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A Farewell To A Great Cleric

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] I hope I did not bring any bad luck to Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu, who resigned from Turkey’s top religious post the other day. For only three months ago, I had defined him as “the best opinion leader in contemporary Turkey.” I also noted: “The erudite theologian does not only represent an Islam with a smiling face. He also defends religious freedom for all.” That’s why I was surprised and sad to see him leave. The only good news about that is that his successor, Dr. Mehmet Görmez, is a similarly cultured and open-minded scholar. But why did Bardakoğlu leave his post at the Directorate of Religious Affairs after serving there since 2003, the earliest months of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government that appointed him? Opposing theories One plain answer was given by Bardakoğlu himself in his farewell speech. He said that he had actually wanted to leave the burdensome job about a year, and go back to his former life as an academic. It was in fact the government, he added, that kept him waiting until the structural reforms in his organization were accomplished. Yet others have different theories on the matter. And, as is the usual case in Turkey, opposing political camps have totally opposite narratives. The ultra-secularist papers argue, or at least imply, that Bardakoğlu disturbed the AKP by not giving full support to the effort to set the headscarf free in the public space. (He had said that the headscarf is an Islamic duty, but it is the job of the political authority to define its place in public.) The fact that he recently spoke positively about “the importance Atatürk gave” to his institution is also mentioned as a possible reason for his supposed dismissal. But Bardakoğlu recently had said things that made the ultra-secularists irritated as well. He argued, “Imams should be opinion leaders in society,” and suggested that it would be a good idea to spend at least half an hour a day to contemplate God. Since Turkey’s ultra-secularists believe that religion should have zero influence in public life, that it should not even be talked about, they found these statements disturbing and even dangerous. On the other hand, a counter-theory on Bardakoğlu’s leave is based on his supposed conservatism on two controversial issues: the “openings” of the AKP government on the Kurdish and Alevi issues. This theory holds that the top cleric was not very supportive of organizing mosque sermons in the Kurdish language, and defining Alevi cemevis as “places of worship.” The openly anti-Kemalist and ultra-liberal daily Taraf voiced that theory yesterday. “Now the Religious Affairs Directorate knows Kurdish,” the top headline read. The story explained that the new head of the organization, the former vice president Dr. Görmez, has been a “liberal” and a reformist figure, supporting the Alevi opening and the translation of the Quran into Kurdish. “He himself can speak Kurdish,” Taraf’s story added, and he was the architect of the religious programs on TRT 6, the Kurdish-language TV channel that the government launched three years ago. If you ask me what my theory is on this matter, then I would say I really have none. All these are speculations, and I have no idea whether they are right or wrong. I just can say that I know both Dr. Bardakoğlu and Dr. Görmez and have great respect for both. To give a sense on the latter, it is worth noting that he wrote his master’s thesis on the life and works of Musa Jarullah Bigiev, a prominent Tartar Muslim scholar of the early 20th century. Bigiev was a leading figure in the “jadidist” (reformist) movement in Islam, which argued for broader rights for women and more acceptance toward non-Muslims. Pious and idealistic Since 2006, Dr. Görmez has been the director of the “hadith project” that the Religious Affairs Directorate launched. This is a scholarly effort to create a new collection of hadiths (sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed) by excluding some controversial ones or putting them in their right context. Dr. Görmez had given me an example two years ago during a short interview. “There is a hadith saying that women should not travel alone,” he said. “But the prophet said this at a time when there were bandits in the desert and it was really dangerous to go out there alone, especially for women.” Muslims of today, he added, should see these reasons behind religious injunctions, rather than applying them literally. One strength of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate is that it is directed by well-educated theologians who can see such nuances. Neither Dr. Bardakoğlu nor Dr. Görmez are “imams” educated in traditional madrasas. They are rather academics educated in modern theology faculties. They speak not just Arabic but also English. They know not just classical Islam but also the modern world. Besides, I must say, they are both pious and idealistic believers, who want to help save Islam from negative images of blind traditionalism and political radicalism. That’s why I will miss Dr. Bardakoğlu, who has been really a great religious authority for Turkey. And that is also why I will expect even more from Dr. Görmez.
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