Populistic religion at the mosque

Turkish nationalist and religious voices are joining forces

Photo by Taco van der Eb

Ömer Gürlesin was awarded his doctorate for his work on how the Turkish-Dutch community practises its Islamic religion, and he’s worried: “Salafist views are gaining ground.”

By Anoushka Kloosterman A visit to The Hague’s Mescidi Aksa Mosque in the company of Ömer Gürlesin, who recently obtained his doctoral degree, starts with a discussion: what kind of photograph do we want?
“It depends”, he whispers. “Which side of me do you want to see? My religious side, or my academic side?"

The mosque, lit by chandeliers, was full less than half an hour ago for Congregational Prayer. Now it is quiet, empty except for a handful of men and women who, kneeling to Mecca, pray silently. You could hear a pin drop, if the floor were not covered in a thick carpet. Due to the surroundings, we decide on a picture with a religious flavour, but I promise that Gürlesin can reveal his academic side in the interview

And he can explain why this distinction is important. His devout side - an imam’s son who a theological education - started to conflict with his academic side when he wrote his dissertation.

“Nowadays, if I’m asked to speak at the mosque, I say no”, he says later, at a Turkish café round the corner. “But I wouldn’t have done ten years ago. My academic attitude is not consistent with my theological views; it now dominates, although the theological part of me is fighting back. It’s difficult to combine these two aspects of myself. After all, my faith is important too, and I don’t want to lose it, because otherwise I couldn’t I teach anyone about my ideas, do you see?”

Usually, a researcher’s religion is a private matter, not relevant to a dissertation. In Gürlesin’s case, his religious background played a major part, alongside his academic interests, in his research into the Turkish Muslim community in the Netherlands.

Gürlesin grew up in Turkey but when his father was sent to the Netherlands to work as an imam, he went with him. A year later, he returned to Turkey, where he attended a strict cram school to learn the Koran by rote. “My father wanted me to be hafiz – someone who knows the Koran off by heart – but I was only little and needed my family.

“My father is a well-respected hafiz: an imam of imams and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I said: let me go to the Netherlands; I can learn from you. So, every day at three o’ clock, after school had finished, I would go home and study the Koran. But it didn’t work: after six months, I had only learnt sixty pages.

“When I arrived back in Turkey in 1996, I went to a professional school for imams. I could have gone into teaching afterwards, but I decided to become an academic.”

Gürlesin graduated from the Theological Faculty in Istanbul, returning to the Netherlands in 2007 to do a master’s course at Leiden.

“That’s when I realised that there was so much religious diversity in the Turkish community; however, that diversity has not often been studied with the right concepts. Much research attempts to understand Islamic faith by asking things like: how often do you pray or fast, that sort of thing. No one asks: How do you believe? Why do you pray? I’ve identified many different reasons and have tried to construct a scale to measure those aspects. I use the terms ‘elite’ and ‘popular religiosity’ to describe the different motivations and styles behind the same customs.”

Explained briefly, people with elite religiosity are more open to new information, question their faith more often and value intellectual rewards, such as seeing Allah in heaven. Popular religiosity centres more on certainty, following rituals and discovering the Koran’s material promises to good Muslims, such as a beautiful house or eternal life.

The questionnaires revealed that a majority followed popular ideas. “These are merely measuring tools”, he warns. “Society can never be categorised so neatly in real life. Most people I spoke to expressed both popular-religious and elite ideas, but the popular ideas are dominant due to a number of factors, such as education or socio-economic status. When that changes, people are more open to the elite ideas.”

Gürlesin explains that there are different ways of conducting qualitative research. “One method is to be a complete participant, so I would go to the mosque and prayers. But then I was also a participant as observer. As a Muslim, I could attend various activities organised by Islamic organisations, even though I wasn’t a member, to make observations and notes. I also taught children about the Koran and Islamic ethics; I would visit their families at home for a cup of tea. I’m regarded as hodja, as imam, due to my schooling. I’m very familiar with the Koran but my voice isn’t very good. ‘Gürselin’ means something like ‘to roar’. My father has a great voice. When he reads the Koran, people are inspired, including me. It touches your heart, like music.”

“Once or twice, I’ve been asked to lead Congregational Prayer in Leiden when there was no imam. In that community, I’m more hodja rather than an academic. When I try to tell people something from an academic perspective, many people think my analysis is boring. That’s another aspect of popular religiosity. They want to hear the emotional side of religion, to cry about, be motivated and moved by religious tales. I once joked – or perhaps it wasn’t a joke – that the mosque was my laboratory and they were my respondents. Most of them liked that.”

Gürlesin believes that popular religiosity is more susceptible to radical ideas. “I worry about it. Populistic religion is spreading, both in the Netherlands and Turkey. Salafist views are gaining ground and people are becoming more and more intolerant of other religions or other interpretations of Islam. Turkish organisations in the Netherlands are very strong and I think that the populism in Turkey is having an effect on them too.”
“Did you see the big Turkish flag outside the mosque just now?” In fact, the flag, just outside the entrance, covers a large part of the tea room’s wall. “That’s what it’s like now. Turkish nationalist and religious voices are joining forces. My father is pleased with these developments but I’m not. I think that religion should be kept out of political and national issues. Everyone should be welcome; it should not exclude certain people because they interpret things differently.

“If I go to a mosque and I hear any nationalist or political preaching, I distance myself from it. I refuse to support nationalist interpretations of religious texts, which makes me feel as if I don’t really belong. I’m not a participant any more, I’m just an observer. Parts of my identity have changed because I wrote my dissertation. I was a very strict person when I started on it; I wanted to define things: this is good, this is bad, this is as the Koran says it should be and this isn’t. I started out prejudiced, because of my upbringing and my background. Now I sometimes argue with my father.

“I try to understand all Muslims and respect what they do. My father is strict and sometimes he’ll say: that is not Islamic; if you do that, you don’t belong to the Muslim community. That’s his view, that’s how he was raised. It’s normal for him, but not for me anymore. I don’t define whether something conforms to Islam or not anymore. I’m not the Ömer I was ten years ago.”

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