The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Secular, Sort of

Turkish secularism is eroding before our eyes, and the resulting cocktail of religious intolerance and social activism may even threaten the current Islamist leaders who are mixing it up.

Published on April 12, 2013

On a Sunday afternoon, the Saadet Party was holding a rally to celebrate Palestine’s attainment of observer status at the United Nations. The setting was Kadikoy, one of the bustling districts on Istanbul’s Asian side, and it drew thousands. A bearded speaker shouted about the triumph of “our Muslim brothers.” Children in prayer caps grinned as they waved green flags bearing Quranic inscriptions. In the crowds, one could hear throaty rumbles of Arabic mingling with Turkish; Turkey’s modest Arab population was out in droves. Lost in the billowing crowds was the square’s statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the man who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 and decreed that it would be a modern, secular state.

What happened at prayer time soon after the rally would have arrested Atatürk’s attention. At Friday prayers, when space in mosques runs short, it is normal for men to spread their mats on the sidewalk outside. But this was not Friday, and because there were so many of them, their prayer mats stretched all the way to the edge of the sidewalk, forcing crowds of pedestrians into the street. Most passers-by seemed to take this in stride. Perhaps it was religious empathy; perhaps they knew that the prayer would not last long; perhaps they were in too much of a hurry to make a fuss. Whatever the reason, there was only the occasional exasperated toss of the head. But to my mind, the scene spoke volumes. By taking over a sidewalk for worship, the faithful were sending a message: Our duty to pray supersedes your right to normal passage. That message runs directly counter to the principles of secularism, and by law and nearly a century’s experience, Turkey is a secular country. 

I had come to Istanbul because I was curious about Turkey. And the scene at Kadikoy reminded me of how interesting the questions facing Turkey were—questions about the apparent fluidity of the relationship between mosque and state, and about whether a strongly Islamic society could form a nation both sustainably secular and democratic. Ninety years on from its founding, the Turkish Republic is still searching for answers.


hen Atatürk inherited the bleeding remains of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, he moved swiftly and decisively to forge a secular republic. Gone almost overnight were the caliphate and Islamic law; in their place Atatürk put a modern state based specifically on the French laïcité model and the Swiss civil code. The clergy found a strong, unyielding foe in Atatürk. As he saw it, Islam had held Turkey back; secularism would ensure that Turkey could progress. The myth spread of how he had dealt with recalcitrant mullahs. Having promised to send them on the Hajj to Mecca, he waited until they set sail and then ordered their ship to be sunk. Islam had a place, but that place was not in the affairs of state. 

Atatürk remains revered in Turkey. Such is his enduring stature among Turks that all traffic stops for two minutes each November 10, the anniversary of his death in 1938. To many Turks he remains incomparable as a leader, soldier and guide. But the most interesting thing about his secular reforms was that they were imposed on Turks often, quite literally, at gunpoint. In the new Turkish Republic, Atatürk’s powers verged on the dictatorial, and were employed for secularizing purposes. Turkey’s population was then, and remains today, quite diverse in its degrees of religiosity, but much of the population was traditionally devout. For all their admiration for their great leader, many Turks felt that Islam should play a greater role in their polity. With the emergence of multiparty democracy in 1946, that desire for more religion in politics asserted itself. In 1950, the Democrat Party won national elections, and under the new Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, Islam began to find a role in public policy. 

It was, of course, a carefully circumscribed role. Menderes, like most Turkish politicians, was a practical man, and there was always the army waiting in the wings in case secularism were threatened. The Democrat Party did not seek to reverse the policy of Westernization, or propose the re-establishment of Islamic law; indeed, it championed Turkey’s membership in NATO, despite rumbles of discontent from citizens. But the call to prayer reverted from Turkish to Arabic, and the state permitted and paid for the opening of religious schools, which trained Islamic clerics. These were small developments, but they showed that religion had not been altogether banished from Turkish political life. Menderes’s flirtation with religion, along with economic mismanagement and increasingly draconian governance, triggered a military coup in 1960. The Prime Minister was eventually executed. But his legacy lingered: The Justice Party, the main successor to the Democrats, did extraordinarily well in the elections following his execution. In the rough and tumble of Turkish politics, Islam was proving resilient. 

