Turkey: Could a Caliphate Make a Comeback?

The foreign policy of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been described by some as "neo-Ottoman." And now, after a recent shakeup in the state body responsible for overseeing Islam nationally, some experts are wondering whether the AKP is mulling plans to resurrect the Ottoman-era institution of the Caliphate.

Speculation mounted following the mid-November resignation of the long-time chief of The Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, which is responsible for administering religious life in Turkey. In his acceptance speech, the new head of the directorate, Mehmet Gormez, promised to "act on the principle of service to all the world's Muslims, all the oppressed nations of the globe, all Muslim minorities."

Turkey is no stranger to using Islam as an instrument of foreign policy. After the September 11 terrorism tragedy, Ankara went along with US-led efforts to brand it as a counterbalance to al Qaeda. September 11 also helped accelerate efforts by Turkey's most powerful Muslim group, the Fethullah Gulen Movement, to re-brand itself as a leader of interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

What made Mehmet Gormez's words unusual is that Diyanet - beyond its long-standing supervision of an estimated 4 million Turks living in Europe – had tended to steer well clear of any pretension to lead all the Muslim faithful.

When the founder of the Turkish Republic Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1923, he did so in part to end what, in a 1927 speech, he described as "the delusion of imagining ourselves the masters of the world."

The Diyanet was a key tool in molding a new version of Islam in Turkey, one that Ataturk felt should be rational, staunchly national, and infused with disdain for what Turkish modernizers saw as "primitive" Arab Islam.

Turkish conservatives never forgave Ataturk for his efforts to distance Turkey from the rest of the Islamic world, replacing the Arabic alphabet with the Latin, and insisting that religious services be held in Turkish, rather than the language of the Koran.

Those nostalgic for the Ottoman era, an age when the sultans of Topkapi Palace ruled the heartlands of the Muslim world for roughly five centuries, have long nourished the hope that Turkey might once again assert itself as the leader of the faithful. Unsurprisingly, Gormez's statement set a few conservative hearts fluttering.

"Islam is rising to its feet," author Mehmet Ali Bulut wrote in an article posted on the website of the conservative television channel Kanal 7. The early 20th century Islamist thinker "Bediuzzaman [Said-i Nursi] said that 'the day will come when this nation will be praised above other Muslim nations' ... Mr. Gormez's speech showed how near that bright future is."

A columnist for the pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak, Akif Emre agreed that the tone of Gormez's speech was "reminiscent of a post-modern Caliphate mission."

But Emre was much less convinced than Bulut -- who contended that Ataturk never officially abolished the Caliphate -- that Turkey was on the verge of turning back the clock. "Both in its structure and its function, Diyanet is an obstacle to the creation of a religious understanding independent of the state, never mind taking the place of the Caliphate," he said.

His view of the Diyanet as an affront to freedom of religion is common among Turkish Islamists and western liberals.

Following Mehmet Gormez's appointment, however, some Islamists appear willing to revise their view of Diyanet for the better. "His appointment is a symbolic expression of the fact that the old, rigid bureaucratic mentality of ‘religious affairs’ no longer has a place" in a country finally trying to resolve decades-long problems, said Ali Bulac, a prominent Islamist intellectual.

Most Islamists didn't think much of Ali Bardakoglu, the previous Diyanet head. A moderate who worked hard to promote women's rights, Bardakoglu raised government hackles by refusing to pronounce publicly on the headscarf issue. He also allegedly opposed plans to permit Kurdish sermons in Kurdish mosques.

Diyanet-watchers say Gormez, an ethnic Kurd, is equally moderate, and a staunch supporter of efforts to build bridges with Kurds and non-Sunni Muslims in Turkey. His open-mindedness is likely to make him an ideal partner of the government, said Istar Gozaydin, a secular-minded law and politics professor at Istanbul Technical University who has written a book about Diyanet. "The government has begun using religion more and more in foreign affairs as a sort of soft power, and it seems logical that it should want to use Diyanet as part of that," Gozaydin added.

A Kurdish Islamist intellectual, Serdar Yilmaz is dismissive of the notion that Turkey could assume an intellectual leadership position of the Muslim world. "Diyanet is never going to be Al-Azhar," he says, referring to the prominent Islamic university in Cairo. "But the further you are from the parochial, nationalist Islam [that] the state serves up in this country the better. Mehmet Gormez's distance from Turkey's official ideology is likely to endear him more in the Middle East."

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Turkey: Could a Caliphate Make a Comeback?

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