Islam in Turkey: From Persecution to Appeasement and Power

Islam in Turkey: From Persecution to Appeasement and Power

This article examines the Turkish shift from total secularism to moderate islamization and the perspectives for radicalization of AKP. Political Social and International Relation Aspects are thoroughly analyzed

Islam in Turkey is important but also insignificant; it is simultaneously strength and weakness and it can be both a complimentary and a competing narrative to “turkishness”, what it really means to be a Turk.  If we wanted to present the main characteristic of Kemalism as the prevailing Turkish ideology since the creation of this country, we would definitely highlight secularism. So Islam is by definition a rival not to say arch-enemy. Not only did Mustafa Kemal abolish the Caliphate, but he also persecuted Islam. For instance, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the famous hajj (one of the five pillars of Islam) was forbidden for all Turks.

After his death, there was a gradual change, since secularism had been violently and hastily imposed – especially true for the rural populations. During the Adnan Menderes era, some space was provided for the clandestine political organization of religious groups.[1] However, the reemergence of Islam truly started in the 1970s with Nekmetin Erbakan and went on with his successor Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The 1980 coup had a pivotal role in this shift, while both domestic and foreign affairs were contributing factors. At the time the main enemy of the elites was Marxism, Kurdish separatism and the significant minority of Alevis, especially after the Shia Iranian Islamic Revolution. Hence, the orthodox Sunni Islam was deemed for the first time as an ally and not an adversary and the Kemalist ideology was overnight officially transformed to a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis”, as advocated by Kenan Evren with slogans like “family, mosque and barracks”. It was the dictatorship that reinstated the Islamic studies and made them compulsory for the primary education, winning the support and praise of figures like the famous imam Fetullah Gullen.[2] It was a cataclysmic change. Just bear in mind that before that, an officer could be dismissed simply because his wife had worn a headscarf or that he had prayed at a mosque.[3] Nowadays, everybody accepts that Islam is in Turkey part of the national identity.

In 1983 and 1987 Erbakan did not make it to the Parliament. Especially in 1987 some of his slogans were 100% Islamic like “headscarf is our national dress” and “imitators [of the West] produce only prostitution, gambling and alcoholic beverages”.[4] That was accepted by the Prime Minister Turgut Ozal who wanted to appease Political Islam and favored himself the Sufi Brotherhoods. In 1991 Erbakan won 17% and in 1995 21% of the popular vote and became the Prime Minister only to be deposed by the Armed Forces in a velvet coup in 1997. What is important for our study is that Erbakan paved the way for JDP/AKP by introducing the Islamist rhetoric in Turkish Foreign Relations.[5]  He advocated for a jihad to liberate Jerusalem, in case someone finds extremely irrational the current Turkish polemic against Israel.   He was anti-EU, anti-NATO and wanted to create an “Islamic NATO”. He also founded the D-8, an informal club like G-8 that includes the 8 strongest Muslim countries.[6]

JDP/AKP came to power in 2002 but did not try to implement any vigorous islamization. Different social strata supported Erdogan. Devout Muslims of course, but also Pro-Westerners and pro-Europeans hailed his election. As regards democratization, that was considered a step forward, since he had been regarded as a potential liberator from the Deep State control and the reigning corruption of the judicial and the military kemalist elites. The 2007 elections showed that Erdogan had gained full control of the political arena. Increasing his 2002 percentages from 34% to an amazing 46% the JDP/AKP and its leader became defiant. They had to face two enemies though; the judicial and the military.

In 2008 the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals, and the Council of State tried to stop the islamization efforts. The bill that lifted the headscarf ban in the Universities was deemed unconstitutional. Most importantly, on July 30, 2008 there was an unprecedented decision of critical importance, when the party was under threat of being banned for its ideology.[7] The Constitutional Court accepted the fact that the JDP/AKP was a center of anti-secular activities, but instead of outlawing the party, as it had done so many times in the past, it “issued a judicial warning and penalized the party to pay back half of funds that it received from state treasury in 2008. While six court members voted for the JDP/AKP’s closure, four members voted against. Thus, the JDP/AKP was not outlawed by one missing vote”. The court based its decision on the appeal of the party to the Turkish people, its adherence to democratic principles, its non-violent character and its pro-European orientation. Obviously, all these were true at the time but 10 years later, they do not reflect the true nature of the party.[8] For JDP/AKP remaining in the game was a victory but sealed its triumph over the judiciary was the 2010 referendum that allowed for the change of the composition of the Constitutional Court and at the same time significantly reduced the powers of the armed forces.[9]

