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Understanding Religion in (New) Turkey


By Sinem Adar

March 14, 2018

Since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP thereafter) to power in 2002, Turkey was perceived as a case of hope. However, more recently it is being perceived as a case of despair for democratization in the Middle East. The first decade or so of AKP rule was regarded by the international public as a showcase for the compatibility of Islam and democracy. As the AKP government moved into an increasingly authoritarian mode of rule since the Gezi demonstrations in 2013, this rhetoric has changed. In particular, following the Constitutional Referendum in April 2017, the Kemalist Republic was declared dead. With that death, it is now argued that the model of a secular and modern Turkey has eroded.

This essay is a response to this emerging narrative, which is undergirded by a normatively secular panic. There are some clear reasons for dismay in the face of the increasing authoritarianism, militarism and social polarization in Turkey today. Yet, the “secular versus religious” binary falls short of making sense of the changes that Turkey has been going through in the last fifteen years. It is vital to historicize these changes in order to understand what is new and what is not concerning the role of religion in state-society relations.

In the rest of the essay, I will not use the word “secular.” This is not because I do not believe that religion is a private matter. It is also not because I do not believe in the restricting religion in the public realm. This choice is mainly because I find secular(ism) an ideologically over determined concept that often strains a sober discussion about the role of religion in the double processes of state-formation and nation-building in Turkey.[1] Modern states govern the religious field in almost all contemporary nation-states - from the US to India, from Europe to Egypt. Turkey is no exception in this regard. Such governance, however, varies across cases and also across time in a specific case.[2]

In this essay, I will try to look at this variation in Turkey since the establishment of the republic in 1923. I will argue that, not only has the state always governed religion in Turkey, but it has also long governed through religion. Religion was used in state governance as a tool for categorizing people, for mobilizing constituencies, for containing ethnic conflict; and lastly, for organizing social life. These different motivations behind the state’s strategy of governance through religion have often been simultaneously present at different historical moments. Nevertheless, what is relatively new in this current moment is the breadth and depth of religion’s expansion into social life with the backing of the state, particularly in the realms of education, family, and law.

Religion In Categorizing Peoples

Religion, together with language, played a foundational role in defining Turkish nationhood. Being a Turk, since the early days of the republic, has been closely linked to being a (Sunni) Muslim and Turcophone. One striking example of the role of religion, is the early parliamentary discussions about the wording of the citizenship article in the 1924 Constitution. Concerns over how the constitution should define and categorize the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire dominated these debates. Notwithstanding, critical voices advocating for a territorial conceptualization of nationhood, the overarching consensus within the parliament, was that religious and linguistic affiliations were the primary markers of Turkish nationhood. This was best expressed by one of the MPs during the discussions in April 1924: “[O]ur authentic citizen (öz vatandaşımız)belongs to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam and speaks Turkish”.[3]

Such ethno religious imagination of the nation was in accordance with the spirit of the international regime that governed population politics from the late nineteenth century until the end of World War II.[4] The premise of the congruence between territory, sovereignty, and population led to the division of peoples into majority and minority categories, leading in turn to practices of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Population politics in Turkey were, in this respect, no different than prevalent approaches of the first half of the twentieth century. During the Lausanne Negotiations [5] between the Allies and the Turkish delegation, a rather forced consensus emerged, stating that the millet categories of the Ottoman Empire – Greek, Armenian and Jewish – would form the basis of what was considered a minority in the Turkish Republic.

Non-Muslim citizens – despite, or perhaps exactly because of, their minority status – were considered strangers (yabancı) in social perception, and in official documents. They were deprived of membership in the upper echelons of the state, their property was confiscated, and they were also subject to violence such as during the 1934 riots in Thrace, the 6-7 September 1955 riots in Istanbul, and the assassination of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.

Non-Muslims were, however, not alone in being denied full membership in the political community. Ethnoreligious conceptualization of nationhood also had implications for Kurdish and Alevi citizens. Despite the Allies’ efforts during the Lausanne Negotiations to have the Turkish delegation agree to consider linguistic, ethnic, and sectarian difference as the basis for defining a minority, the Turkish Delegation was adamant in limiting the minority protection to non-Muslims millets. For the state elites, such insistence meant several things. Sunni Kurds could be assimilated through shared religion and sect. Turkish Alevis could also be assimilated through common ethnicity. For each of these people groups, however, this forced assimilation “option” meant repressing ethnic and religious difference, respectively. The situation of Kurdish Alevis was more complicated as they were neither Turkish nor Sunni Muslim.[6] 

The early state elites’ strict outlook on assimilation towards the making of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation left Kurdish and Alevi citizens at the margins of nationhood in an ongoing and growing struggle for political recognition. State- and society-led violence towards these undesired, unwanted and ungovernable people was, and is still, not uncommon – such as in the 1938 Dersim massacres and 1978 riots in Maras, the Madimak massacre in 1993, and the ongoing attacks against Kurdish and Alevi citizens throughout the 2000s.

