İhsan Özkes (Photo: Today’s Zaman, Mustafa Kirazlı)
Republican People’s Party (CHP) İstanbul deputy and retired mufti İhsan Özkes received the highest amount of votes in the election of the party assembly members.
Özkes, who has worked in the Religious Affairs Directorate, talked about his views on the department, the politicization of religion, his candidacy in the mayoral elections in Üsküdar — which are still under review by the Constitutional Court — and claims that his party has changed its axis in this Today’s Zaman interview. Noting that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) “does not allow anybody who is not one of them to breathe,” Özkes explains that this has been the case for the last 12 years and says people are disappointed by the party’s exploitation of religion.
You were elected to the CHP assembly in 2010 for the first time. This time, you were re-elected with the highest number of votes. What reactions and responses have you received?
İhsan Özkes: In the 18th party convention, I received 665 votes as a retired mufti. This indicates that the CHP has no problem with religion. On the contrary, this election confirmed that the party is respectful of religion. Many imams [Islamic leaders] and conservative figures called to congratulate me. They appreciated the CHP’s approach. I feel proud on behalf of religious people, my party and myself.
Last week, you said on a TV program that your daughter’s application for an administrative position at Medeniyet University was rejected because she was the daughter of a CHP deputy. Can you comment on that?
It was a week before the 2011 elections. My daughter called me; she was sobbing. She told me she had applied to Medeniyet University and met with the rector, who even told her that she was the perfect candidate for the position they were trying to fill. But then they realized she was my daughter. When they realized she was İhsan Özkes’ daughter, they interrupted the job interview. At that moment, I just apologized to my daughter because she had to go through something like this because of me.
Why have not you talked about this before?
In fact, I spoke to some AK Party deputies who joined me in international meetings I participated as member of the Parliamentary Union of the OIC Member States. But I never talked about this in public because I knew that nothing would have changed. On that TV program, it just came to my mind while talking about the headscarf issue. I wanted to tell the audience that the AK Party was attempting to violate the rights of those who would not support them. If I were a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy, my daughter would not have found a job. As soon as they realized that she would not vote for them, the AK Party would not have hired a person who was wearing a headscarf. They do not allow anybody who is not one of them to breathe. You need to become a member of their party first and then you can apply for a job. This is not about whether or not you are religious. What matters is whether or not you are one of them. This has been the case for the last 12 years.
You filed a parliamentary question on whether the Religious Affairs Directorate had censored hadiths and verses [of the Quran] on bribery and corruption in regular sermons since Dec. 17. Has anybody responded to this question?
Everything has been redesigned in Turkey since Dec. 17. It is really sad that the directorate got involved in this. Dec. 17 was a Tuesday. The subject of the regular Friday sermon had been identified; the subject was bribery. The text of the sermon was published on the website of the İstanbul Office of the Mufti. But because of the operation, an automated SMS was sent to the imams; they were told to recite another sermon instead of the one on corruption. I raised this as a parliamentary question and as a matter of discussion in press statements. And then, in their response to my question at Parliament, they denied it. They do this all the time. They rely on denial as a solution. But this was a fact. I raised this issue after speaking with the imams. And then, when I personally met with Mehmet Görmez, the head of the directorate, he admitted to changing the subject of the sermon; he said they did so because of the coming of the election. The ministry denied what Görmez admitted. After Dec. 25, the directorate organized a meeting. At least 2,500 people were there to celebrate the completion of the Encyclopedia of Islam. At a time when corruption and bribery operations were being conducted, the directorate made the imams and clerics applaud President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at that meeting. This was a move to create the perception that the imams exonerated Erdoğan. Görmez should take off his robe and join politics as part of the AK Party.
Did the directorate interfere with the content of the sermons after these incidents?
Of course. A sermon was given in İstanbul on March 28, before the local elections on March 30. It was a sermon where the audience was asked not to let the “ship” be destroyed. I am a specialist on hadiths. In that hadith, where a reference was made to a ship, the Prophet Muhammad says: “Do not transgress the boundaries of Allah; if you do, you wreck the ship.” So, he makes an analogy between violators and those who wreck a ship. But the directorate ordered the recital of a sermon where the content of this hadith was distorted. It tried to give the message that even though corruption and bribery was committed, the audience should remain silent for the sake of stability.
So this is a clear distortion; how did they justify it?
