In Turkey, political Islam is getting in the way of rational health policy

Istiklal Street in Istanbul, one of the most visited avenues in Turkey, is almost deserted Thursday over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. (Tolga Bozoglu/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Istiklal Street in Istanbul, one of the most visited avenues in Turkey, is almost deserted Thursday over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. (Tolga Bozoglu/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Over the past two weeks, Turkey has been witnessing a lethal tug of war between reason and belief — one that shows us again how dangerous politicized religion can be.

Turkish health-care professionals and scientists, led by the Turkish Medical Association, have been advocating fact-based policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But they face a powerful opponent in the country’s religious establishment. The government’s enormously influential Directorate of Religious Affairs, an agency that is supposed to regulate the role of Islam, has become one of the key institutions in the fight against covid-19 — and not always for the better.

It was clear from early on that the biggest threat would come from outside Turkey’s borders — and especially from those making their Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca. When authorities in Saudi Arabia identified 100 coronavirus cases, they quickly moved to cancel visits to the central Kaaba shrine. Some 21,000 pilgrims from Turkey returned home by March 15.

Experts insisted that returning pilgrims should immediately be quarantined, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not want to annoy those religious people who mostly vote for the AKP.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs, the state institution in charge of managing the mosques, requested that returnees self-isolate at home for 14 days, without receiving any visitors.

The majority of people did not listen. Social media filled with photos of returning pilgrims making visits and accepting guests. Confronted with the public refusal to cooperate, the government suddenly decided to quarantine the last group of returnees. More than 6,400 returning pilgrims were placed in university dormitories; all the students who had lived there were evicted.

Some of the pilgrims, citing the unequal treatment, tried to escape quarantine. Some of them tried to force open the doors of their dormitories; another group that managed to get out was caught traveling to another city in a rented bus.

But it was too late. Thousands of people had spread across the country. Within a week, the number of cases surged from one to more than 1,000.

The second big mistake was made at Friday prayers, which draw around 18 million people each week. Friday prayers have been canceled in many Islamic countries. Iran pulled back on February 27; on March 13, Kuwait put out the message that people should pray in their homes. In Turkey, the Directorate of Religious Affairs made a similar announcement — but only in the form of a suggestion. Bars, night clubs, libraries and museums were closed, but mosques remained open — and they were crowded with believers. On March 16, the government announced that communal Friday prayers were being suspended.

But it was too late again. The death announcements began on March 17. Within one week, Turkey had surpassed all other countries in the rate of increase of cases.

Erdogan stayed inside his presidential palace for a full week following the first announced case. On March 18, he finally emerged to host a meeting on “Coordinating the Fight against the Coronavirus.” Officials from the Directorate of Religious Affairs participated, but there was no one there from the Turkish Medical Association. As he left the four-hour conference, Erdogan chose to speak like a cleric rather than a president, citing traditional Islamic texts: “It is up to us to behave in accordance with the hadiths, to take precautions and leave judgment to Allah. I believe that we will make it through this period with patience and prayers.”

A week later, on March 25, when the number of deaths had risen to 59 and the number of cases had reached 2,433, Erdogan gave a televised address in which he assured the nation that the government would end the spread of the virus in two to three weeks. To experts who have argued that the illness will be transmitted even faster in the coming weeks because of the initial delayed response, he said simply: “Our Lord’s help will be on our side.”

On television, religious scholars rather than scientists dominated coverage of the coronavirus, explaining the role of “extramarital relations, adultery, homosexuality, and anal relations” in the spread of the virus. The coronavirus emergency is showing the country just how the secular foundations of the education system have been eroded.

Turkey’s economy was already in poor shape as the pandemic approached, and its health-care system is utterly unprepared for the challenge it faces. So it’s no wonder that the authorities have been unable to produce a serious, well-thought-out response. Religious officials have stepped into the gap — announcing, for example, that mosque loudspeakers would broadcast prayers every night.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs is a huge and powerful institution. In 2019, it received five times more funding from the budget than the intelligence community. Its staff outnumbers the number of doctors in the country; Turkey has more mosques than hospitals.

By obstructing science and misallocating vital resources, political Islam in Turkey has become a direct threat to the health of the nation. Turks now find themselves fighting the virus even as they confront the ignorance that leads to bad policy.

Can Dundar, the former editor in chief of the leading Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, is now living in exile.

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