Jul 1st 2019
TURKEY’S PRESIDENT, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, makes no secret of his desire to raise what he calls a “pious generation”. Since his Justice and Development (AK) party became Turkey’s dominant force in 2002, elevating Islam’s public role in this constitutionally secular republic has been more than a slogan; it has found expression in many government policies.
During his sixteen years in power, Mr Erdogan has presided over the construction of thousands of new mosques and Islamic vocational schools, known as Imam Hatips. The number of students at such institutions has increased more than fivefold since 2012, to an estimated 1.4m in a country of about 80m. The budget of the religious directorate, the agency responsible for the conduct of sermons in the country’s mosques, has grown by leaps and bounds, overtaking several ministries in the process. The government has quietly cultivated relations with a number of Islamic movements and brotherhoods, helping them accumulate considerable power and wealth.
But curiously these policies do not seem to have had the desired result. Turks do not appear to be any more devout than they were a decade ago, scores of Islamic schools remain empty, and the brotherhoods seem increasingly out of step with a rapidly changing society.
According to a study by KONDA, a local polling company, between 2008 and 2018 the share of Turks who define themselves as religious dipped from 55% to 51%. The number of women who wear the Islamic headscarf barely budged, from 52% a decade ago to 53%, and the share of those who fast regularly decreased from 77% to 65%. Meanwhile, the number of atheists has risen from 1% to 3%.
In spite of the money the government has poured into imam hatip schools, which combine a standard education with hours of study of Islam, supply continues to outstrip demand. At the high-school level, Imam Hatips filled only 52% of available places last year, compared with 95% for regular schools. Such schools are also much less successful than others. Imam hatip students are at least twice as unlikely to enrol in a university as students at regular or private schools.
Arguably the biggest brake on political Islam’s attempts to reshape Turkish society has been demography, says Bekir Agirdir, the head of KONDA. The pace of migration from the countryside to the city in Turkey has been relentless. To some extent, that has made Turkey’s urban spaces more religious and conservative in atmosphere; but over time many of the new city-dwellers tend to develop a more à la carte approach to religion.
Over the last couple of decades the percentage of Turks living in urban areas has shot up from 64% to 75%, according to the World Bank. The population of Istanbul has been expanding by an average of more than 300,000 people per year. “Urbanisation has created its own value system, as well as a big number of grey areas,” says Mr Agirdir.
Many young people born into religious families are searching for an Islam compatible with modern urban life and middle-class status, he says. To make ends meet, wives and daughters who would have been confined to the home in villages and small towns go out in pursuit of work. Unmarried conservative couples attend pop concerts and embrace in public.
Meanwhile, the religious brotherhoods, whatever their relationship with the government, have struggled to connect with young Muslims. What is more, all brotherhoods were cast under a shadow when members of the best-known one, led by the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, participated in a violent coup in July 2016. Tens of thousands of alleged and actual Gulen supporters, most of whom played no role in the coup, have been thrown into jail.
For at least a part of the Islamic bourgeoisie, the line separating conservative and secular lifestyles is becoming increasingly blurred, says Etyen Mahcupyan, an adviser to a former AK prime minister. This implies a more selective approach to Islam and a more limited role for the brotherhoods. “Twenty years ago, a youngster who wanted to be religious would have looked for a guide and tried to do what he was told,” he says. “But now that youngster wants to redefine Islam for himself, and no guide can do that.”
Source: The Economist