I asked the same question to Mehmet Görmez. I asked, “Who drafted this sermon?” Interestingly, he wrote it. When I told him how he could do such thing, he said: “I had drafted the sermon before; my colleagues asked me whether we should use it. I told them we could.” But why did not he include the translation of the hadith? If he had done so, the people would have understood the correct message. He said, “Well, it’s in the past.” This cannot be acceptable to us. The AK Party will come and go, but God is the only eternal one. This is God’s religion. If you distort religion, you betray God. Görmez transgressed boundaries because he adapted God’s religion to the AK Party. This is just unacceptable.
How might such practices affect the approach to religion?
I became curious about those who have left Islam; I submitted a parliamentary question. They did not reply to this question. Because of practices the AK Party has carried out in the name of religion that are not reconcilable with religious precepts, and [because of] the directorate’s mistakes, people have distanced themselves from religion. There was even a media report after Dec. 17 in which a person said if this is religion, he would not want to be part of it. What the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front have done in the name of Islam is apparent. People are also disappointed by the AK Party’s exploitation of religion.
Mehmet Görmez said, “Of course stealing is bad; but stealing the spirituality of the people is worse.” Who do you think is the real thief?
This is a solicited fatwa. This statement indicates that religion is under the guardianship of the AK Party. It is not an ordinary person making this statement. Allah orders punishment for the thief. The Prophet Muhammad says, “I would punish the thief even if he/she is my daughter Fatima. The head of the Religious Affairs Directorate is making this statement. This is a very unfortunate statement that ignores the precepts, verses and hadiths of the religion. He says stealing the spirituality of the people is worse. Take a look at what spirituality is. Spirituality is all about the inner world of an individual. This includes religion, ethics, morality and conscience. Allah has a clear and indisputable order on stealing.
How do you interpret recent statements by Görmez, as the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate?
A comparison by such a prominent figure between a mild issue and a strong matter like stealing, which is regulated in detail in the Quran, is not acceptable. This is something that would displease Allah. Görmez is unable to see the realities and the truth. He makes some analogies by himself; but this is not consistent with the religion. He makes this analogy by distorting the facts. This is an attempt to present stealing as something less important. This is the actual stealing of people’s spirituality. Misleading people and justifying stealing, bribery and corruption is to steal the spirituality of the people. What the AK Party has been doing since the Dec. 17 and 25 operations is to steal the spirituality of the people. They stole and they interfered in spiritual matters. So who is the thief? These are attempts to exonerate the AK Party. The directorate’s head should not stay there for religious and ethical reasons. The prime minister strongly urges judges to take off their robes and participate in politics. Well, Görmez should do exactly the same. He should leave the post and join AK Party politics.
You published a book “Emevi Siyaseti: Dinin Saltanata Dönüştürülmesi” (Umayyad Politics: The Transformation of Religion into a Sultanate). What examples can you cite on the transformation of religion into a sultanate?
I have studied the Umayyads for a long time. I wish I had done this work in my early 20s. That way, I would have better understood life and politics and made better analyses of the Muslim world. These incidents that took place 1,400 years ago are consistent with what is happening now. Only slightly different versions are observed. In Islamic history, Muawiyah I built the Green Palace in Damascus; this was a first in the Muslim world. Abu Dharr al-Ghifari told him, “If you built this palace by using the monies of the people, you are a sinner; if you used your own money, you are extravagant.” The Quran cites extravagance as one of the characteristics of the pharaoh. Some scholars interpret this verse as a transgression of the boundaries of religion. However, the pharaoh was really extravagant. Wasting public money is extravagance. We see that the taxes paid by 77 million people were spent. But some of these 77 million people have no money to survive. It is not right to spend all this money on useless projects. The AK Party came to power relying on a religious discourse; now, by doing the same thing, they are trying to remain in office. And they are doing this mercilessly. They use religion as a means of domination and power. The Umayyads transformed politics into a religious sultanate. The AK Party administration is on the same track.
When the Republican People’s Party (CHP) welcomes religion, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is disturbed
You were the CHP’s mayoral candidate for Üsküdar in the local elections. It was a pretty close race. You were almost alone fighting against the AK Party.
Well, do not go there. We have applied to the Constitutional Court. We are waiting for the court ruling. The court did not rule in favor of the applicant in the Ankara case though. But Üsküdar was ours. If there is still a shred of legality in this country, I have some hope. What happened is obvious.
There was criticism suggesting that the CHP is moving toward right-wing politics after the nomination of Mansur Yavaş in the Ankara local elections and the nomination of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu as a presidential candidate. Now, these discussions have gained a stronger tone after you were elected in the party assembly. Is the CHP really moving away from its left-wing orientation?