Mobilizing Constituencies and Containing Ethnic Difference through Religion

Since its establishment in 1924, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DoRA) has been the primary state institution governing religion. The single party government under the Republican People’s Party (CHP) rule abolished the caliphate that same year, and religious schools (medreses) were closed down. Religion classes were removed from school curricula in 1938. The first two decades of the republic witnessed an excessive state expansion into the religious field to disempower religious actors and institutions. To this end, for instance, state elites convinced the leaders of the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities, as early as 1925, to denounce their rights under Article 42 of the Lausanne Treaty. This article allowed the minority communities to apply their own canonical laws to family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, etc.. One year after, Civil Law was legislated and religious marriages were declared illegal.

The DoRA remained the primary institutional vehicle for governing religion following the transition to electoral democracy in 1947. Under electoral pressure, religion classes were made voluntary by the CHP in 1947, and later obligatory by the military government after the 1980 coup d’état. The share of the public budget allocated to the DoRA has continuously increased since 1950, and so has the number of Directorate employees.[7] Especially following the victory of the Democrat Party (DP) in 1950, religious actors that were disempowered during the period of single party rule started to enter into a relationship with the state. For example, Islamic brotherhoods (tarikats) that had been banned in the 1920s, became key instruments for electoral gains. Besides mobilizing electoral constituencies, co-optation of religious actors served yet another purpose: to contain ethnic conflict in the Kurdish southeast and east. Under DP rule, Kurdish shayks received material and moral support from the state towards building Sunni Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.[8]

Religious actors have become important vehicles of the state’s strategy of governance through religion, especially since 1950. If the rise to power of the DP was the first juncture in this, the 1980 coup d’état constitutes the second. Moreover, the armed conflict that began between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Army (PKK) in 1984 led to the continuation and acceleration of the co-optation of religious actors to contain ethnic difference in the post-1980 era. Religious vocational public high schools (imam hatip) and the state mosques were put to the service of advocating “religious brotherhood and nation”.

Beginning in the 1970s, Turkey also experienced high levels of contestation over issues of religion in party politics. Concurrently with the rise of Islamist politics across the world, religion entered into party politics with the foundation of the National Order Party (MNP) in 1970 which was shut down by the military in 1971. The National Salvation Party (MSP) was founded in its place in 1972, only to be closed once again following the 1980 coup d’état. It was reopened as the Welfare Party (RP) in 1983, and was shut down by the military in 1997, and the Virtue Party (FP) replaced it afterwards. The 1990s witnessed the Islamisation of the public sphere not only through party politics but also through the infiltration of religious actors into the police force, education bureaucracy, and the military[9] on the one hand- and on the other hand, an increasingly salient emotional attachment, especially among the older generations, to the cult of Atatürk.[10] The AKP rose to power in 2002 as a socially conservative, “moderately” Islamist, and neoliberal party against the backdrop of this contested history of party politics.[11]

“Pious Generations”: Organization of Social Life through Religion

Under AKP rule since 2002, the state has continued to be the primary actor in governing religion, as well as in governing through religion. Similarly to previous periods in the history of modern Turkey, DoRA continues, (for example) to treat Alevism as a heterodox or “mystic” interpretation of Sunni Islam.[12] Moreover, the AKP also deployed the rhetoric of “religious brotherhood and nation” towards Sunni Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.[13] Despite these similarities, however, the current moment differs from previous historical moments concerning the breadth and depth of the state-sponsored penetration of religion into social life.

“New Turkey”, since 2014, has become a popular slogan employed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to express its political project of remaking the nation. Since then, there has been a growing emphasis on religion as the primary marker of cultural identity. “Raising pious generations” has become the landmark of this new political project. Religious actors and religious teachings play an important role in the execution of this project towards re-engineering perceptions and understandings of the population based on religious values and dogma. In this respect, the state continues to govern through religion. Yet, this governance has subsumed and expanded beyond categorizing people, mobilizing constituencies, and containing ethnic conflict. It touches upon the very core of social life and interactions.

Particularly relevant to the discussion here are the developments in the realms of family and education. Examples abound, but I will mention only a few here. In the last couple of years, the DoRA has been elevated to a position of arbitrator and regulator in family related issues. Since 2011, the Ministry of Family and Social Policy (MoFaSP) has established close cooperation with the DoRA. There are now offices called Family and Religious Guidance operating as part of this cooperation. These offices provide citizens with information about family and religious matters. In addition, they are organized to play a role in conflict resolution within the family, mainly between spouses. This is a clear example of the micromanagement of private life by religious actors, and through religious teachings with state sponsorship.