Islamic political parties continued to do well electorally in Turkey, but it was in the mid-1990s that they came to full power in the form of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party. Savvy, charismatic and untroubled by a competent secular opposition, Erbakan managed to become Prime Minister in 1996. There was a gap between Erbakan’s fiercely Islamist rhetoric and the policies he was able to pursue. He demanded Palestine’s liberation from Israel, but strengthened military ties with Tel Aviv. He sought a rapprochement with Islamic states such as Libya, only to be chided by Muammar Qaddafi for Turkey’s failure to grant Kurds an independent state. He denounced American imperialism, but Turkey remained a member of NATO.

Nevertheless, the religious bent of his government aroused the wariness of the army. Erbakan’s failure to crack down on corruption and his refusal to heed calls for more transparent government eroded his popularity, making it easier to move against him. Enter the deep state, that shadowy coalition that was the government behind the elected government, dedicated, among other things, to the protection of secularism. In 1997 Turkey’s National Security Council forced the Prime Minister to sign a plan designed to eradicate Islam’s influence in politics. When Erbakan failed to honor the agreement, the army went on the offensive, briefing journalists and civilian officials on the menace of religion in politics. The pressure began to tell. Ministers fell away from the coalition government and in June Erbakan resigned. In 1998 his party was deemed illegal on grounds of anti-secularism. It was not a coup, but it might as well have been.

And yet, the triumph of secularism was far from complete. Erbakan had shown that religion had political appeal—and one of the individuals he appealed to was a young man named Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. In a way, Erdo?an personified all the Islamic influences that had come before him. He had trained at one of the religious schools the government had founded; he had been drawn to the Welfare Party because of its religious policies, and had become mayor of Istanbul as a Welfare candidate in 1994. After the Welfare Party was dissolved, he and Abdullah Gül moved to found today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). By 2002, Erdo?an had led the AKP to victory. The army still had qualms grounded in secularism, and sought unsuccessfully to block Abdullah Gül’s ascension to the presidency, ostensibly because his wife wore a headscarf. But where Erbakan had been forced to give way before the military, Erdo?an was not.

It is a testament to Erdo?an’s political skill that he became Mayor of Istanbul and then Prime Minister of Turkey despite having been trained as a cleric. It is a testament to his skill at bureaucratic survival that he has managed to curb the army’s power ever since. His government has put military officials on trial for conspiring against the state, and the deep state thus far has been unable to mount a successful challenge to the democratically elected government. Freed from concerns of military interference, Erdo?an has made religion a growing part of public life. The budget of the religious affairs ministry has increased to 3.89 billion lira (a figure exceeding the budgets for the Health Ministry or the Foreign Ministry). Plans to build an enormous mosque on Camlica hill have been unveiled. The idea, Erdo?an explained, was for the mosque to be visible from all across Istanbul. Then there were the comments comparing abortion to murder and denouncing Caesarean births for being “unnatural”, which drew crowds of women in protest onto the streets. Entertainment was not immune: A television channel was fined 53,000 lira for showing an episode of The Simpsons that was guilty, according to the government, of “mocking God.” For liberal, secular Turks, the situation is deeply worrying. “We do not”, one of them told me firmly, “wish to become like Iran. Or Saudi Arabia. Or the Taliban.”