There are certain stereotypes of the CHP in Turkey. The AK Party contributes to that. They argue that the CHP is a party that has nothing to do with religion. They also create the impression that if they do not win, then the CHP will come to power and adopt a brutal stance against religious people. They present themselves as the representative of religion. They want to sustain their role and power by exploiting religion.
So is it true that the CHP has no problem with religion?
What problem could the CHP have with religion? It was the CHP that created the Religious Affairs Directorate in the past. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk solicited the exegesis of the Quran. The CHP opened clerical schools and a faculty of theology in 1924. CHP members took the lead in the making of Kocatepe Mosque. The Religious Affairs Directorate was given the authority to organize a hajj during the CHP coalition government. We could give more examples.
All these examples refer to periods other than the single party period. Do you agree that the practices in the İnönü era were pretty unfortunate for the CHP? Transforming mosques into animal barns…
Turning mosques into barns is a total lie. I asked what mosque was turned into a barn; I asked for a document confirming this allegation. They did not reply. If they had a document proving this allegation, Erdoğan would have used it at political rallies. I give details of this allegation in my book “Geçmişten Günümüze Cami Yalanları” (Mosque Lies from the Past to the Present). When the Greeks occupied our lands, they converted some mosques into barns and destroyed some others. Atatürk reconverted these barns into mosques after the war of liberation. But he never used this as propaganda.
Why would it be wrong if the CHP embraced conservative people?
The CHP has nothing but respect for religious people. The CHP is not slipping away from its leftist orientation. The AK Party is disturbed whenever the CHP embraces the religious people. They just make frequent references to the past incidents. The AK Party gets angry, like a child whose toy has been taken away from him, when the CHP does so because it believes that they will reinforce their power by relying on religion and when anybody else enters that field, they feel their superiority will be challenged.
It is argued that there are diverse voices within the party due to a disagreement between the social democrats and neo-nationalists. Do you think that there is a schism within the party?
The AKP is experiencing disorder and chaos. Measures are taken to hide this. There is intraparty democracy in the CHP. You will not see a [AK Party] group deputy criticizing the AK Party chair. You will not see the AK Party chair holding the hand of his rival. The CHP is a party that tries to promote a humanistic style and values. People are free there. People are free to talk and express their views. Therefore, this is not a schism within the party; it shows that there is an intraparty democracy that the other parties should take as a model.
It is argued that it is the AK Party’s good fortune to have the CHP as the main opposition party. Will the CHP change its political style?
Today, the AK Party says the governors, rectors and prosecutors are their officers. They rely on pretty repressive measures and style to intimidate public officers and the people. They are just trying to destroy those who are not with them. They are trying to restrict the sphere of the opposition. For instance, they authorized Parliament TV to broadcast only during certain hours to avoid public inspection. Of course, as the CHP, we are not happy with being the opposition all the time. When we try to come to power, we are accused of changing our axis. We will come to power and stop the brutality of the AK Party.
There have been certain attempts since Dec. 17 to present the Hizmet movement as a terror organization. How would you comment on these attempts to have Hizmet seen as a threat or a terror organization?
The AK Party argues that there is a parallel state; they are the parallel state. The country is not aware of it. They are creating a new religion that justifies bribery and corruption. A deputy referred to the prime minister as a second prophet. Another deputy said touching him is a sacred prayer. Some mocked Quran verses. A minister said even the Prophet was proud but they were not. We can cite other examples. I mentioned these in my book “AKP’nin Gerçek Yüzü” (The True Face of the AKP). With these practices and this discourse, they give the impression that these are normal in Islam. However, they are not. They are harming the religion of Islam. For this reason, it is an attempt to create a parallel religion; the AK Party itself is the parallel state.
I am proud of being son of a construction worker
What is a regular day like for you?
It would not be an exaggeration if I say that I do not have a day for myself. I work hard; I get more tired than a construction worker. Do not get me wrong, I am not belittling construction workers. I am the son of a construction worker, myself; I am proud of myself and my father. I work pretty hard. Turkey has a lot of problems. Before being elected as a deputy, I prayed to Allah, saying that I would like to be a deputy if I were given the opportunity to serve Him and the people. He accepted my prayers; I spend my days working hard to serve Allah and the people. I do not take vacations. I live like an Anatolian man. I am an ordinary man. I still live in my old neighborhood. I am happy being a regular and ordinary servant of Allah.
Do you support a soccer team?
Well, they may say a mufti should not support a team; but I am a Fenerbahçe fan.
What sort of books do you read?
I like reading literature. I lived in Egypt for two years. I brought 500 kilograms of books back from Egypt. I know how much they weighed because I paid for it. I have a lot of Arabic books. Because I specialize in hadiths, I read hadith books a lot.