they are conspicuously clean. The carpets, pedestals, and even the smell of people, are pretty much the same from Tokyo to Frankfurt. Salafists from the Arab world find it hard to penetrate these circles. As a Belgian security chief recently noted, “you have no momentum in the Turkish population to join [ISIL].”

The stronger the Diyanet becomes, the more inhospitable Turkey and its diaspora will be to radical Salafists. However, there is a danger that a powerful Diyanet becomes a political tool, especially at a time when right-wing politics is at its zenith in Turkey. An unduly strong Diyanet can also be perceived as a threat by non-Hanafi citizens of the country, including peaceful Salafists and non-Muslims. That is why moderation should continue to be a key feature of future Diyanet policies.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s staunchly secular population needs to understand that the days of French-style secularism, if they ever existed, are over. They are right to hold the Diyanet accountable for its large budget and question its policies, but they should get used to the religious establishment’s participation in public life, and forge their own connections with it.

Despite all its faults, Turkey remains a bastion of moderation in a region that has radicalized along sectarian lines. Its successes are not necessarily due to the performance of Turkish leaders during these turbulent times, but the country’s unique institutions and traditions. The Diyanet is a vital part of this equation, and will most likely grow in importance in the years to come.


Prof. Dr. Hilmi Demir is a faculty member at Hitite University’s Faculty of Divinity and an expert at The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV.) He is an expert on Islamic Sects, Salafism and Radicalization.

Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), where he focuses on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and Asia. You can follow him @SelimKoru.