The military was on the defense long before the aforementioned referendum. JDP/AKP using two largely fabricated “scandals”, those of “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz” cornered the military leadership. Regarding, the first one more than 300 high profile arrests took place, including generals, MPs and journalists in two years (2007 -2009). The overwhelming majority was found guilty and sent to jail. The “Balyoz” scandal broke up in 2010 when a “top secret” report, including a detailed plan of destabilization aiming to a coup that would depose Erdogan was leaked to the newspaper “Taraf”.[10]. Among the officers who were sentenced in 20 years of imprisonment were three former Chiefs of Staff of Military Branches. The former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Basbug received a life sentence.

In 2011 Erdogan with seemingly full control of the institutions that had always been against Islam, won for a third consecutive time in national elections reaching almost 50% of the popular vote. In 2013 it was time for the Political Islam to fight against its last enemy, the “civil Islam” and the powerful Hizmet network of Fetullah Gullen.[11] Gullen was instrumental into bringing JDP/AKP in power and in prevailing over the Deep State. Nonetheless, Gullen’s followers could not tolerate the undemocratic despotic behavior of the “new Sultan” especially after the notorious Gezi Park violent confrontation with peaceful demonstrators in June. In December 2013 a huge scandal including Ministers, their families and even Erdogan’s own son came to light, by Gullenist judges and policemen. In the elections of 2015 (both in June and November) Gullen did not support his former friend. The failed coup d’ etat on July 15, 2016 was used by Erdogan as a pretext to finish off the armed forces and especially the Hizmet network that was considered responsible for the coup and was labeled as a terrorist group (FETO). Nowadays the convictions for Ergenekon and Balyoz have been annulled but the military that Erdogan dislikes have been persecuted as associated with Gullen.

Outcomes and Recommendations

The islamization of the society is a fact but Turkey is neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia. Actually even under JDP/AKP some progressive legislation was introduced as a law with harsh penalties for domestic violence, a crime that is commonplace in many Middle Eastern countries. Some churches were renovated or opened in Erdogan’s presence. On the other hand, we can see legislation constraining alcohol sale and consumption,[12] allowing the headscarves, or restricting permissible abortions. While an indication of the Islamization process in each country is the family law, we haven’t witnessed any dramatic change in Turkey so far, but undoubtedly there is a growing concern.

Especially some rank and file of JDP/AKP ruling party have been very militant. As an example, in Kutahya all newlyweds were given as a gift a book suggesting among others that “men should prefer to marry virgins; men could beat their wives or practice polygamy if the wives were not obedient; women should stay at home; children should marry early; and, after a beating by the husband, the wife might serve him coffee in a sexy outfit so that the conflict would end with make-up sex”. In Pamukkale a similar book was also given stating that “the more a man beats his wife, the more she would desire him sexually and that women are mentally deficient”.[13] This is more a matter of patriarchy, ignorance and arrogance than Islam but it is worth highlighting that it still constitutes a huge deviation from the secular Kemalist Turkey we used to know.

What is more important to our research, Islam has been the vehicle through which the President of the Turkish Republic wanted and still tries to play a leading role in the Middle East. He practically uses religion in order to advance his personal agenda. We can thus suggest that domestically he Islamizes politics while in foreign affairs he politicizes religion. The relations or actually the abrupt suspension of the bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel or Egypt is at least theoretically for religious reasons. The persecution of Muslim Brothers (literal and metaphorical use of the word) has led to Erdogan’s accusation against Israel for Palestinian genocide and against President Sisi for deposing an elected President and establishing a dictatorship harassing the true believers. We have to admit that there is much truth in most of Erdogan’s statement, but frankly he doesn’t care about his fellow Muslims; he actually tries to position himself for the future, betting on the final victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan supported from the very beginning the Egyptian president Morsi and the entire Muslim Brotherhood. He pledged to give an aide of 2 billion $ to Cairo, despite the Turkish economy being weak.

Only Ankara and Doha remained faithful to Morsi. Actually Al Jazeera based in Qatar kept on criticizing Sisi and the rest of the Gulf countries while praising Erdogan for his stance.[14] In June 2017 as we all know Qatar was officially isolated with the closure of the airspace around it and the breaking down of diplomatic relations with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. One of the demands of these countries in order to normalize their relations with Doha was for the latter to shut down a Turkish military base that was established after a bilateral agreement. Qatar’s answer was to ask for more military cooperation and establishing full diplomatic relations with Shia Iran.

