In July 2020, Mehmet Boynukaln, professor of Islamic law at the University of Marmara, was appointed the senior imam of the Hagia Sophia Mosque.
Boynukaln, who comes from a family with decades of connections in politics, religious orders, and business, quickly came to public prominence. The first imam appointed to Turkey to take up a teaching post, he regularly uses three Twitter accounts in Turkish, English and Arabic.
This social media presence has at times drawn the wrath of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elite, while garnering significant and seemingly genuine support from the public, primarily the party’s conservative base.
At the beginning of February, Boynukaln commented on the suggestion of President Recep Tayyip Erdoans for a new constitution. Assignment on social media with the hashtag Let Islam be in the constitution, Boynukaln wrote: In the constitutions of 1921 and 1924 the religion (of the state) was Islam, there was no secularism. The republic should go back to its factory settings. It was followed by several articles on the nature of the future constitution.
Boynukalns’ intervention increased the pressure from the AKP base for a new constitution that included Islamic values. When criticized, Boynukaln said it was his duty as a professor of Islamic law to speak out.
The first time AKP elites openly challenged Boynukaln was on March 7, the eve of International Women’s Day, when much public attention was on violence against women. women.
Social media post, Boynukaln said: Murder is murder. Gender doesn’t matter. Men, women, children, whatever the victim, our motto is for you that there is life in retributive justice.
The continued focus on femicide is a media propaganda slogan to turn women into enemies of men, he added. Boynukaln followed by try explaining what he meant was within the confines of Islamic law and retributive justice, arguing that a murderer should be sentenced to death.
Asked about the comments of Boynukalns, vice chairman of AKP group Zlem Rich says: I do not find this appropriate. At least on March 8, Women’s Day, he shouldn’t have tweeted this. Boynukalin should do his own job, she added.
Mehmet boynukaln (@M_Boynukalin) April 7, 2021
(Hagia Sophia’s Imam Boynukalin last tweet before stepping down called Turkish President Erdogan as Commander-in-Chief)
Conservative circles disagreed. They started a rigorous campaign in support of Boynukaln on multiple social media platforms. Some pro-AKP women journalists stood by Zengin, but that only made matters worse by enraging Boynukalns supporters. In the end, it was Zengin, rather than the Imam, who had to be silent.
The next big controversy came after Boynukaln intervened in the public debate on interest rates. Since 2013, Erdoan has repeatedly called for interest rates to be lowered and ultimately removed. Last month he sacked central bank governor Naci Abal for raising interest rates in an attempt to contain inflation and stabilize the value of the Turkish lira.
Repeating Erdoan verbatim after Abals was fired, Boynukaln criticized interest rates, which are strictly prohibited in Islam, and instead informed its supporters and the wider Muslim community must be patient in the face of Turkey’s growing financial crisis.
Blent Turan, another AKP group vice president, posted a fiery response, accusing Boynukaln of undermining all those who had sacrificed themselves to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. There was no value in Boynukaln being on Twitter, he added.
The Turans’ remarks backfired on them as much as the Zengins. Thousands of people reacted angrily on social media: who was a politician to lecture an academic on Islamic laws?
A few days later, Turan took a more conciliatory tone, pointing out that he graduated from the Imam Hatip religious high school system. It’s okay to say that you are against interest rates and LGBTQ. But if you make it a matter of daily politics, you will pay the price, he said.
Looks like Turan was right. Thursday, Boynukaln ad that he was resigning his post at Hagia Sophia and going back to university. In the process, there was an outpouring Support for the imam on social networks and the continued criticism of AKP elites.
But why did Boynukalns’ words anger senior AKP politicians? His statements were not necessarily critical of the government or against Islamic standards.
There are three brief explanations. First and foremost, it’s not what Boynukaln said, but what he represents that makes the AKP angry. Boynukaln writes on political issues and that’s a red line for AKP politicians.
Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey (Religious) was established during the Turkish Republic’s first decade to control Islam. Imams who work for the mosques in Diyanet are considered civil servants and do not have the right to get involved in politics. It is the state that controls what imams can say in public, not the other way around. The AKP has taken advantage of this secular red line over the past two decades.
Second, all authoritarian regimes have a strong aversion to experts. Conservative commentatorsArgue that years of secular education have worked for those who oppose Boynukaln, and that the country should get used to imams who do not want to interpret Islam in accordance with politicians’ preferences. Much like other authoritarian regimes, Erdoan performs endurance tests on his own basis to see emerging trends.
The last explanation is a deep fear of the rise of the clerical class, known in Islam as the ulema. Although the AKP has supported the rise of religious values to dominate all aspects of life, they would still prefer to keep the Ulemas in the mosque.
The sharp public bickering between senior AKP politicians and Boynukaln and his supporters sent the party a warning sign. Openly challenging Boynukaln is not a battle they can win in the public eye.
Boynukaln gave the Conservatives, some of whom are influential members religious orders, an opportunity to show their anger towards the AKP. Religious orders have found significant freedoms and benefits under the AKP regime, why shouldn’t they now ask more of the political establishment? What is the role of an imam if not to speak about Islamic values and principles?
Here the problem becomes particularly thorny. The public interest in the mosques of Diyanet is descending while religious orders thrive as sheikhs can preach without inhibition. But the AKP does not seem interested in freeing Islam from the control of state institutions.
As the imam of the country’s most prestigious mosque, Boynukaln held up a mirror to the faces of AKP politicians they can no longer ignore. Political Islam can no longer be limited to mosques, it must be managed more diligently.
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