Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923, with the aim of reigning in religious forces and making religion irrelevant to the sociopolitical climate of the country. He considered Islam to be a source of sectarian divide and social polarisation.
The system that Ataturk devised completely separated state and religion. Religious matters went to the Presidency of Religious Affairs — the Diyanet, which was set up in 1924, under Article 136 of the Constitution after the abolition of the caliphate. Founded under an act passed by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, it represents the highest Islamic religious authority in the country, which works under the prime minister’s office.
The Diyanet became the guardian of all matters pertaining to Islam, as well as carrying out the role of a watchdog that looked over religious establishments. It comprises 1,000 people, including scholars from various segments and schools of thoughts. Almost 970 muftis in 81 cities are associated with the Diyanet. It also oversees 85,000 mosques, where 120,000 government-hired imams lead prayers and impart religious education.
Education is central to all the functions that belong to, or come under the purview of the Diyanet; all top officials of the Diyanet are required to undergo a three-year training (besides their masters or doctoral degrees). Imams, too, must be at least graduates to be able to lead Friday prayers. To move beyond this role, they must take specialised courses in Hadith, Fiqh, Uloome Islami and the Quran to become a khateeb or a mufti. All courses are devised from Islamic sources under the guidance and control of the state.
All imams and khateebs must use sermons cleared only by the Diyanet. This injunction is clearly meant to prevent propagation of hate speech and sectarian discrimination. Under the existing laws, religious establishments i.e., sociopolitical groups or parties, are barred from direct participation in political activities to prevent them from practising faith-based politics.
So far this has worked. The secular nature of the state is very much in place. Although the ruling party and its allies are increasingly using religion as a motivating force, yet the state remains non-intrusive as far as religion is concerned, with no interference in peoples’ lives.
The question now arises about the state of affairs prevalent in Pakistan. Are we expecting a miracle to extricate the country from the religiopolitical crisis and the sectarian strife it is facing, or will the political leadership rise above personal expedience to close ranks and emulate some of the good work that has protected Turkey from these ills so far? For that matter, there is plenty to learn from even Indonesia and Malaysia, where the state managed to keep religion separate from politics.
Nowhere in these countries, can an individual or group, illegally occupy a public or private piece of land to turn it into a mosque, madrassa or church.
In Turkey, while the Justice and Development Party rule may have created some space for individual and unauthorised initiation of religious institutions, yet no mosque or seminary can be built without the Diyanet’s approval. Nor is the clergy permitted to serve as the ultimate, self-righteous arbiter of religious matters. The Diyanet, in fact, sends in inspectors if there is a complaint of misuse of a mosque or a madrassa, or of sectarian incitement.
The Diyanet adjudicates matters in light of the sources of Islamic law and regularly organises refresher courses to update the knowledge and understanding of imams and khateebs, who must be graduates in Islamic Studies and must also be equipped with knowledge of comparative religions.
Recently, a Norwegian delegation comprising some very important religious scholars, including Qari Hanif Jallandhry, as well as members of civil society, visited Turkey to study the its model of secularism, and how the Diyanet works. Most returned pretty impressed. They also met with Mustafa Akyol, the enterprising author of the book Islam Without Extremes, who believes Turkey has escaped sectarian and political upheaval largely because of its secular political model in which political parties are not allowed to mesh their ideologies with religion. Nor are religious parties allowed to participate in political matters.
This is a model worth emulating in Pakistan as well, where the clergy, as well as the religiopolitical parties have been using religion at will.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2012.