These are common fears. But it is the mention of the Taliban that highlights the most interesting aspect of Turkey’s religious drift: its popular and democratic nature, akin to what we have seen in the countries that experienced the Arab Spring. The Taliban brought their version of sharia to Afghanistan through brute force; in the districts where they were unpopular, they used guns, threats and both corporal and capital punishment to impose their rule. Islamization under Erdo?an’s government, by contrast, has been and continues to be a reflection of the popular will. The party wins elections by wide margins on the local and the national levels. Erdo?an is no firebrand; his fiery statements are coolly calculated. He is not bent on forcing a utopian vision down people’s throats. He is rather a shrewd, savvy politician pursuing religious policies in the evidently justified belief that they are popular enough to make for a winning ticket. Many of Turkey’s citizens continue to feel, as they did in Menderes’s day, that religion should be more prominent in state affairs. That feeling is sharpened, perhaps, by the contempt in which their mostly urban, secular compatriots generally hold them. Erdo?an appears to have hit on a sound political formula: more Islam, more votes.


here are many reasons Turks want their government to be more Islamic. One is simple piety. A believer who holds that his or her religion is good by definition will believe that a more religious government will be a fairer, more honest one. Then there is the reaction to the repression of popular sentiment. With the barriers to religious expression now removed from political life, a long stifled energy is rushing to public spaces. There is also a certain bristling nationalism at play. Many Turks had mixed feelings about the wholesale adoption of Western traditions. Criticism from outsiders, especially Europeans who have obstructed Turkey’s membership in the European Union, continues to sting sharply. So the embrace of Islam is for many a means of asserting independence. What one Turk told me is typical: “It’s a democracy here. Christian countries have a democracy, so why not us? We are a Muslim country and a democracy.”

This is true, at least for the time being. If Turks want a more Islamic state, they have a democratic right to elect one. Why shouldn’t they? The ruling party’s liberal economic philosophy has brought vibrant growth, and religion has strengthened social bonds and fostered philanthropy. Islamic organizations have invested in education and health care, often with spectacular results. In theory, at least, an Islamic democracy could be a beautiful thing, combining political liberty with spiritual energy and the sense of civic purpose religion can inspire.

And what, anyway, would be the cost of Turkey’s walking away from secularism altogether? Walking around Istanbul, one becomes aware of something strange and wonderful: a society where multiple religious identities are accepted without question. Young lovers cuddle and kiss on the rocks overlooking the Sea of Marmara, while nearby a bearded man in a prayer cap tosses bread to the local gulls and coots. Women wearing headscarves, some as fashionable as the finest dresses in Paris or Milan, walk arm in arm with their friends in short skirts. Strolling around the back alleys of Fatih, one of the most conservative districts in the city, one can stumble, suddenly and unexpectedly, upon an old Greek Orthodox church, impeccably preserved, with its congregation free to gather. There are still traces of the actual, as opposed to ideological, multiculturalism that has marked the city since Byzantine times. 

No other Muslim-majority area I have been to is so unselfconsciously tolerant and accepting of different approaches to faith. And no other Muslim-majority area I have been to has had such a long tradition of defining itself as secular. Cultures build slowly around laws, and if Istanbul’s easygoing liberalism was rooted in an age-old diversity, it was protected by Atatürk’s decision to forge a secular republic. It is one of secularism’s most precious achievements, and it is also a fragile one. It is precious because it makes the city welcoming to a host of different people; one can feel comfortable strolling around Kadikoy or Besiktas regardless of one’s religious convictions. It is fragile because that spirit of cordial pluralism can easily come undone in the shadow of state religion. Not all democracies, after all, are liberal democracies.

In theory, there is no reason a more Islamic Turkish democracy would undo all the good that secularism has wrought. But in practice, once one lets religious passions loose into the public sphere, they are virtually impossible to stop. It becomes a matter of duty to define civic virtue in terms of religious obligation. The room for tolerance, for a wide range of identities to coexist within the public sphere, shrinks and disappears. The state slips, as casually and imperceptibly as Turkey just has, from defending the right to wear headscarves at schools to banning sleeveless attire and make-up for schoolgirls. A strong secular culture can be a bulwark against such developments, but that is precisely what Turkey is in danger of removing. 