As regards the Palestinian issue, Erdogan has become its champion, insulting his former Allies, the Israelis but also defying the US administration, especially after the latter’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Despite his support for the Palestinians, he is depended on his ad hoc alliance with the Christian Russia, the Shia Iran and remotely with the atheist China and has become a pariah of the Arab and Sunni world, with the notable exception of the even more isolated Qatar.

The “Islamic civil war” in Turkey between two forces that pushed for Islamization shows that the main policy driver is Erdogan’s personal ambition and not Islam. Actually Gullen is far more critical of the Alevis or the Kurds and in no way is he a more moderate Islamist than Erdogan. Furthermore, as a Sunni Orthodox Muslim Erdogan should find it hard to cooperate with Christian Moscow, the Shia Tehran or the atheist Beijing and yet he does so. Obviously he simply uses religion internally and externally. Understanding the global power of the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood gave it, along with Qatar, his wholehearted support only to find himself isolated. With illusions of grandeur, Erdogan believes in his mission as another “father of Turks” like Kemal, so almost everything is about himself, not about Political Islam. Probably, if needed, in order to keep and expand his power, he will demonstrate flexibility as regards his religious fervor. Nonetheless, at least in the near future we should expect more Islam by Erdogan’s Turkey probably with the introduction of adultery laws or gender segregation in certain functions to keep his power base happy. We should also expect him to keep the strong pro- Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Israeli rhetoric.


[1] Rabasa, Angel & Stephen, Larrabee. (2008). The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation), 37

[2] Agai, Bekim. (2007). “Islam and Education in Secular Turkey” in Hefner, Robert W & Zaman, Muhammad Qasim (eds). (2007). Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 153.

[3] Esposito, John, Sonn Tamara & Voll, John. (2016). Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 35.

[4] Eligur, Banu. (2010). The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 148.

[5] Nonetheless, the transition was not smooth. There was a violent split of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi (RP)). When the latter was banned, “…it was immediately substituted by a new party, the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi (FP}) under the leadership of Recai Kutan, an old associate of Necmettin Erbakan. Although all RP deputies and most of its cadres joined the FP, the latter’s discourse was much more moderate and circumspect than that of the former. The short life of the FP witnessed a growing confrontation between the so-called traditionalist (gelel1ekfiler) and the modernist (yenilikfiler) wings of the Islamist movement… But now the conflict came to the fore when at the FP Congress in 2000, Abdullah Giul, the candidate of the modernists, challenged Recai Kutan, the incumbent leader and the candidate of the traditionalists, for party leadership. Giul lost the race by a small margin (he got 521 votes against 633 for Kutan) in a competition unprecedented in the history of Turkish Islamist parties. The Congress was the harbinger of the split between the Justice and Development Party (JDP/AKP) and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi (SP)) which was to take place a year later”. See Hale, William & Ozbudun, Egrun. (2009). Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey (London: Routledge), 5

[6]  Namely Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

[7] Soguk, Nevzat. (2010). Globaliation and Islamism: Beyond Fundamentalism (Plumouth: Rowman & Littlefield),104.

[8] It is worth mentioning that the EU through its major figures Olli Rehn and Javier Solana whole heartedly supported Erdogan. See Eligur, 268 and Bokhari, Kamran & Senzai, Farid. (2013). Political Islam in the Age of Democratization (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan), 178.

[9]  Saleem, Raja M Ali. (2017). State, Nationalism and Nationalization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan),47.

[10]  The plan included the provocation of a crises in the Aegean Sea and disputes with Greece. See Waldman, Simon & Caliskan, Emre. (2017). The “New Turkey” and Its Discontents (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 36

[11]  According to Soguk “an estimated $10–15 billion worth of capital is within the Gulen movement’s orbit of influence”, including media, schools, universities, hotels and hospitals. See Soguk, 138.  Hizmet is omnipresent, since you can find it in more than 140 countries. See, Waldman & Caliskan, 62.

[12]  For instance, you cannot sell or consume alcohol close to mosques and schools. See Waldman & Caliskan, 73

[13]  See Saleem, 148-149.

[14] Baskan, Birol. (2016). Turkey and Qatar in the Tangled Geopolitics of the Middle East (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan), 65