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Analysis

February 17, 2012

Summary: All Turkish politicians want to appear to be religious and secular at the same time. Is this not true of other political leaders in most democracies? Probably, but with one difference. The Turkish government, unlike those of other democracies, is involved in the business of religion. The religious versus secular divide has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. Soon after its establishment following WWI, the republic set out to implement a very strict secular policy to drive religion out of the political domain. This strict policy was pursued until mid-1940s, when republican leadership decided to move into competitive politics. With three consecutive electoral victories starting in 2002, the AKP Party, appearing to be more moderate than previous religiously oriented parties, has been winning over the institutions which the republican guard saw as the pillars for the defense of strict laicism pursued by the republic.

Uneasy Coexistence: Religion and Politics in Turkey


by lter Turan

One of the critical cleavages in Turkish politics that may puzzle outsiders is the intense and not yet resolved debate about the role of religion in public life and state involvement in implementing or preventing activities and behaviors of a religious nature. Different parties bring a variety of preferences to the debate, and sometimes contradictory postures may be offered even by the same individual. To cite a prominent example, in a recent visit to Egypt and Tunisia, Prime Minister Erdoan advised his hosts that they should adopt laicism, the secular control of political and social institutions, as a guiding principle in their new constitutions, adding that it was best for the state to keep an equal distance to all beliefs so that each citizen could live his/her religion fully. Just two weeks later, speaking at home, he said that his government intended to raise religiously devout generations. The ambivalence in Erdoans remarks are far from unusual. All Turkish politicians want to appear to be religious and secular at the same time. Is this not true of other political leaders in most democracies? Probably, but with one difference. The Turkish government, unlike those of other democracies, is involved in the business of

religion. Preacher training schools are a part of the national educational system, mosques are staffed by publicly paid imams, and primary and secondary schools offer compulsory religion courses from which students can be exempted only upon parental request on account of belonging to another religion. Religion is a constant concern of public policy and hence a source of deep political fissures. The Historical Legacy The religious versus secular divide has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. As in other societies with Muslim rulers and majority Muslim populations, societal life in the empire was conceptualized as an integrated whole in which the rulers were also responsible for meeting the religious needs of the ummah (the community of believers) and insuring that they observed its requirements. The people of book, (believers in other monotheistic religions) were allowed to practice their own faiths, believers in other versions of Islam than the Sunni-Hanefi rite were viewed as deviationists, and those who believed in the Shia interpretations as heretics.

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Analysis
The conceptualization of society as religious community did not stand in the way of adopting laws and practices that were not derived from the premises of religion, but communities still had to conform to them. The Sheikh-ulIslam was responsible for establishing such conformity, but since he was also an appointed servant of the sultan, his job was often reduced to legitimizing what the sultans government did. In any case, it was the sultan who held the title of caliph, the head of the (Sunni) Ummah. As military defeat in wars against the industrializing Western European powers became commonplace beginning in mid-18th century, the sultans government decided to modernize the military institution. Because continual defeat could not be averted, however, the modernization programs became more comprehensive, covering other institutions. The major instrument of change was education. Rather than reforming the existing educational system, the government established European-style modern schools to meet the needs of a modern army and administration. While the network of these new schools expanded, employment opportunities for the graduates of the traditional institutions disappeared. The medreses, failing to adjust to the new conditions, became the antithesis of the new schools and turned to religious obscurantism. The latter part of the 19th century is characterized by a struggle for power between the products of the new and the old educational institutions. Abdulhamit II, who ruled during the 1876-1909 interim, while being fully committed to further modernization, relied on the religious-traditionalist elements to check the desires of the modernists to limit his powers by coercing him into promulgating a constitution. In 1908, the modernist officers succeeded in forcing him to reintroduce a constitution that he had initially put forward in 1876 but suspended a few months later. When the religious-traditionalist elements took over the capital in 1909 and went on a rampage, killing military cadets and young officers, however, the army marched in from Salonica to assume control. The sultan was replaced by an elderly cousin who became a figurehead while rival militarybureaucratic cliques, sometimes calling themselves political parties, began to rule the country. The demise of the empire at the end of the First World War and the subsequent successful war of national liberation to reclaim some of the occupied territories to construct a Turkish nation-state brought with it a regime question. While some nationalist leaders wanted to restore the constitutional monarchy, the majority opted for a republic. The proclamation of the republic symbolized the victory of the radical modernizers over those who were more traditional. The radicals diagnosed the religious establishment as a major impediment to the modernization of Turkish society, further judging that failure to modernize rapidly accounted for the military failures.