There are deeper abysses to ponder, too. I grew up in Pakistan, a country that shows what a deadly cocktail religious zealotry added to civic purpose can make. Having declared that Pakistan was an Islamic state—the only state ever created explicitly on the basis of a trans-ethnic Islamic identity—it was difficult to prevent citizens from taking the law into their own hands. I remember the shock I felt when a family friend told us how, while visiting a market in downtown Lahore, she suddenly found her scarf being shoved violently onto her head from behind. I remember reading about the deaths of polio vaccination workers, attacked because polio was a disease sent by God and vaccination thwarted God’s will. The state had ceded power to God, and it was every man out to enforce God’s will for national salvation. Believing that God ordained that things be a certain way, the faithful take it upon themselves to enforce that way—unless a secular culture has been nurtured and has encouraged genuine toleration, rather than mere forbearance. Listening to well-informed, patriotic Turks celebrate the growing role of Islam in their public square, I sometimes longed to say to them: “This road leads to dark places, places you don’t want to go. You don’t know yet, because you haven’t been there, but I have.”


urkey is, of course, a long way from becoming another Pakistan. But by threading the theme of divine injunction into the very fabric of its public life, it lays itself open to enormous risks. That process was symbolized most tellingly, perhaps, when a group of Turks recently filed an application to convert Istanbul’s Aya (or Hagia) Sofia to a mosque and open it to prayer.

To understand why this is such a very bad idea, one needs to know that the Aya Sofia began life as a church in the Byzantine era. It was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times, most of its iconic art was defaced and destroyed or painted over, and it stood as a symbol of Islam’s military victory over Christendom. The Turkish Republic eventually opened it as a museum, a place where stained glass windows meet Arabic calligraphy. The designation of the building as a museum was significant. It took the building out of the realm of worship and it diluted its symbolic power as an expression of religious warfare. At the same time, it embraced Istanbul’s multicultural past, thereby celebrating the fact that Turkey had been home to multitudes of different people at various points in its long history.

It is precisely this gesture of openness and peace among cultures that the recent petition seeks to undo. That there is no shortage of mosques in Aya Sofia’s immediate vicinity seems to have been a point lost on the petitioners. If Istanbul’s Aya Sofia goes the way of its less famous cousin in Iznik (the latter was changed from a museum to a mosque in 2011), Istanbul will have cast away something of its true glory.

But more than just the past is at stake. One can see signs of a latent Islamist intolerance that, if given rein, could menace much of what Turkey has achieved. One sees it in the occasional bombings for which Islamist militants claim credit, and in the less dramatic, but more frequent, violence against Christians. And there is a political risk to Erdo?an here, too, in that rising Islamist rhetoric might be turned against him. Having spoken out against terrorism and having vigorously condemned violence against Christians, Erdo?an may now be insufficiently Islamist for some. (Erbakan, his erstwhile mentor, denounced him for being too friendly to Israel.) He may also suffer from the persistence of income disparity, recently rampant inflation and allegations of corruption, issues which played no small part in the downfalls of Menderes and Erbakan before him. Ironically enough, accusations against the Prime Minister are acquiring a religious tone. “He’s not a Muslim”, raved one Turk. “He prays, he speaks of Islam, but he’s not good to people. That’s what Islam is.”

The Prime Minister might also draw criticism based on religion if violence continues in Kurdish areas. Most Turks agree, linguistic differences and Kurdish views to the contrary, that the Kurds are Turks, albeit “mountain Turks”, with no need for autonomy or special treatment. But the violence unfolding in the east and news of the Kurds murdered in Paris have not met with unanimous approval. “They’re Muslims”, complained a young Turk from Erzurum. “How can Erdo?an kill Muslims?” By making religion a touchstone for political performance, Erdo?an has opened himself up to conservative criticism of a particularly sticky sort. The difficulty citizens have in finding jobs, the failure to curb price hikes, the struggle with the Kurds, foreign policy toward Israel and the United States, the use of Patriot missiles to guard against mayhem in Syria—all these furnish platforms for judging him by a harsher standard than he might have liked. God’s law, as implemented by man, abhors a middle ground.

