Hayrettin Karaman, an 84-year-old leading theologian and chief fatwa (religious edict) giver for the repressive Islamist regime in Turkey, has turned out to be a hired ideologue who offered his services in exchange for financial benefit, courtesy of his client, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In November 2018 Karaman was elected vice president of the Qatar-based International Association of Muslim Scholars (IAMS), a Muslim Brotherhood outfit that was listed as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations. The IAMS had been administrated by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, also listed as a terrorist, who is the supreme ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi is an ardent supporter of Erdoğan, and he describes him as the leader of all Muslims.
A Nordic Monitor investigation identified Karaman as a member of a number of financial institutions that are run by the government. For example, he was listed as the chief of the advisory board at the state-owned Ziraat Katılım Bankası A.Ş., an Islamic banking arm of the Erdoğan government that is owned and operated by Ziraat Bank, the largest state bank in Turkey. The Islamic certificate that was issued for the bank on May 29, 2018 carried his signature as the chief fatwa giver.
Ziraat Katılım Bankası is the first Islamic state bank in Turkey, established in 2015, the same year the Erdoğan government unlawfully seized the largest privately run Islamic bank, Bank Asya, owned by investors who were seen as affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, a leading critic of the Erdoğan regime over its corrupt governance.
Karaman also serves as head of the advisory committee for Ziraat Emeklilik, a pension fund for Ziraat Bank, and issued certificates for this subsidiary as well. Similarly, he was also named as advisor to Ziraat Portföy, an investment arm of the bank. He has in addition assumed positions at various privately funded Islamic banks. At Albaraka-Türk he served as president of the advisory council and now works as deputy president there. He has served as president of advisory boards at Türkiye Finans Participation Bank and Doğa Sigorta, an insurance company. He currently leads ISFA Akademi̇ Eği̇ti̇m ve Danişmanlik Ti̇caret Li̇mi̇ted Si̇rketi̇, a private firm that provides counseling services for banks and other institutions that are in compliance with Sharia law.
Nordic Monitor found out that on March 6, 2018, Karaman issued an opinion as an Islamic cleric authorizing participation banks to invest in and purchase defense and military materiel. In other words, he said he did not see any problem in dealing with arms and weapons from an Islamic perspective and gave a green light for Islamic banks to invest in this equipment. Karaman, an anti-Western cleric, drew criticism when he advocated the view that the Erdoğan government must acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) including nuclear weapons to deter the West and have them manufactured in Turkey.
He wrote in a column published on March 16, 2017, “We need to consider producing these [WMDs] weapons rather than purchasing without losing any time and with no regard to words [of caution] or hindrance from the West.” Karaman claimed the West interferes in the Islamic world in general and in Turkey in particular through its economic and military powers. He added that the West including the US gained wealth by exploiting the East and shedding blood and destroyed Eastern values.
His legacy was acknowledged and his work was rewarded by the government when Erdoğan named a religious imam-hatip high school for girls after him in 2017. The school, located Karaman’s hometown of Çorum, was inaugurated with Erdoğan in attendance as keynote speaker. IHL Schools, Erdogan’s alma mater, has been the main educational platform for the Islamist government to raise a new generation of political Islamists. The schools have over 1.2 million students nationwide. There is also a state-run dormitory for university students named after him in the same city.
Karaman is among those who promote Erdoğan as the leader of all Muslims, or caliph, and he has pushed the idea of absolute obedience to the Erdoğan regime for Muslims as many followers of the Turkish president have been led to believe that Erdoğan is the expected savior and is the only Muslim leader who can stand up to the West, crusaders and Israel. In his article in Yeni Şafak, a pro-Erdoğan Islamist newspaper, on December 25, 2015, Karaman argued that “the presidential system is like the Islamic caliphate system in which the people elect the president [caliph/ruler], then all pledge allegiance [biyat] to him.” He claimed that defying Erdoğan is against Islam and that the Muslim faith requires believers to cast their votes for him in elections.
Moreover, on the eve of a constitutional referendum in 2017 that changed Turkey’s system of governance from a parliamentary system to an imperial presidency, Karaman wrote that voting “yes,” meaning approval of the new system, was a religious obligation (farz) for all Muslims. In another article on the referendum, Karaman described “no” voters as people who have been alienated from their own values, civilization and culture. “Since Muslims grant the right to life in their own societies to Jews, Christians and members of other faiths, since they establish relations with them within a framework of justice and goodwill, they will surely grant the same right to parts of their society who are alienated from their own values, core civilization and culture.”
