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Turkey’s top imam under fire for controversial remarks amounting to ‘political speech’

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President of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbaş has been widely criticized for recent statements regarding Turks’ approach to Islam and the way they use social media outlets, which were considered by many to be “political speech” unbefitting a top cleric.

Erbaş has been at the center of criticism for accompanying President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mehmet Akarca, president of the Supreme Court of Appeals, during a ceremony marking the opening of a new service building for the court and the start of the 2021-2022 judicial year on Sept. 1.

Akarca, Erdoğan and Erbaş stood side by side during the ceremony in which Akarca in his judge’s robe joined the top imam’s prayers marking the new judicial year, a scene slammed by many for violating the principle of secularism.

“[They say] ‘religious belief shouldn’t be on the streets, but rather in people. Let it stay between the individual and God and not interfere with one’s home, business, politics, [sense of] justice and judgment.’ They have been causing quite a stir for it. They want those areas [of life] to be free from belief,” Erbaş said in targeting his critics during an event in the central province of Aksaray on Monday.

The top imam also recently called for a new legal framework for social media use in Turkey, stating that the establishment of such a mechanism is a nondeferrable obligation, amid discussions on a new government body that would identify users who produce or disseminate fake news online so they can be punished.

Such controversial remarks landed Erbaş under more fire as a large number of people, including opposition party members, former civil servants, prominent journalists and academics, in addition to social media users argued that he was speaking like a politician rather than a cleric.

Engin Altay, a deputy group chairman from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), on Tuesday called on Erbaş to behave as required by the position he holds as a cleric.

“Our Religious Affairs Directorate head speaks too much nowadays. … When I look at his latest actions, I only want to say this to him: Have the fear of God. Your guide is the Qur’an, not Erdoğan,” Altay said.

“Erbaş’s statement [regarding the criticism against him] evidently shows that he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand the constitutional principle of secularism. These remarks … are against the constitution,” former Ankara public prosecutor Bülent Yücetürk told the Cumhuriyet daily on Tuesday.

“These words of the chairman of the institution, which was established for the realization of the principle of secularism, are against the establishment purpose of the institution and the constitution. It is using faith in politics.”

Renowned Turkish historian and professor İlber Ortaylı on Tuesday said in televised remarks that the top imam shouldn’t interfere in people’s religious beliefs. “He can’t have a desire to have control over us. He shouldn’t talk about things he doesn’t know, things he doesn’t have an expertise in,” Ortaylı said.

Veteran journalist Uğur Dündar indicated during a program on KRT TV on Tuesday that the top cleric’s recent statements reveal that he actually wants to do politics.

“If a soldier wants to do politics, he takes off the uniform. If a judge wants to do it, he takes off the robe. It’s the best path for Mr. Erbaş to take off his clerical robe and start doing politics in the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP],” Dündar said.

“Of course, my faith is between me and my God. Who are you [to talk about this]?” journalist Orhan Uğuroğlu said in a column on Wednesday for the Yeniçağ daily.

Sözcü daily columnist Deniz Zeyrek also claimed that Erbaş sees himself as “tailor-made” for the presidency after Erdoğan leaves office.

“Don’t be surprised if he soon loses the robe and turban, wears a suit and enters politics, and sets his eyes on the top [office]. It’s not for no reason that he’s this close to politics!”

Cumhuriyet columnist Mustafa Balbay on Wednesday quoted a source from the Religious Affairs Directorate as saying that Erdoğan wants Erbaş’ opinion on every matter, every step he takes, and that as a result, the directorate has been becoming more and more powerful.

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