From the ashes of the two great world empires – the Byzantine and the Ottoman – gave birth to a modern state of Turkey. It became a republic in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the founder and first president, hence, Ataturkism was named after him, the country’s founding ideology.
Ataturkism or Kemalism was the political, economic, and social principles advocated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk designed to divorce the new Turkish state from the remnants of the Ottoman empire and embrace modernity patterned after the Westernized way of living including the establishment of secularism and democracy. Secularism does not entail separation of the state and religion but a subordination of religion to the state; emphasizing that religious belief and practice should be limited in private life. Muslim Turks should consider themselves as Turks first, then Muslims. With secularism as the defining feature of Turkey, makes it a model for democracy in the Arab world. However, with the rise of Islamism, did it lead to political earthquake in Turkey?
Scholars who argue that democracy and Islam should not be considered as adversaries are Beinin and Stork 1997; Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Entelis 1997; Esposito and Voll 1996. On the otherhand, scholars who argue that Islam is ill-assorted with democratic values are (Fukuyama 1992; Huntingto 1984, 1991 and Lipset 1991). From the establishment of the republic, that is, during the era of one-party rule in 1923 until 1946, Islamist groups stayed underground. Starting from the 1990s, political Islam dramatically increased in Turkey. The army, ever protective of Turkey’s secular identity quashes anti-secularistic practices of the government. However, political parties organize in the guise of secularism, masking their Islamic roots. Is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) one of these?
Ambivalence in Two Turkeys
Two Turkeys coexisted in uneasy harmony: an urban, modern, secular, “center” and a rural, traditional, religious, “periphery.” The dominant elite was urban, modern and secular while the greater part of the population was rural, traditional and religious. The Kemalists carried out reforms that cut its ties with its Ottoman heritage. Most of the reforms instituted were limited to the urban centers. In the countryside, Islam continued to have strong social roots. Kemalism as a discourse and political project had been imposed from above and so it failed to reach the bottom layer of the society: its secularizing effect was confined to state sectors while most of the masses remained religious. Ataturk’s attempt to transform the country is represented by “revolution from above.”
Irony in Multi-Party
Democratization is the most significant element of the Turkish model. From authoritarian single-party rule, the country transitioned into a multi-party system in 1946, thus, ironically, the CHP (the party representing Ataturkism/Kemalism) has lost the monopoly on power. When the country had a multi-party, it opened doors for the proliferation of other parties such as those with religious undertones. The groups and individual leaders formed covert and overt alliances. During this period, the regime provided certain concessions to the religious demands of the periphery as part of a strategy to incorporate the rural masses and stay in power. One of the most important religious concessions was to re-open the imam-hatip schools. Indeed, these schools played a critical role in the Islamicization of Turkish society and the state. The consolidation of democracy in Turkey, including the successful inclusion of the religiously oriented groups, has been a consequence of an interactive relationship between Islam and democracy.
Irony on the Role of the Military
The military is the defender of secularism and the watchdog of civilian government. In several occasions since Turkey’s founding, the military has displaced politicians who challenged its power or deviated from Ataturk’s ideology. The military sees itself as the country’s guardian, not its ruler. After each intervention, it handed power back to civilian authorities once stability was restored.
Ironically, the military contributed to the strengthening of political Islam in Turkey. In an effort to combat communism and leftist ideologies, the military attempted to strengthen the role of Islam. Under the military’s tutelage, religious education was made a compulsory subject in all schools and state-controlled moral and religious education was promoted. Under the 1982 constitution, Turkey was defined as a secular state. On the otherhand, the role of religion was strengthened in schools and education as a means of reinforcing Turkish nationalism, which tended to weaken the emphasis on secularism.
Identity Masked with Ambiguity?
Turkey, a Muslim country that adheres to secularism dreams of becoming a member of the European Union (EU). It tries to maintain the practice of religion into the private sphere even discarded its Ottoman past. To comply with EU’s democratic credentials, Turkey clothe with democratic ideals. What is disheartening is, the very reason why Turkey is advocating secularism, is the same reason why EU is skeptical in accepting Turkey into the union. It’s like a prodigal son who stowaway, erased his dark past, embraced a new identity and wanted to belong into the neighborhood, but his neighbors still sees in him his “old self.”
With ambivalence and irony in Turkey’s history, its identity is masked with ambiguity.
Is it secular or Islamic?
Is it democratic or autocratic?
Alam, Anwar. 2009. “Islam and Post-Modernism: Locating the Rise of Islamism in Turkey.” Journal of Islamic Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (September): 352-375.
Heper, Metin. 1997. “Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Toward a Reconciliation?” Middle East Journal, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Winter): 32-45.
Phillips, David. 2004. “Turkey’s Dreams of Accession Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct.): 86-97.
Rabasa, Angel and F. Stephen Larrabee. 2008. “The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey.” RAND Corporation
Two women discuss Turkish politics during a joint rally in Istanbul between the Islamist and secularist parties shortly after the attempted coup in late July.
Credit: Fariba Nawa