On a recent afternoon, Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer recites the Muslim call to prayer in the Turkish village of Pinarbasi – part of his regular religious duties.
Then the 42-year-old imam returns home to blast a few of his favourite heavy rock tunes: Iron Maiden’s “Fear of the dark”, Pink Floyd’s “Hey you” and Metallica’s “Wherever I may roam.” He sways his head rhythmically.
“If God allows,” Tuzer shouts above the thundering chords, “I would love to play music in front of hundreds of thousands of people like they did.”
While Tuzer has had a small taste of that ambition – his own band, FiRock, performed this summer in front of 1,000 people in his hometown of Kas, a tourist city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – the state does not appear impressed by his musical talent. Turkey’s government-funded religious affairs directorate, Diyanet, which oversees more than 80,000 Turkish mosques, has set up an inquiry into the imam’s actions.
The investigation will determine whether Tuzer’s choice of music and musical instruments is “un-Islamic”. Moreover, Tuzer, who is employed by the Turkish state, will have to justify the commercial nature of his activities.
“The problem is that he didn’t seek any permission from any of our officials, and he went ahead and recorded some video and audio clips. That’s why we are conducting an investigation,” Abdul Kadir Ozkan from Diyanet’s press office told Al Jazeera, adding he would not provide any further details until the probe concludes in the coming weeks.
FiRock’s first single, ” Mevlaya Gel (Come to God)”, from the band’s debut album, “Time of Change”, has had more than 30,000 hits on YouTube. It has also fuelled a fierce debate on traditional and social media: How could a man with such important religious responsibilities indulge in rock music?
“We are bringing people closer to God,” Tuzer says, sipping Turkish tea in his garden. His father and grandfather were also imams in Kas, and Tuzer took up his own religious responsibilities at the age of 19. “The image of Islam in the world is suffering. We need to remember that one of the main tenets of Islam is tolerance; it is to accept every human being as he or she is.”
If the state strips him of his right to play music, Tuzer says, he will fight on. “I will call my lawyer and we will take the case to court. I will prove there that what I am doing is right,” he says.
Beyond the Diyanet investigation, Tuzer has faced additional opposition online, including, he says, threats from people in Mardin, a conservative region of southeastern Turkey. They have invited him to sing there, warning of dire consequences should he accept.
“They want to tell me that I won’t survive if I did that,” Tuzer says. “Of course, it scared me.”
Andrew Finkel, an Istanbul-based analyst and author of the book “Turkey: what everyone needs to know”, said Tuzer has sparked controversy because his rock music presents a challenge to religious orthodoxy from within Islam itself.
“What you have in Turkey, which makes this controversial, is a state-funded religious establishment, the department for religious affairs, which is essentially an element of political control over religion,” Finkel said. “It’s an attempt by the state to define what is legitimate and not legitimate, what is orthodox and what is heterodox.”
Modern Turkish society is split between religious and secular forces, Finkel added – those who believe religion has a place in public life, and those who take the opposite stance.
For the past decade, Turkey has been governed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), a centre-right party that downplays its Islamist reputation and claims to be merely morally and socially conservative. But critics accuse Erdogan of imposing Muslim values on the population, describing his policies as a blow to the secular nation founded by Kemal Ataturk 90 years ago. Erdogan recently condemned the concept of unmarried male and female university students living together in private housing, prompting opposition parties to lash out, saying any such ban would amount to a constitutional violation.
In the current sociopolitical climate, Finkel said, the key issues for the future include whether Turkey will become a society that tolerates complexity and diversity, or one that attempts to impose conformity.
“My own optimistic feeling is that this is a big enough, diverse enough… unruly enough country [that it is] unlikely to abide by orthodoxy for very long,” he added.
Back in Pinarbasi, Tuzer admits this is not the first controversy he had faced over the years. He whips out his mobile phone and plays a Turkish television news clip from 1999, the year he got married. The clip shows Tuzer and his wife, Oana Mara, on their wedding day, when he became the first imam under Diyanet to marry outside of his faith (his wife was a Christian from Romania).
Mara, now 37 and well-integrated into Turkish society, says it was not easy in the beginning.
“It’s natural how people reacted. They expected us to marry within our own religions,” she says. “It was hard to convince my parents. They had been to Turkey previously and had seen some women who were covered. They thought that being married to an imam would mean that I would have to cover myself up too.” Yet Mara still does not wear a hijab, despite converting to Islam three years into their marriage of her own free will.
FiRock’s lead guitarist, 53-year-old Dogan Sakin, who sports tattoos all over his hands, refers to Tuzer as “a true leader” and says he would never have undertaken the project with anyone else. On his rooftop terrace in the centre of Kas, Sakin puffs on a cigarette.
“We human beings are the most beautiful thing that God created,” he muses, “and we should respect and love everyone alike… Other imams have a lot to learn from Ahmet.”