By Ozgur Korkmaz
28 May, 2015
Having increased the tone of “Muslim solidarity” in his speeches with 10 days to go until the general elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has finally come to the point of comparing Turkey’s top religious official to the pope, the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics.
Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, and its chair, Mehmet Görmez, have been in the middle of a political debate since an official car, which is estimated to have a value of 1 million Turkish Liras ($435,000), was bought for Görmez. Following a storm of reaction, however, he said he would return it.
Görmez became one of the few, if not the first, public officials in recent years to back down due to public pressure, and Erdoğan, whose motto has been not to let any of his men be sacrificed to public protests and anger, was openly unhappy.
“Mehmet Görmez is not only Turkey’s religious leader. He is an esteemed religious leader of this region and the Islamic world. One should look at the issue from this angle, but they [the opposition] cannot, since they have no business with the Diyanet or religion,” Erdoğan said late May 26 in a televised interview, when asked about the allocation of the car, and compared the directorate head to the pope.
“Why don’t [critics] look at the Vatican? In the Vatican, the religious leader has a private plane, private vehicles and armored vehicles,” Erdoğan said, expressing regret that Görmez had to fly on scheduled flights.
As a critic of the Diyanet and the huge share it gets from the state budget to serve only the majority of the believers in the country, let me say why I don’t look at the Vatican: It is ridiculous to compare the head of a state, who is not just a spiritual leader, to a civil servant in Turkey who has been appointed to the post by the prime minister. With billions of dollars in the Vatican’s bank accounts, the tiny state, which is under constant criticism for corruption by the way, the pope has the freedom to spend as he wishes to.
Görmez, as the head of the Diyanet, is not a spiritual leader; the post means nothing to the millions of Muslims in our region, maybe except in terms of the respect for his knowledge of religion.
Nowhere in Turkish laws, according to which the Diyanet and its head should work, does it say that the directorate and its head represent all Muslims (not even just the Sunnis).
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has allocated 5.7 billion Turkish Liras ($2.6 billion) to the Diyanet in the 2015 budget and all that money will be spent on Sunni Muslims, both in Turkey and abroad thanks to the mosques built by the Diyanet in other countries, with the latest being in Albania.
There used to be one man in these lands who claimed to be the spiritual leader of all Sunni Muslims of the world, the Ottoman sultans also used the title caliph, but that religious leadership failed to stop Arab nationalists from fighting against the caliph’s country in World War I. We also now have a self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Islamic scholars often, and proudly, say Islam is a religion between Allah and the believer, and there is no clergy or an institutionalized religious body such as the Catholic church.
If President Erdoğan is looking for real religious leaders in this country, he should look at Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of Eastern Orthodox churches and the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians. How about he at least officially recognize him as such, before trying to promote a civil servant of this country as the spiritual leader of the Muslim world?