Head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Mehmet Görmez, said in an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah that Turkey demands the Vatican show the same sensitivity they show for anti-Semitism toward Islamophobia
While the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which claims to be a caliphate, escalates sectarian violence in the Middle East and causes more unrest in the Islamic world, with their acts leading to the synonymous use of Islam and terrorism. Daily Sabah spoke to Mehmet Görmez, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, about the cause and effect of radical terrorism in the Middle East, issues faced by the Islamic world, religious diplomacy regarding Turkey's proactive foreign affairs policy and Islamophobia.
In a statement, you demanded that the Vatican be more active in the fight against Islamophobia. What kind of cooperation with the Vatican do you foresee? What are your critiques? Could you please clarify on this topic?
We are demanding from the Vatican to show one-tenth of the sensitivity that they show to anti-Semitism. I am aware of the reasons originating from Muslims, and I always talk about it. However, the existence of ISIS does not justify attacks against 30 to 40 mosques annually in Germany. Boko Haram's existence in Nigeria does not justify hate crimes against the citizens of the country in the U.S. The occurrence of 9/11 does not justify the disputes against Islam's legitimacy and security concerns. These cannot justify discriminatory acts toward Muslims such as the alienation of Islam by disregarding laws and rights. Institutions such as the Vatican should consider these situations as we do when there is a wrongdoing against a Christian. We held meetings three years ago in Istanbul to show that Christians living in Iraq and Syria are a part of Islamic civilization. We were among the first to condemn the massacres of Yazidis.
There are many unfortunate events in Europe due to what is happening in the Islamic world. Islam's existence in Germany, France and the Netherlands has become a security issue. Internal affairs, law enforcement and intelligence departments are taking interest in this. While all of this is happening, an inter-religion football tournament organized by the Vatican seems insufficient. I have watched the tournament and made my statement due to my belief that a religious institution should start more serious initiatives.
The pope is going to visit Turkey on Nov. 30. If he includes our directorate in his visit, I would like to share my views with him as well. Some of the other Islamic institutions are insufficient in preventing the wrongdoings against non-Muslims in Muslim regions. However, I expect from Western religious institutions to show one-tenth of the sensitivity they are showing against anti-Semitism to Islamophobia. This has become more than a phobia, transforming into hatred – a grudge that has led to marginalization. For this reason, I am asserting that the Vatican should consider this situation more seriously.
How do you evaluate the Directorate of Religious Affairs' attachment directly to the Prime Ministry?
Institutions such as this that serve the people are valued by society itself. The recent regulation was done according to its position in the eyes of Turkey and the international community. It is important in showing that the government has given significance to the institution and is also important in highlighting the institution's autonomy. In my humble opinion, the Directorate of Religious Affairs should become an institution that is more autonomous but still constitutional, outside the boundaries of politics. Its historical relation with the General Directorate for Foundations should be also reassessed. The most important thing, however, is the internalization of our services by society.
There are critiques regarding the institution's attachment to political institutions. How do you evaluate this subject in regard to other examples around the world?
While Turkey's negotiation with the EU regarding jurisdiction and the basic rights chapter, our directorate was called to the hearings and I attended as vice president at the time. Everyone was asking me how we were explaining the existence of many religious officials who were funded by the state in a secular country. I asked them the same question giving the example of Belgium paying for religious officials and Denmark having a funded Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs. With many examples, such as Queen Elizabeth II being the head of the Church of England and Germany with approximately 1 million religious officials and taxes for the church, I explained that every country has its regulations regarding their conditions. There are different institutional structures in a secular country regarding the people's relation with religion. The important thing is religious services should be easily accessible by the people. In Turkey, we have channeled this according to our conjuncture. There is not any opposition to our current situation; on the contrary, the social bases of every political circle are enjoying our services. Both the directorate's national and international activities make the need for more autonomy inevitable. We have to make our organizations more dynamic regarding future services. This should not be seen as a political preference, but as a prerequisite for a more quality service. The instability in the relations between religion and society indicates that the relationship between religion and the state are yet to be stabilized in the Islamic world.
How do you evaluate the term "religious diplomacy?" Will the directorate have a mission as a complementary part of Turkish foreign policy?
The ultimate aim of religions is sincerity and morality. Diplomacy is more of a term of political sciences and international relations, therefore, with its non-religious implications, I see the usage of religion and diplomacy together a bit problematic. However, there is a reality in which religion is on the rise and religious discussions are at large, resulting in a unique diplomacy among different religious institutions. While I don't approve the usage of this term as an instrument of politics, I do approve of it as a means to provide harmony and stability among different religious institutions around the world. Politics and diplomacy tend to use religion and religious institutions as an instrument for "soft power." However, this is against the spirit of Islam and its basis.
On the other hand, we see that the directorate has organizations in over 200 points. This organization is a result of religious needs and demands, not an attempt at religious diplomacy or soft power. As an example, with our citizens' migration to Europe, there was a demand for religious services. We are answering the demand of our 5 million workers in Europe with religious services today. There were also demands for directorate services in the Balkans and Turkic republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, which we have answered. We have answered the demands of African Muslims by organizing a religious leaders' summit in 2006. We will answer the demands of South American Muslims next February by organizing a summit. Muslim scholars took the initiative to prevent conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis during Ramadan by calling for peace, moderation and common sense.
