The 29 Mayis University in Istanbul's Umraniye district
The 29 Mayis University in Istanbul’s Umraniye district (World Watch Monitor)

In an aggressive move to position itself as the intellectual center of the Muslim world, Turkey has announced plans to open an Islamic university similar to Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the oldest and most respected center of Islamic learning.

Ankara’s announcement comes amid years of legal stonewalling for Turkey’s Christian minorities to build their own seminaries.

The Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs put forth plans in October to transform the private 29 Mayis University into an Islamic school. According to state officials, it will become an “example” to Al-Azhar.

“We want to found an international Islamic university in Istanbul, and this is an important project for humanity,” Turkey’s Department of Religious Affairs head Mehmet Gormez said in a public statement.

“Scholars graduated from universities like this will be a part of the solution, rather than the source of the problem,” said Gormez, in a political swipe at Egypt.

Turkey’s relations with Egypt have soured since the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power in July 2013. Ankara lost much prestige and money when the Egyptian counter-revolution swept away Mohammad Morsi, a protégé of Erdogan.

Opening its own Islamic university suggests that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s goal is to de-legitimize Egypt’s religious credentials by making them Turkey’s own, Michael Rubin, Middle East specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, told World Watch Monitor.

The move to build an Islamic seminary is also part of a trend in Turkey of viewing itself as the once and future spiritual leader of the Muslim world. When the current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was Foreign Minister, he spoke enthusiastically of “Neo-Ottomanism,” or Turkey regaining the power it held as the Ottoman Empire.

For six centuries, the Ottoman Empire controlled everything from Eastern Europe to the Arabian Peninsula, with the caliph claiming direct spiritual descent from the prophet Mohammad.

“The Turkish attempt to create competition with Al-Azhar does not aim at spreading the Islamic faith in the world, but rather underlines political goals,” Al-Azhar instructor Mohammad Shahat al-Jundi told Al-Monitor. “[Turkey] aims to attract Muslims to study in Turkey to outshine Al-Azhar. It wishes to restore its glorious past as the caliphate state.”

The closed Greek Orthodox Halki Theological School situated on Heybeli Island near Istanbul
The closed Greek Orthodox Halki Theological School (World Watch Monitor)

Dreams of new seminaries or even re-opening old ones have been impossible for Turkey’s Christians to realize over the decades. The state holds a tight monopoly on opening religious schools of higher education. Most notably, it forcibly closed down the Greek Orthodox Halki Theological Seminary in 1971. Requests by the Armenian Apostolic Church to open an institution to train its priests under the General Directorate of Higher Education have been ignored for seven years.

Turkey’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has held out the possibility of re-opening Halki Seminary for years. But Erdogan has made the re-opening contingent on two conditions: the Greek government not interfere with its Muslim citizens choosing their own mufti; and Turkey be allowed to renovate two Athens mosques from the Ottoman era.

Any Christian citizen among Turkey’s Armenian, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant minorities who wants to receive a seminary education must study abroad, or remotely. The high cost of education abroad as well as limited participation due to language restrictions are recurrent problems, according to a 2013 Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) report on religious freedom in Turkey.

Religious freedom expert Mine Yildirim of the NHC says there is no state initiative that will result in the opening of a seminary for any belief other than Islam. Turkey’s insistence on the principle of reciprocity continues to block the reopening of the prestigious Halki Seminary.

“Human rights cannot be subjected to the principal of reciprocity, and the right to establish seminaries for religious instruction is not only guaranteed under the Lausanne Treaty, but also the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” she told World Watch Monitor.

Turkish Protestants have few options for theological education. They either learn informally from a pastor in their church, attend Turkish-language theology seminars abroad, or get formal theological training in English in the West.

Only a handful of Turkey’s approximately 50 Protestant pastors have a formal seminary education, due to the language barrier and high costs, Umut Sahin, General Secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches, told World Watch Monitor.

An empty classroom at the closed Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary on Heybeli Island, Istanbul
An empty classroom at the closed Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary (World Watch Monitor)

Yildirim said she believes the situation will change only if religious or belief communities apply to the Constitutional Court of Turkey and the European Court of Human Rights to seek judicial remedies. No group has opened such a lawsuit, but she argues such an application would be successful.

No such restrictions exist for the Islamic university, even though it faces challenges of its own. Its location is in a crowded residential district on the city’s Asian side. The current university, 29 Mayis University, consists of only a few buildings and there is little room to grow.

Local Turkish analysts say there is no hope of it displacing Al-Azhar, due to its thousand-year pedigree as the global center of Muslim scholarship.

“If our government ever thinks of founding an institution meant to be competing Al-Azhar, it would be a sheer misadventure, a loss of time and energy,” Gencer Ozcan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told World Watch Monitor.

Other analysts say that the move is about Erdogan’s aggrandizement rather than the nation itself.

“It’s less that Turkey sees itself as the premier Muslim state, and more that President Erdogan sees himself as a new Sultan, if not Caliph,” said Rubin.

“Erdogan wants to make himself leader of the Islamic world. It’s not simply Neo-Ottomanism; it’s gone well past that.”

Turkey has been on a building binge of mosques since the Islamist AKP began its rule 12 years ago. Approximately 17,000 mosques have opened in the last decade, increasing the country’s total from 76,000 to 93,000. They are all funded by the government. All imams receive their salary from the state.

Critics of Turkey’s president say that his recent moves to reinforce the AKP’s political Islamist agenda have tarnished Erdogan’s image as a Muslim democratic reformer–that he is drawing mosque and state dangerously close together.

“Diplomats may have wanted to see Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party as just the Islamic equivalent of a Christian Democratic Party in Europe, but they would be wrong,” said Rubin. “Erdogan has said he wants to raise a religious generation and he means it. He is simply Khomeini in a suit, and we forget that at our peril.”