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The Diyanet Will Not Became a Caliphate in Turkey

December 8, 2010

Nicholas Birch recently wrote in EurasiaNet about neo-Ottoman Turkish affairs and the purported rise of an internationalist Diyanet. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Birch, and in all fairness, I think he spends a lot of his article breaking down the complexity. The quote he runs off from the new director of the Diyanet (Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate), Mehmet Gormez, is:

“[A promise to] act on the principle of service to all the world’s Muslims, all the oppressed nations of the globe, all Muslim minorities.”

This is kind of just a saying. Because nobody can say “I’m going to work against Muslims” in the Turkish government. And it’s just one sentence out of a speech (that I cannot find) so it’s not as if he will redirect the domestic religious affairs to play an international role. And Mr. Birch got a Kurdish Islamicist to give the pretty darn necessary counterbalance, besides:

“Diyanet is never going to be Al-Azhar,” [Serdar Yilmaz] says, referring to the prominent Islamic university in Cairo. “But the further you are from the parochial, nationalist Islam [that] the state serves up in this country the better.

Nowhere does anybody mention a Caliphate, by the way. I’m fast becoming convinced that nobody really knows what a Caliphate is, or how modern Political Islam works. So even though I’ve hit on Political Islam in the Ottoman Empire before, it seems we need a review to understand what Turkey’s current understanding of Political Islam truly is.

The term “Caliphate” means, the political unity of the Muslim Ummah. Think like the Pope, but if everyone listened to the Pope in a political sense. Maybe like a Borgia Pope, I dunno, my Medieval history is rusty. Apparently Sunnis elect a Caliph, but I dunno, its more like 1. Selim waltzed into Egypt and took out the old Caliph, and then all of his children became Caliphs down the line. So we’re not exactly talking the electoral college here. Shi’a Islam is different, and thus will not be discussed.

Moreover, the Caliph never, ever, unified all Muslims. Poor Indonesians, poor Filipinos, never get counted as part of the Ummah. The early, “Rightly Guided” Caliphs were, actually, unified leaders. But then Muslims started bickering with other Muslims, there was some confusion over who you needed to make a Shura, and all of the sudden you have opposing Caliphs, people who don’t listen to the Caliph, and in other words: disunity.

That’s the thing with political titles. Politics get involved. EVERYONE wants to be the political leader of all Muslims. Thus you have the random, under-researched Almohad Dynasty claiming their Caliphate in Spain. Strangely enough, Timur never went as Caliph. This is your time to remember that Timur was one of the scariest dudes to have walked the Earth.

1/6 of the Turkish male population is named after the original gangster

Even when the Ottomans were ruling the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and some parts east. they were never the sole rulers of the Ummah, the Islamic population. Remember those pesky East Islanders. In one of my favorite historical footnotes, Sultan Suleiman led a naval party to Aden, Gujarat, and Aceh. He did this 1) to kick some European colonial butt and 2) be seen as the true protector of Muslims. And though he got some nice letters for it, the Ottomans never opened up true colonies or really made a strong move towards representing eastern Muslims. I’m honestly not sure why, I haven’t researched it. But my guess is that he didn’t want to piss off the British too badly, and he didn’t want to mess with a fragile peace with Persia. Anyways, the Ottomans never ruled over anything remotely Mughal. So they were hardly respected as the protectors of Islam.

However, in the late 1800’s, things changed for the interesting. This article on the decline of the Ottoman Empire is one of the better-written wikipedia articles out there, to give you an idea of what. Also came a man with the confusing name of Jamaladdin al-Afghani. Like an agent provacateur Ibn Battuta, he traveled the Muslim World to bring about pan-Islam under the rule of, erm, “strong-willed men.” Presumably himself. He also did things like

In 1884, he began publishing an Arabic newspaper in Paris entitled al-Urwah al-Wuthqa (“The Indissoluble Link” with Muhammad Abduh.The newspaper called for a return to the original principles and ideals of Islam, and for greater unity among Islamic peoples. He argued that this would allow the Islamic community to regain its former strength against European powers.

And gee, I wonder where that one’s going.

And then in the early 1900’s, the Khalifat movement began in India. It was largely an anti-imperial, anti-British, pro-self rule Indian movement that got support from elsewhere. Long story short: after 1918, Istanbul was an internationally occupied city, unbecoming of the Caliphate. So “what next?” became THE question, and India become THE answer because, well, nobody respected the Arabs quite yet. There was even a Caliphate Conference in Jerusalem in 1931 that I can’t believe I didn’t know about until now.

In between/during all of this, the Ottoman Sultans started waving around the title of Caliphate to demand respect (because their military surely wasn’t doing it). So there’s things like sultans demanding that the British respect the Ottoman sovereign right to trade in India (nope), the Hejaz Railway (moderate success) and a telegraph system from Edirne to Karachi (so so steampunk, ultimately useless). And then Ataturk happened, and all of this became irrelevant.

And now, if we fast-forward to today? Turkey is a republic. They don’t WANT to be the Caliphs (well, at least CHP doesn’t). So instead they made the Diyanet, and gave it a surprisingly awesome logo.

99% of what the Diyanet does is inherently boring. Allocate funds, make sure nothing too bad happens to the minorities, and make sure that all the mosques have an Imam and a Muezzin. The interesting stuff that happens with the Diyanet is real Insider Baseball sort of stuff. It’s not that we won’t cover it, its that we won’t cover it in this piece.

The Diyanet will occasionally make loud statements, but they’re not binding at all. Their money cannot leave the country (except for an exception I’ll get to in a moment). They can give money to different religious charities, sure, but the rise of IHH et. al isn’t about the Diyanet going international. It’s about Turkey going international (and religious). The Diyanet is not a religious organization, it’s a state organization.

There is a Turkish-German Diyanet, as well (albeit with an uglier logo). They have the money to run mosques in Germany, but mostly because Germany has a hard time reconciling their Turkish community. Again: not a religious issue, a political issue. A different issue.

So when you see mock-investigative pieces like this one in The Weekly Standard, realize that:

As long as Turkey hewed to secularism and moderation in religion, so did the German mosques under official Turkish control. Of course, not all the immigrants followed their line.

…is an insipid statement. People kind of do what they want with religion, and Turkey’s control of German mosques has not had any real appreciable difference then, say, France controlling France’s mosques.

So Turkey’s not the next Caliphate. It’s smart at using its religious voice to gain international support (see: Gaza issue), but only as a tool in its belt. As Turkey grows a prominent profile, it has no problem forgoing its political Islam. See how it treats the Uygurs in China – that is, as a card. The Diyanet, for all of its talk of an international Islamic movement, has no problem giving the Chinese their due, even in the Caucasus.

But we’re not seeing a Caliphate here, we’re seeing a rising power that is current utilizing Islamic make up. Turkey doesn’t want to see a Caliphate rise in Turkey, because the closest one to such a thing is most definitely not the state. It’s Fethullah. The Caliphate-as-politics died last century. What we see now is far closer to al-Afghani’s Islam-as-politics.There is a VERY interesting argument going on between Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki and the Gulen Movement about what the future of Islam looks like. There is not much agreement between the, say, rather violent al-Awlaki and the more relaxed Gulen. Their dialectic, and the somewhat-less-frequent chirpings of Tariq Ramadan, will frame what Islam becomes. Not which charities the Diyanet supports.

The Islamic world will never unite, but it can agree on certain things. Turkey is doing a good job of tapping into that agreement, but is not (and is not in the position) to demand unity of – and primacy in – the Islamic world.

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