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Cablegate: Turkey: The Battle Over Control of Got Religious Affairs

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

281413Z Jul 03

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 ANKARA 004767


E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/27/2013

(U) Classified by Charge d'Affaires a.i. Robert S. Deutsch.

1. (C) Summary: Recent controversy over AK Parliament and
Government proposals to employ an additional 15 thousand
imams at Turkish mosques is reawakening an age-old
controversy over the role of religion in Turkish public life.
It also reveals that: 1) both strict secularists and
religious conservatives try to play the "Islam" card to their
advantage; and 2) that Islam in Turkey, far from being
monolithic or politically united, is more flexible -- and
deeply rooted in mainstream society -- than many secularists
will allow. End summary.

Mosque and State: Joined, not Separated

2. (C) Turkish elites and officials with at least a
simulacrum of westernization routinely assert to foreigners
that since Ataturk's day, secularism in Turkey has been
characterized by a strict institutional separation of "mosque
and State." In fact, the "Turkish" version of secularism is
diametrically the opposite of that in the United States; not
a deeply ingrained, constitutionally-protected habit, but
rather a constitutionally-enshrined and enforced State
ideology. While Turkish law explicitly denies
religiously-derived ideas and sentiments any place in the
public square, religious institutions are not only under
strict state control, but are in fact an integral part of the
Turkish State apparatus.

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3. (C) The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is,
with approximately 90 thousand employees, one of the largest
organs of the Turkish State. It is formally charged with
overseeing mosque construction/supervision, the hiring of
religious "officials" (imams, etc), and dispensing all manner
of religious advice. Such functions are secondary to the
Diyanet's main purpose: to ensure, as it has since the early
days of the Republic, that "Islamic" ideas -- and independent
religious institutions -- pose no threat to the secularist
revolution of Ataturk.

-- Consequently, the Diyanet is to its detractors --
including Islamists, centrist conservatives, and liberals
alike -- the generator of a "Kemalist Islam" that all too
often has little to do with the variegated strains of the
faith practiced throughout Anatolia and in other, less elite,
corners of Istanbul and Republican Ankara. It is even
criticized by Turkey's sizable Alevi (heterodox Shia
minority, which while strongly supporting the secular State
has long been concerned that the Diyanet promotes the
dominance of Turkey's Sunni majority community).

-- Even as they are castigated from below, Diyanet contacts
over the years have expressed to us their own frustration
with what they perceive to be the Turkish Establishment's
poor grasp of Islam and Islamic realities -- and thus the
Establishment's inability to fully co-opt Islamic sentiment
and subordinate it to the State. In 1997 -- the year of the
military's "post-modern" coup d'etat against the then
Islamist Refah-led government -- the Diyanet won approval to
centralize the Friday sermon to ensure content-control,
fearful of what it has long believed are the numerous closet
"reactionary" imams on the its own payroll.

The Controversy

4. (C) Recent press coverage has once again brought the issue of Islam, and the Diyanet's role, to the public eye. Various reports indicate that several AK Members of Parliament
proposed that the Diyanet hire an additional 15 thousand
imams to fill vacancies at mosques throughout Turkey. The
proposal won the support of State Minister Mehmet Aydin, who
oversees the Diyanet. However, it was quickly shelved by
P.M. Erdogan in the face of accusations in the press and by
the opposition CHP that AK was preparing to: 1) "infiltrate"
the religious bureaucracy with Islamists and 2) take on an
untenable financial burden by hiring more civil servants. It
was also criticized by more sympathetic pro-Islam activists
like Yilmaz Ensaroglu of the Mazlum-Der human rights
association, who asserted to us recently that the State
should have no role in overseeing religious matters

5. (C) While the press coverage has died down in the crush of
news from Iraq and elsewhere, the Diyanet controversy
illustrates the complexity of interests brought to bear on
religious issues in Turkey.

The Diyanet View

6. (C) Yusuf Kalkan, a senior Diyanet official whose tenure
pre-dates the arrival of the AK Government, received us at
his office in the plush new Diyanet building, built by the
Ecevit coalition government that preceded AK. He explained
to us recently that: 1) Turkey has not hired a new Imam since
1991 (the Ozal Government in 1981 decreed that 2,000 imam
slots would be provided to the Diyanet every year until
1990); 2) that the Diyanet already has enough people to staff
the mosques -- i.e. it will not have to look outside the
Directorate -- but does not have the funds to pay them;
3) that said, the timing of the motion was "inappropriate."
Kalkan emphasized, however, that without Diyanet-sponsored
imams, there is the danger that many of the mosques will
become havens for the nominally illegal tarikats -- the sufi
orders, such as the Naksibendi, that have exerted strong
influence over conservative (particularly Kurdish) Anatolians
-- and even terrorist groups like the Hizbullah.

The Gulen view

7. (C) Islamic activists have noted to us a steady warming of
relations between AK and its followers and those of Fethullah
Gulen, who leads a large and wealthy offshoot of the mystical
Nurcu movement. This new and unprecedented cooperation
between two movements traditionally at odds dovetails at the
Diyanet and other elements of the bureaucracy, where AK's
influence over the appointment process and Gulen's centrist
contacts and knowledge of the system provide the basis for
mutually beneficial ties.