If that happens, Turkey could face a situation where divergent interpretations of Islam come into conflict. Ideas of religious duty could combine with a deep patriotism to tear the body politic apart. A half decade or so from now, Erdo?an might well find that, having unleashed religion into the public sphere, he will have to fight forces armed with a harsher, more extreme view of Islam than his own. The results could undo a decade of prosperity for which he deserves immense credit. They could also lead to the unraveling of something very rare: a moderate and a democratic Muslim country, something never fully accomplished in Turkey, but never altogether abandoned as an aspiration either.


 sense of what a less secular Turkey might feel like can be gained by sailing across the Sea of Marmara to the town of Yalova. As in Istanbul, in Yalova people dress diversely. There are young women in skirts who sit smoking at the waterfront, while others wear headscarves and robes. But where in Istanbul the differences are taken for granted and friendships trump personal religious choices, in Yalova failure to don a headscarf may draw disapproving glares. Skirts are followed with baleful eyes down the promenade. It is something subtle, undefinable, almost too intangible to credit, but it makes a difference in the general pleasantness and ease of life for those at the receiving end. The parks, the streets, the coffee shops all feel a shade less welcoming. “It’s the way they look at us when we walk down the street uncovered. It’s not that I’m not religious”, complained one young woman. “I am. I’m just not like them.”

“I’m just not like them.” These words encapsulate the key danger all democracies face. Alexis de Tocqueville called it the “tyranny of the majority”: People seek, whether through law or social pressure, to force their compatriots to conform to certain codes. Pluralism, if unprotected by law, dies in democratic societies that morph into populist ones. Turks have to decide whether or not they want to preserve public space for different degrees of religious persuasion.

Historians will look back on the Erdo?an years as a time when Turkey confronted a national identity crisis that had ramifications for the broader history of political thought. Could there be such a thing as too much democracy? Would democracies that were too religious ultimately plunge into demagoguery, extremism and violence? Could Islamic societies be secular enough to remain liberal democracies? Could political leaders persuade citizens that allowing the imposition of religious sentiments would be bad both for politics and for religion?

Answering these questions is now the hardest task confronting Turkey’s democratic leaders. They could begin by engaging in something democracy is supposed to have: substantive political debate. An opposition party with genuine secular credentials might seek to broaden its appeal. As things stand, the main opposition party, the secular CHP, has not presented a compelling alternative to the current government. It recently distinguished itself by attacking the government’s policy toward Syria, denying that the Damascus regime was killing its own citizens. When an AKP deputy objected to these remarks, he was told to “stop yapping.” But if the CHP were to engage the AKP in a debate about economic growth, if it were to ask why money was being spent on constructing mosques and funding the religious affairs ministry when natural gas is almost unaffordable, if it were to demand that the political debate shift from women’s attire in schools to making the best use of unemployed university graduates—if it were, in short, to offer a program of socio-economic prosperity and a path to a brighter future, it might make Turkish secularism respectable and politically viable again. 

Such opposition, particularly if accompanied by attacks from the more conservative Islamic side of the sociopolitical spectrum, might also force the AKP into abandoning, or at least toning down, its use of religious rhetoric. In competing for votes with a rejuvenated opposition, Erdo?an might turn his considerable acumen and political skill to defending decisions condemned by more conservative Islamic groups. And he might eventually find it worthwhile to explain to voters what Turkey has gained from its secularism: a state that thrives on the talents and spirits of remarkably different citizens.

This cannot be done, as Atatürk sought to do, by force. One thing Turkey’s experience shows is that secularism imposed through authoritarianism is easily corroded. To flourish, secularism needs to become an organic part of national culture. This is a long-term process, and one that will require politicians of courage willing to engage and educate their population.

The statue of Atatürk in Kadikoy Square depicts him holding forth to two children, a boy and a girl, showing them how to write in Turkish based on the Roman alphabet. He was, affectionate Turks explain, the great teacher of his people. As it tries to decide what it wants to become as a country, Turkey again needs politicians who act as teachers. And it needs citizens willing to respond with thoughtfulness and compassion. In a democracy, after all, you get the government that you deserve. 

Sulmaan Khan is a writer and historian of international relations.