The directorate has started six initiatives, all of which are not directly demanded for by politics. However, a need for religious services occurred in the way politics paved. Some took notification of the directorate after being acquainted with Turkey and demanded religious services and education along with humanitarian aid. To conclude, I can say that it contributes to relations between countries. Regarding this, it is possible to claim there is religious diplomacy; however it should not be coined as a political term, but a term of its own field.
Also, there are many global issues that are non-political. Natural disasters, famine, and refugee problems make intra-religious and inter-religious relations a must. It is inevitable to establish religious sensitivity and consciousness to overcome these and other global moral issues. In this context, religious institutions are important in producing solutions and establishing dialogue.
In recent weeks you have said that Islam is having one of its most challenging eras in its history. Could you please clarify this statement?
Islam, throughout its history, has had three challenging eras. In my opinion, this is the fourth most difficult one. The first one was the process that started after the murder of Caliph Uthman, the second one was the Mongol invasions that resulted in a decline in culture and political fragmentation and the third one was the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
I define the fourth era as starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a period of increasing hatred and alienation against Islam becoming widespread because of 9/11 and Islam being represented by extremists instead of the mainstream, which has built many civilizations. It seems like an unknown force is aiming to turn any Islamic existence in a country into a security concern and Muslims are racing to become a tool for this aim. When we look at Boko Haram and ISIS we see that they are relying on invasion and oppression instead of religion. These terrorist organizations are a result of ignorance and a merger of domestic and external elements. It is not possible to associate these terrorists who massacre people with other beliefs, promote war and violence, bomb the tombs of prophets and have no set of morality and rules with Islam in any way. However, we should investigate with what kind of religious understanding they are motivated and the reasons behind it.
It is wanted that Islam be represented by the extreme instead of the mainstream. This may result in fear and hatred of Islam in the following generations. These indications clearly show that Islam is having one of its most challenging eras.
The Islamic world has overcome these three eras. As an academic, how do you think this era will be overcome?
While the costs and casualties were more, I think that Muslims have diagnosed the issues of the three eras very well. Therefore, I think we possess the power to convert this situation back to a better one. These are incidents, as the contributions of our religion to humanity are clear. We need to establish a better relation between life and religion and we also have to overcome the prioritization of sub-identities over religion, which will serve this cause. In the first era, these problems were overcome by science and knowledge. The second era was overcome with new discoveries and resulted in the founding of Seljuk and Ottoman Empires. The third one was overcome with many independent movements aiming for the betterment of Islam. The fourth will have a similar process. By reassessing education systems and scholars questioning their current situations I believe we will overcome it in a short period of time.
If everybody sees their mistakes and seeks the truth, different structures will not marginalize each other and will listen to each other. This will lead to unity. Otherwise, differences will lead to conflicts and conflicts will lead to violence and hatred. Our wish, effort and prayer is the dominance of compassion.
The sectarian conflicts are, unfortunately, still ongoing in our region. Have you taken any steps to prevent this? Could you please inform us?
First of all, these conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and various other places are not only sectarian conflicts. These are the struggles of some political and economic ideas hiding behind sects. These conflicts do not have any precedent and they do not show any similarity to the sectarian conflicts of history. We can see that they are causing conflicts by expressing their political power and interests over their religious identities. The usage of sectarian elements is due to the decline in the knowledge base. It can be seen that these conflicts take place in states that are deprived of authority. Most of these problems could actually be solved with strong political will. I regret to say that religious scholars have also lost their authority. This absence of authority was filled by people who do not possess knowledge.
Our directorate aims to develop the relation between life and religion by diagnosing the issues, reestablishing a correct knowledge base and reconsidering educational institutions. I do not how much we can achieve but we will give our best effort. When we share this idea with our brethren, they are also in accord. Before Ramadan I have made a 10 item statement in eight languages regarding sectarian conflicts. There were positive reactions coming from Bolivia, Uruguay, Congo, Iran, Iraq and all over the world. This gave us the courage to start the Islamic Scholars' initiative. We published a 24 item declaration within 15 days working together with 150 scholars from over 60 countries. We appointed two vice presidents – one for Sunni scholars and the other for Shiite scholars – established an office for secretary general and have become institutionalized. After the pilgrimage, meeting the president, prime minister, and minister of foreign affairs, visiting the conflict areas in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, we will reiterate our call for peace and moderation.
There are talks about the government working on a right ascension for the Alevi and in the following days this reform is expected to be on the agenda. As far as we know, the directorate is also working on this ascension. What are your comments on this subject?
First of all, Alevism, as a belief, is a part of our common civilization and has been throughout history. Excluding this belief from this region is not acceptable. Alevism cannot be shown as a minority nor be marginalized in Turkey. There was news during Ramadan about the homes of Alevis being marked by unknown assailants and I said that if need be, I will go there and protect them. The entire directorate is in accord with me.
There may be injustice and wrongdoings against them; however, it is not right to bring the past into the present. We should be concerned with building our future. The state or state institutions should not define Alevism, a theological discussion should not be started. This subject can be evaluated in the frame of human rights and freedoms. The directorate does not have the jurisdiction to give any theological status. Cemevis should be maintained for what they mean for Alevis.
We have always tried to remove any obstructions that prevent Alevis from practicing their beliefs and we will continue to do so. We have never shied away from this. The main dispute is about giving a status to a place, a power I don't possess. However, if there are any legal obstructions, these should be removed. This dispute should be ended by providing freedom to Alevi citizens to live and practice their beliefs and identities. This should be done regardless of their house of worship.