The Imam and the Pasha

The history of the Turkish military’s fascination with coups is older than the history of the Turkish Republic. Military uprisings in the Ottoman Empire began with the reign of Mehmed II commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet) in 1446, and continued until the collapse of the empire. A total of eleven sultans, including powerful leaders like Selim III. and Abdülhamit II., were toppled during this period.

The Ottoman bureaucracy was traditionally divided into three classes. Islamic teachers, legal scholars, and judges comprised the ilmiye class, palace bureaucrats comprised the kalemiye class, and the military comprised the seyfiye. The state rested on this tripod.

The sultanate was passed down from father to son, and this system’s biggest handicap was the possibility that an inadequate and incompetent crown prince could become sultan and head of state. Everyone admits to the existence of unfit sultans during the period of decline. In these situations, when the survival of the state was at stake, the ilmiye and the seyfiyewould generally work together in organizing coups to depose unfit sultans, and to elevate an individual whom they found to be competent to the throne. When there was a coup against the sultan, the putschists would first secure the approval of the highest Islamic authority, and then take action.

As a result of the active role that the religious class had in coups, newly appointed sultans would look upon this class with suspicion, and take precautions accordingly. For example, after Mahmut II. came to power as the result of a coup, he abolished the Janissary elite infantry unit as well as the Bektaşi religious order, and began a drive of secularization.

Abdülhamit II. implemented similar tactics. Having also come to power through a coup, he searched for ways to exact revenge from those who had put him on the throne. Professor Ismail Kara, an expert on Islamism, argues that because Abdülhamit saw the ilmiye class as being responsible for the coup, he left the Islamic religious schools to rot and instead prioritized Western-style secular educational institutions. Eventually, these measures became justifications for a religious edict calling for Abdülhamit’s deposition.

Of the actors in the July 15 Coup, two were military and three were religious: Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar and Intelligence Head Hakan Fidan had military backgrounds; Mehmet Görmez, Muaz el-Hatip and Adil Öksüz were each a man of the cloth. The most important factor that distinguished the July 15 Coup from other coups in the history of the Republic was the active role played by religious functionaries, especially the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Turkey experienced military coups in 1960, 1972, 1980, and 1997. With the exception of July 15, in recounting these coups no mention is made of religious functionaries either affecting or effecting them.

Due to the role of Islamic religious functionaries, the July 15 Coup resembles coups that took place in the Ottoman Empire. We still do not know whether there was a religious edict given beforehand to condone the coup. However, based on the rhetoric of the Ministry of Religious Affairs leading up to the coup, as well as statements made by religious functionaries close to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), there seems to have been at least some psychological preparation for such an uprising.

Mehmet Görmez, who was Minister of Religious Affairs at the time, states that on the evening of July 15, there was a meeting between Turkish intelligence and Moaz al-Khatib, Syrian opposition leader and former imam of Umayyad Mosque. The subject of the meeting was “Interpretations of the Quranic verses and hadiths that led 10 people from Bingöl [in Turkey] to join ISIS.” Yet, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has a report on ISIS that was prepared in 2015.

One of the institutions that was politicized to secure the continuity of the AKP regime was the Ministry of Religious Affairs (DIB). Administrative changes made in 2010 gave the DIB a new, different identity. The institution had previously focused on providing religious services to citizens of the Turkish Republic, but after the reorganization, it took on responsibilities across the world that extended beyond religious services. A new law passed in 2010 defines some duties of the High Authority of Religious Affairs as follows:


c) Studying and evaluating Islamic religious communities, socio-religious associations, and cultural-religious organizations within the country and abroad; conducting projects and organizing advisory and scholarly meetings and conferences on this topic.

ç) Tracking, evaluating, and reporting to the Ministry on developments pertaining to Islam, religious and scholarly activities, publications, and activities of a propagandistic nature within the country and abroad.

d) Deciding whether to allow the publication of print, audio, and visual materials submitted to the Ministry after examining the materials from a religious perspective.


The domestic dimension of the matter is proliferating the religion, sect, and interpretation that is approved by the government, and establishing control of communities, orders, and movements that fall outside of this school of thought. When control is not possible, the government should combat these dissenters. The events that followed have shown that this has, in large part, been realized. During election seasons almost all religious orders, sects, and movements came out in support of Erdoğan and the AKP.

Many of the international activities are rather problematic. For the DIB to track the religious interpretations of another country’s citizens, for it to make contact with these citizens and guide them, is not condoned by international law and falls under some definitions of spying. In fact, many religious functionaries in Europe have been subject to investigations of spying.

Legal changes made in 2018 also granted the DIB a judiciary role. Censorship duties that were previously given to “peace judiciary courts” were transferred directly to the DIB. The new arrangement is as follows:

“(Additional paragraph: 2/7/2018 – KHK/703/141 md.) After the examination that will be performed as per paragraph five, subparagraph h, connotations that are identified by the council as being contrary to the fundamental tenets of Islam, following the Ministry’s application to the proper authorities, will cease printing and publication, and those that have been disseminated will be gathered and destroyed.  If the publication was made on the Internet, following the application of the Ministry, authorities will block access pertaining to this publication. A copy of this decision will be sent to the Information and Communication Technologies Association to be dealt with as necessary…”

Although this arrangement may seem harmless, it has this danger: the DIB has the authority to prevent the publication of Quranic translations made by persons and institutions that the DIB does not agree with, even if the content is correct. This prevents the spread of interpretations that fall outside the official religion. It also quietly transfers an authority previously reserved for independent courts to the DIB.

According to a study published by MAK consulting firm in June 2017, 22% of Turkey’s population prays five times a day, and 26% goes to Friday prayer. An institution that appeals to only a quarter of the population has say over 80 million people. I will leave it to you to decide how tenable this might be.

Dealing in political affairs beyond religion has damaged the reputation of religious functionaries and their community, and has pushed people away from Islamic monotheism in favor of Deism. This trend has been documented by reports published by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.