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Turkey’s religious authorities tighten their grip

Turkey’s top religious body has issued a new fatwa, saying that ‘every pious Muslim must only use their right hand to eat and drink’ – because, apparently, only demons are left-handed. While it may seem like that line has been lifted directly from a medieval text, when southpaws were routinely accused of consorting with the devil, it hasn’t. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as the Diyanet, has qualified its new ruling based on some traditional teachings including, it says, because ‘the Prophet Muhammed did not regard eating with the left hand as pleasant’. It also says the Prophet warned ‘demons eat and drink with their left hand’. It goes further, implying that those who happen to be born left-handed, should switch sides for their own good.

Yet, while this ruling might make you raise your eyebrow, this is just the latest example of the Diyanet using its influence to shape Turkey. Since 2010 it has been rising in prominence with a ballooning budget under Erdogan’s AK Party. The Diyanet is known for wading into political issues and backing up the country’s current government. Its mission includes enlightening ‘the public about their religion’ – though many of its rulings seem to be less than in tune with modern society.

In January, the country’s main opposition party called for an inquiry after the Diyanet said that, under Islamic law, girls as young as nine could marry. The directorate later insisted it was only defining points of Islamic law, but that didn’t stop an outpouring of anger on social media from women’s groups. While the legal age of marriage is 18 in Turkey, the practice of underage weddings is widespread and this ‘definition’ essentially gave the practice, the nod of approval. Other fatwas issued by the body include a decree that a marriage would be considered null and void if a husband referred to his wife as ‘mother’ or ‘sister’, while a man dying his hair black was deemed ‘inappropriate’.

For years, the Diyanet’s influence has been growing. It now has more than 120,000 employees including imams, it operates a television station and produces fatwas on demand via a freephone telephone hotline. It provides Islamic guidance on everyday matters including whether or not using toilet paper and celebrating the western New Year is prohibited. The former is allowed; the latter isn’t. While all of this may seem trivial, there are some real concerns about the Diyanet and its tentacles which reach far into Turkish society and beyond the countries own borders.

A report in 2016 suggested the religious body had gathered intelligence via its imams from 38 countries, including the UK, on the activities of suspected followers of the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, the man Turkey accuses of being behind a failed coup that year. Essentially this body, that is supposed to offer advice about Islam, is also apparently spying on congregations. Some have even openly accused it of being a pliable state apparatus geared towards implementing the political ideology of the ruling AK Party, which deems journalists and doctors to be terrorists when they raise concerns over government and military actions.

Historically, the Diyanet had walked the line between safeguarding Turkey’s identity as both a secular and Muslim country, however, that no longer seems to be the case. As it moves closer to the current administration and shelters under its wings, it has shifted to a hard-line interpretation of Islam. Given that this body is responsible for the country’s religious education, including that of children, there are concerns this could lead to a new generation of more radicalised Turks. It may start off with something as outrageous and as odd as ‘only demons are left-handed’ but who can tell where it will end; and what that will mean for the future.


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