Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan astounded many people when he asserted that Islamic provisions “should be updated”, and that one “cannot implement [Islamic] provisions dating back 14 or 15 centuries”. Seeming to hold a very positive message, this statement can be saluted as an endorsement of Islamic reform.

After all, the initiative Erdogan took might actually foster critical debate around this subject and bring intellectual dynamism to Islamic circles. Indeed, shortly after Erdogan’s speech, the presidency’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, further expanded on the issue by asserting that Islamic principles must be changed in accordance with the changes in conditions, referring to an Ottoman legal norm that was adopted as a part of the Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century.

However, if one takes into consideration the context of the speech, its impact might be in stark contrast with what one would understand from a liberal re-interpretation of the Islamic faith. Without ever mentioning his name, Erdogan in fact targeted and chastised Nurettin Yildiz, a popular Islamic preacher who had been on the public agenda for his egregious sermons about the right of the husband to beat up the wife, and the hidden wisdom in marrying off 6-year old girls. Yildiz, any many other preachers, recently made the headlines with such comical and outrageous religious commentaries.

Thousands of seculars around the country vocally set forth their discontent with them, sharing their videos on social media and bashing these imams and self-declared scholars, which drew Erdogan’s attention. Instead of a candid endorsement of Islamic reform, Erdogan’s speech was a manoeuvre to appease the secular population and reassure them that the government does not endorse such interpretations of religion. Shortly after, a court case was opened against Yildiz, and he currently refrains from making public appearances.

The secularists seem to be happy with the recently started suppression of Islamic congregations. Earlier this year, the critical Islamist Furkan Foundation, lead by the charismatic preacher Alparslan Kuytul, has been targeted by the government too, leading to dozens of arrests and raids. Mr. Kuytul himself was arrested on the 9th of February on the charges of founding a criminal enterprise. Yeni Asya group, a branch of the larger Nur movement, is also one of the groups that felt the wrath of the new measures, with a number of its newspaper’s staff being arrested on terror charges.

Televangelist cult leader Adnan Oktar’s TV show has been targeted by the government-controlled Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) for its demonstration of erotic material on live TV — On a side note, RTÜK uses the outrage over Oktar’s TV show in order to broaden their regulations on TV and the internet, which will include regulation and censorship of Netflix in the near future. Needless to speak about the Gülen Movement (or ‘FETÖ — pro-Fethullah Terrorist Network, as named by the government) which has been progressively destroyed within the country’s borders with a massive purge after the infamous coup attempt of July 2016.

In short, all Islamist movements, from those who were declared to be terrorists by the government to those who show open support for it, are being co-opted one by one. In order to appease the secular base even more, the government started arresting religious figures who criticise or insult Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey.

Apart from appeasing the secularists, extreme and disturbing examples such as that of Yildiz and Oktar are being used and abused also as excuses to carry out overarching impositions that would affect not only people like Yildiz, but everyone. Indeed, according to renowned journalist Ruşen Çakır, “We are faced with the state’s attempt to impose [a particular] Islamic interpretation”. The suppression of religious freedom is not compatible with liberal, secular principles that Turkey and the wider Islamic world need, let alone being a good way to combat extremist ideas and bring about reform. Secularism, a genuine separation of state and religion, would mean leaving religious concerns all together to civil society, and not try to dominate or destroy it.

The secularists are content with the anti-congregation status quo much so that some of them denote it as the sole common ground between them and President Erdogan. Although the ongoing war against religious groups is viewed as a positive thing by a wast majority of the population, its larger implication of destroying the last bits of open and free debate on Islam might appease the secularists who are allergic to seeing imams with long beards and caps on TV and the internet, but it is in the end detrimental to a free society.

Indeed, Erdoğan recapitulated his wish for the Diyanet (directorate of religious affairs) to take a more active role in addressing the issue, reported Hürriyet. With the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924, the Diyanet was founded to keep the masses in check, and to make sure that religious congregations do not embolden the conservative masses against the secular state. Mosques were started to be built with taxpayers’ money and the sermons started to be read by government-appointed imams who preached a state-sponsored interpretation of the faith.

Ironically, the state compromised on secularism in order to protect the secular state from hypothetical anti-secular threats. Today, we observe a similar trend in the role of Diyanet. The state will once again replace independent congregations as the sole teacher of Islam.

Curious for More?

The state’s domination of religion does not make sense from an Islamic point of view, as there is no way to guarantee that the version that is officially endorsed is the ‘genuine’ essence of the faith, and it will make it impossible for alternative opinions to flourish and bring about an intellectually and morally vital civil society. Suppression of religion does not make sense from a secular or practical point of view either.

If the point is to limit, or if possible extirpate beliefs which are deemed to be radical, utopian social-engineering is not the way to go. John Stuart Mill’s arguments for freedom of speech were summarised by renowned Turkish academic Halil Berktay a few years ago: Firstly, open and free debate makes it easier to give up on erroneous convictions as people will have the means to learn about alternative opinions. Secondly, the fact that people will be forced to review and test their own opinions will make it harder for those convictions to turn into dogmas.

Exposure to different opinions is the best way to cure absolutist convictions. Banning them, is not. For this reason, secularism should be the guarantor of even the most absurd and preposterous religious beliefs and their expression, not a mechanism to destroy them. If the reactions to marginal examples such as Yildiz are to be abused to squelch religious freedom, other freedoms will follow, and the concept of “freedom of thought and faith” will only be null and void.

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