Imam Mehmet Deniz, a former preacher in Turkey’s western city of Balıkesir, took his own life after being removed from his position by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) over his lifestyle choices such as not adhering to traditional religious attire, the Gazete Duvar news website reported.
Deniz’s suicide has brought to light concerns surrounding discrimination within the Diyanet.
Sources close to Deniz revealed that he had faced immense pressure and harassment from the religious authority due to his unorthodox lifestyle choices, which included commuting on bicycles and motorcycles and not wearing the traditional religious attire, known as a cübbe.
In response, the Diyanet initiated an investigation, ultimately leading to Deniz’s dismissal from his role as a preacher. Deniz challenged the decision in court, and the Balıkesir Administrative Court ruled in his favor, ordering his reinstatement. However, the Diyanet chose not to comply with the court’s verdict, prompting Deniz to escalate the matter to the Constitutional Court.
As the case continued in the high court, Deniz left behind a poignant letter detailing the hardships he had endured. Authorities have since launched an investigation as a result of the letter, which has brought to the surface a troubling trend of alleged workplace bullying and marginalization within the institution.
Fellow colleagues of Deniz reported that his suicide has sent shockwaves through the employees of Turkey’s religious authority, revealing a deeper culture of discrimination, with numerous similar cases emerging involving employees perceived to not be pro-government.
Zeynep Deniz, the deceased imam’s widow, expressed grief and anger over her husband’s untimely death, holding the Diyanet, and in particular its leader Ali Erbaş, responsible for the tragedy. She questioned the organization’s decision-making process, demanding justice and accountability for her husband’s passing.
The Diyanet, the budget of which outstripped seven out of 17 Turkish ministries this year, is frequently criticized for being politicized under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, to the extent that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan compared the staff and imams of the directorate to “members of the army” in 2018.
The Turkish government has been accused of using the directorate as an instrument to silence dissent and cover up wrongdoing by incorporating political issues into religious sermons.