The proclamation of the republic symbolized the victory of the radical modernizers over those who were more traditional.
Soon after its establishment, the republic set out to implement a very strict policy of laicization to drive religion out of the political domain. The Caliphate was abolished; the medreses were closed; the religious orders were banned; all laws were replaced by European-type laws applying uniformly to all citizens regardless of creed; the Latin alphabet took the place of the Arabic alphabet; and finally in 1928, the reference to Islam as official religion of the state was removed from the constitution. Polygamy was banned; women were rendered legally equal to men, and were now expected to wear modern dress and no longer cover their hair. What was done with the religious bureaucracy inherited from the empire? The Ministry of Sharia was abolished, but its bureaucrats were transferred to the newly created Directorate of Religious Affairs placed under the Prime Ministry. The directorate would offer religious guidance and services to the population. Though weaker than the former ministry, the republican leadership also viewed it as an agency that would propagate the ideas and policies of the new republic and legitimize them. Otherwise, public manifestation of religiosity was frowned upon, and no special accommodation was extended to students and public employees who wanted to observe religious rituals.

Analysis
Religion and Politics Under Democracy This strict policy of laicization was pursued until mid1940s, when republican leadership decided to move into competitive politics. Thinking that some liberalization might be helpful in generating voter support, the single party government of the Republican Peoples Party (RPP) allowed the opening of a theology department in Ankara University and a preacher training school and introduced religion classes in primary and middle schools. Such gestures did not, however, prevent the change of government through a peaceful election in 1950. Since that date, one of the major concerns of the republican elite, often referred to as the Kemalists, became the protection of the achievements of the Atatrk revolution the major feature of which was laicism. Over time, a Kemalist mindset developed that judged that the masses could not be trusted, and that unprincipled politicans would always persuade the uneducated masses to vote for them in exchange for going softer on laicism. Seeing that the voters were never likely to extend them majority support, the Kemalists turned to the agencies of government where they continued to wield power, to keep the re-entry of religion into public space. The universities, military, courts, and bar associations constituted the pillars of the laicist establishment. The conceptualization of religion in oppositional terms and viewing its advances in public life as losses in a zero sum game was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other parties than the RPP not only pursued policies more responsive to the expectations of religious people, but without exception, they also tried to incorporate presumably banned religious orders among their constituencies. Under competitively elected governments, the system of preacher training schools expanded, and the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs continued to grow, its activities becoming more comprehensive. Finally, the overtly religious National Salvation Party entered the political arena and did well in the 1973 elections. Since that time, whenever competitive politics were operational, religiously oriented parties have taken part in the elections and often been partners in coalitions. And, a descendant of that lineage, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been ruling Turkey by itself since 2002.

Since 1973, whenever competitive politics were operational, religiously oriented parties have taken part in the elections and often been partners in coalitions.
Although often a part of government, religiously oriented parties have enjoyed a precarious existence. They have been often been unable to deliver on their promises to the voters, and some of their achievements have been rendered null by the courts. To begin with, the Constitutional Court has often decided to close these parties down for having used religion for political ends, an act not allowed by the constitution. Successor parties established under different names by surrogate leaders have suffered the same fate. Their attempts to have the graduates of the preacher training schools be placed on equal footing with those of classical high schools at university admissions have been prevented by the Council on Higher Education. The courts and the universities together have prevented female students who insist on wearing scarves from enrolling at universities even if they have passed entrance exams. The Council on Higher Education has not allowed professors known for their religiosity to be appointed to administrative positions. The military-dominated National Security Council has forced the government to close down middle school sections of preacher training schools to reduce their appeal and to make sure that children are better socialized to the secular values before they start religious training. With three consecutive electoral victories starting in 2002, the AKP Party, appearing to be more moderate than previous religiously oriented parties, has been winning over the institutions which the republican guard saw as the pillars for the defense of strict laicism pursued by the republic. The Council on Higher Education is now dominated by academics whose sympathies lie with the government, the courts have begun to reflect the change in the power structure of society, the military has been neutralized as a veto group in politics with many former commanders under custody after having been accused of designing plots

Analysis
to undermine the governments policies or take over the government, and the bar and other comparable associations have come to more closely reflect the preferences that prevail in Turkish politics. Many policies of the laicist elite have already been reversed. Quo Vadis? Where will the changes regarding the relation between religion and politics lead? One possibility is a more moderate interpretation of laicism showing greater sensitivity to the needs and expectations of both the more and the less religious, as well as those who do not share the religious preferences of the majority. A more liberal dress code for females, more flexible work hours during Ramadan, recognizing Alawis as belonging to a different sect, and extending public funding to all religious groups including non-Muslims might be examples. Another possibility, however, is the further institutionalization of Sunni Islam as the formal religion of society with greater official demands for religious conformity and with exceptions being made for those who are not Muslims but not for those who profess belief in other versions of Islam. If the first road is chosen, Turkey may succeed in gradually overcoming the deep cultural divide, and the presence of two camps in society, each distrusting the other, from which it suffers. If the second road is followed, Turkeys domestic peace, already challenged by ethnic questions, may become even more complicated. It is unclear as to which direction the current government wants to go in. The strict laicists and the government continue to view each other with suspicion. The latter suspects that the former is always ready to subvert the democratic process; and the former believes that the latter is out to render Turkey into an Islamic state. For now, an uneasy and temporary coexistence prevails. Ignoring the problem will not help Turkey in its aspirations to become a more powerful nation.

About the Author


lter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbuls Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Ko University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (19871993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.

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