Karaman once again underlined religious credentials for the national election on June 24, 2018 in a column, saying that “Erdoğan is the most auspicious and dutiful servant who has worked to put the society in proper order morally and materially since 1950 with the blessing of Allah.”
The cleric’s view is in parallel with Erdogan’s views that were expressed in the 1990s. He said democracy is not an end in and of itself but a means to an end. In an October 2015 article Karaman suggested a model of Islamic democracy for Turkey arguing that “a system that does not rely on revelation cannot compromise or get along with Islam.” In his article titled “Enemies of unity and peace” in September 2015, he voiced his opposition to political parties and criticized Western democracy. “[Political] parties are institutions that have become a nuisance for us due to the application of a Western-style democracy.” He criticized opposition parties for having criticized Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for whatever steps it has taken to deal with the Kurdish issue. He said, “In this sense and in reality, what are [political] parties if not a nuisance.”
He claimed, after noting that divergences are also permitted among people to a certain extent in an Islamic democracy, that diverging opinions in such a system would not lead to perpetual conflict as is the case in Western-style democracies. “When a person and his cadre come to power [in an Islamic system], the power belongs to the entire community [of Muslims], [and] the community acts as a [single] whole without prejudice to the right of criticism and supervision,” he wrote.
The radical cleric also endorsed torture and ill-treatment in Turkey in an article he wrote on February 2, 2017 in which he said that “no punishment can be rendered to soldiers who committed lesser crimes while they are fighting.” He was referring wide-scale and credible allegations of torture, abuse and ill-treatment in detention centers and prisons following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The column coincided with reports of international watchdogs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch along with United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture that confirmed the abuse and torture.
He is an outspoken advocate of the mass persecution in Turkey under the Erdoğan regime which resulted in the dismissal of close to 150,000 government employees without any effective judicial or administrative probes. The Gülen movement, led by the US-based liberal Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, has borne the brunt of the massive crackdown by Erdoğan government that jailed some 70,000 innocent people including over 10,000 women and close to 1,000 babies within the last two years alone. Karaman wrote a number of columns that claimed Gülen followers had betrayed the authorities and therefore the abusive treatment inflicted on them by the government is justice itself and not persecution.
Erdoğan banked on Karaman’s support to justify major corruption investigations in 2013 that incriminated him and his family members when investigators uncovered a network of kickback schemes that were traced to Erdoğan’s office. He wrote an article in December 2014, on the first anniversary of the corruption operations that led to the resignation of four ministers, that corruption is not stealing and warned religious people to be cautious because they will be held responsible in the afterlife for every word spoken.
Similarly, when the Erdoğan government found itself in hot water due to economic and financial difficulties in 2016, Karaman urged citizens to convert foreign currency and gold kept at home into Turkish lira. He called on believers to carry out the government’s demands for the reason that during times of economic crisis, putting aside money is religiously unacceptable and that Muslims ought to be helping their government.
Perhaps the most provocative statement he made as a cleric was when he was perceived as approving of extrajudicial killings that amounted to eliminating Erdoğan’s political rivals. Borrowing from Article 26 of the Mecelle, a famous codification of Islamic law written in the 19th century by Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, which stated that “damage to a component is tolerated in order to ward off damage to the whole” during Ottoman times, Karaman wrote a in column on December 19, 2013 that “… damage to an individual, region or group is tolerated to avoid damage to the public or ummah. I remind those in politics with common sense and a good heart of this basic rule, and [urge them] to remember deceased martyr Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu with prayers as an example.”
This was quite a shocking article in light of the death of Yazıcıoğlu, a leading nationalist opposition figure who was killed in a controversial helicopter crash in 2009. The widely believed claim has it that this prominent politician, the leader of the Grand Unity Party (BBP), was killed as part of a clandestine operation by elements nested in the Turkish security establishment and approved by Erdoğan himself. He had to testify as a suspect to the Malatya Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. Research by the State Audit Institution (DDK) conducted in 2013 found evidence that Yazıcıoğlu could have been the victim of an assassination. The BBP administration assessed Karaman’s article as an indication of the scholar’s knowledge about the incident and applied to the prosecution to refer to his testimony. Karaman rejected accusations of his having known about what happened to the late politician and claimed that the accident was an act of sabotage.
Karaman recently attracted attention for his sexist view of veiled women who smoke. “When I see a woman with a headscarf smoking in public, this is my impression: It is as if she is saying to those who are different: ‘Don’t mind my headscarf, don’t give up on me, I have a lot more to share with you’,” wrote Karaman. When women’s organizations including conservative outlets reacted adversely to his remarks, Karaman had to write a new piece that explained his view and also apologized.