By Nuray Mert
18 May, 2015
Religion has always played a role in Turkish politics, although secularism is guaranteed by the constitution. Islam has always been an essential part of right-wing politics: Religious discourse and symbols have been used and abused not only by Islamist but also nationalist and center-right parties. Back in 1970, the leader of the main Islamist party of the time, Necmettin Erbakan, even complained that the center-right Justice Party and its leader Süleyman Demirel were abusing religion by distributing copies of the Quran featuring the party symbol.
At that time it was the height of the Cold War, and religious politics were an essential part of the “fight against communism.” It later became the turn of the military regime after the coup in 1980 to use a strange mixture of Kemalism and religion to justify its authoritarianism. The religious factor played such an important role that the so-called “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” became the new official ideology.
Only after the rise of Islamism as an opposition ideology did Turkey shift to “strict secularism” with the intervention of the army into civilian politics on Feb. 28, 1997. This was a period of embarrassing suppression of religious freedoms and other human rights, even including a ban on headscarves in universities that hindered the right to education.
Such a backlash created a severe democracy regression, but it could not hinder the Islamists’ march to power. The Islamists transformed themselves into “conservative democrats” under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and in fact, until very recently, the AKP refrained from using religious discourse.
Despite its many shortcomings, its politics could be well-defined as the politics of an ordinary “conservative party.” Only after the AKP started to fail to deliver democratic governance - and after managing to gather enormous power in its hands - did it turn to religious-nationalist politics both domestically and abroad.
What we are witnessing now is the most extreme use and abuse of religion by the governing party and the president. This has become the main political weapon against the opposition during the election campaign. Even the Islamist parties of the past did not indulge in such abuse of religion, which has taken the form of blackmailing the opposition by labelling them “un-Islamic.” The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is portrayed as being an enemy of Islam from the start of the republican regime. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is accused of being the Kurdish equivalent of the Turkish republicans, who aim to strip the Kurds of their religious identity. A pro-AKP newspaper recently “exposed” that HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş ate a “ham sandwich” while on his Europe tour. Meanwhile, an AKP deputy and columnist warned that anyone who votes for the HDP will endanger their religious faith and practice, as the HDP aims to lead Kurds to “Kafiristan,” or “the land of infidels.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who openly campaigns for the ruling party despite his constitutional duty to be impartial, slams the opposition for its supposed enmity against society’s Muslim identity. Moreover, being in opposition has started to be associated with being a “fifth column” of foreign plotters trying to stop the rise of Turkey as a “global independent power, in the service of all Muslims across the world.”
Even the late Ottomans moved to drop the discourse of “the land of Islam” against “the land of infidels” during the years of reform from the beginning of the 19th century. Now, this discourse is striking back, as Turkey slides into a dark abyss.