-- While Gulen Nurcus have habitually feared efforts by AK's
predecessor parties to monopolize religion in Turkey, Gulen
representatives tell us they are able to work quite well with
the non-dogmatic Erdogan, Deputy P.M./F.M. Gul, and other AK stalwarts (Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc's late son was a
Gulen disciple). State Minister Aydin is also an admirer,
though independent, of Gulen and his movement. An advisor to a senior AK M.P. told us that Ahmet Davutoglu at the Prime
Ministry is also a Nurcu (though it is unclear whether he is
in Gulen's group).

-- Gulen has traditionally emphasized working with and
through rather than against the Turkish State apparatus.
Gulen stands accused by Judiciary prosecutors and others in
the Establishment of militant tendencies and as a threat to
the State. Nevertheless, Gulen and his group have long been
a pillar of centrist politics, and have long benefited from
close ties to certain elements of the bureaucracy -- which
makes Gulen useful to AK. Gulen includes among his key
patrons former President Demirel and the secularist former
P.M. Ecevit. Indeed, according to the July 28 "Hurriyet"
daily, Ecevit praised Gulen's expansive network of schools --
thought by the Establishment GOT at various times as either a
bulwark against or promoter of "reactionary" tendencies --
and noted that he is "from time to time" in contact with
Gulen through intermediaries. (Note: Pro-Gulen and other
sources tell us the contact is direct and regular. End note)
While Gulen Nurcus share with the Diyanet Kemalists a desire
to supersede the traditional tarikats and "modernize" Islam,
they seek to afford more official respect to Islamic values
-- anathema to the Establishment but a cardinal principle of
the center-right since Turkey began to liberalize political
activity in 1946.

The AK View

8. (C) AK and its predecessor parties have long looked
askance at the Diyanet, seeing it as an obstacle to religious
independence. There are signs however that the AK view has
changed since it came to power as a single-party government
exercising dominion over the Diyanet. Zahid Akman, a
theology Ph.D and member of the board of pro-AK Kanal 7 TV
(and the station's U.S. correspondent), related to us that he
was in fact a former student both of Aydin and Naksibendi
Shaykh Zahid Kotku, religious mentor to the late former
President Ozal, former P.M. Erbakan, and others. Aydin, he
said, is more of a political activist than Gulen, who tends
toward quietism and emphasis on Islam as a personal, moral
code. Aydin is of the view that there is also a corollary
obligation for Muslims to venture out into in the world and
into public life. Akman asserted that with Erdogan as P.M.
there is a growing sense that the Diyanet can be a key to
"reform" Islam in Turkey -- Akman emphasized stripping the
State of Kemalist influence over religion. "You cannot have
a CHP Islam," he said. Akman echoed comments from the
Diyanet's Kalkan that vacant mosques pose a real problem, and an opportunity to weed out the charlatans and miscreants.
Aydin's aim is to upgrade the quality of imams and other
religious officials, Akman added.

9. (C) Akman elaborated that the idea of mass hiring of imams
came not from Erdogan or Aydin, but as a proposal from the
floor of Parliament uncoordinated with the Cabinet. He
noted in this regard that the controversy reflects the larger
problems facing Erdogan: 1) lack of control over a party
group with whom the P.M. has had little direct, personal
contact since assuming office; and 2) a lack of strong cadre
of advisers.

Comment: A Call for Nuance

10. (C) The imam-hiring controversy reflects internal AK
dynamics: a lack of experience in government and, at a time
of budgetary shortfalls, an impulse toward ill-disciplined
populist gestures. These, together with AK's newfound
interest in re-directing rather than dismantling the apparat
on behalf of its constituents, leave the party open to
secularist charges that it has a "sinister" religious agenda.
Nonetheless, the difference between the AK Government and
the Establishment on this front highlights a basic gap in
Turkey between those who support an order linked to a rigid,
statist-oriented view of what Ataturk wanted for the Republic
of Turkey, and those who say they want a more open, EU
candidacy-linked, conservative Turkey, with greater
opportunity for Islamic influences, to prevail.

11. (C) Indeed, Establishment accusations against AK are
undercut by: 1) the complexity of Islam in Turkey; and 2) the
fact that an ostensibly "secular" Republic has had since its
inception its own "religious agenda," specifically the desire
to mold Islam to coincide with Kemalist political purposes --
a highly questionable theological enterprise. Indeed, while
both secularists and Islamists try to play the "Islam" card
to their advantage, it is clear that Islam, far from being a
monolithic militant spectral "threat," is more variegated,
flexible, and deeply rooted in mainstream society than many
secularists will allow. While as a political matter Islam
remains a challenging subject open to both quietist and
radical influences, the Establishment portrayal of Islam --
and the very nature and inspiration for an institution like
the Diyanet -- reflects above all an effort to maintain elite
dominance over the State and society. As such, the
Establishment view obscures the larger realities and
restricts the room for the compromise essential to political
development and social peace in Turkey.

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