Another example is the legal regulation of marriages. Unlike other countries across the Middle East, Turkey does not apply religious law to family matters (see the discussion above). Religious marriages are not recognized as legally valid. Despite this, the Turkish Constitutional Court  ruled in 2015 against imprisonment of imams who conduct religious marriages without the proof of a civil marriage. Recently,  new legislation was passed that authorizes müftüs and imams to conduct civil marriages. Despite the fact that this new regulation does not change the content of the law--that is, marriages continue to be conducted according to the civil law--it extends the visibility, and gradually perhaps the authority, of religious actors in regulating marriage and family law. Arguably, it could also gradually blur the legal distinction between civil and religious marriage both as a matter of citizens’ perception and as a matter of law.

Religion has become, during the last few years, more salient in education as well. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in the official number of Koran courses and Imam Hatip Schools. According to official statistics, the number of Koran courses increased from 5,654 in 2005/6 academic year to 15,457 in 2013/2014 academic year. Similarly, the number of Imam Hatip Schools increased from 450 in 2002 to 1,452 in 2017. Moreover, there have been significant changes in school curricula, including the removal of the teaching of evolution from science education in secondary schools.  Lastly, there has also been co-operation between the Ministry of Education and Islamic brotherhoods across the country.

“New Turkey”: An Abrupt Rupture or a Historical Continuum?

Is the “secular” Turkey dead? The answer is not straightforward empirically or politically. Empirically, the answer depends on how the comparison is made. If one situates the current moment within the period since the establishment of the republic in 1923, there is evidence of a continuum rather than an abrupt shift. This is a continuum of the state’s governance through religion especially towards categorizing peoples, mobilizing constituencies, containing ethnic conflict, and organizing social life- though at present this governance takes place on a broader and deeper scale. If one compares the current moment with the early republican policies of disempowering non-state religious actors and teachings, one can arguably say, however, that the current moment constitutes a complete reversal of these policies. The single-party government during the first two decades of the republic aimed at retracting religion from social life especially in the realms of family, law, and education; the AKP government is bringing religion back to these realms.

Therefore, the most important question is not whether the “secular” Turkey is dead or not. Rather, the most important question is, why the foundational aspirations to retract religion from the organization of social life were not realized. The answer is perhaps hidden in the simultaneous yet paradoxical aspiration of the state elites, since the establishment of the republic, to restrict the role of religion while also governing through religion. Against this backdrop, what we are witnessing today is the crystallization of almost a century-long conflict over control of state institutions and over the definition of the political community.

We are left wondering what other paths might have been taken in the process of state formation and nation-building in Turkey that might have resolved these questions differently. Policies are never neutral with respect to politics; politics that shape and are shaped by alliances and disalliances among actors. What happens at a certain historical moment is not inevitable. It is instead an outcome of historical processes that are simultaneously shaped by decisions of actors and historical contingencies. What would have happened, for instance, if the 1921 Constitution remained intact after the establishment of the republic? What would have happened if Turkey transitioned into electoral democracy at a later stage? What would have happened if the political actors responded differently to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict? What would have happened if Turkey were accepted into the EU? Questions that interrogate and historicize the trajectory by which we have arrived at our current conjuncture are better able to shed light on the present predicament than hand-wringing over the demise of a romanticized and much overstated secular past.


[1] I would like to thank Cihan Tekay for patiently encouraging me to articulate this point in a concise manner.

[2] John Bowen. 2010. “Secularism: Conceptual Genealogy or Political Dilemma.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52(3): 680-694. 

[3] Sinem Adar. Forthcoming. “Emotions and Nationalism: The Armenian Genocide as a Case Study.” Sociological Forum 33(3). Published online in May 2018.

[4] Eric Weitz 2008. “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions.” American Historical Review 113(5):1313-1343.

[5] Lozan Barış Konferansı: Tutananaklar. Belgeler. Paris: Devlet Basımevi. (translated by Seha L.Meray).

[6] See Markus Dressler. 2013. Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  For a detailed analysis of the demarcation of Alevis in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic as “heterodox” but Muslim, and as an integral part of the Turkish culture.

[7] Murat Akan. 2017. The Politics of Secularism: Religion, Diversity, and Institutional Change in France and Turkey. New York, NY: Columbia University.

[8] See David McDowall. 1996. A Modern History of the Kurds. London, UK: I.B. Tauris.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Esra Ozyurek. 2006. Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[11] Cihan Tugal. 2009. Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[12] Elizabeth Shahkman Hurd. 2014. “Alevis under Law: The Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey.” Journal of Law and Religion 29(3): 416-435.

[13] Gülay Türkmen-Dervişoğlu. 2016. United in Religion, Divided by Ethnicity?: Why Islam Fails as a Supranational Identity in Turkey. Unpublished PhD Dissertation in the Department of Sociology at Yale University.

** I would like to thank Turkey Page Editors and Markus Dressler for their critical and insightful engagement with the earlier drafts.