Turkey’s Repressive Secularism & Rise Of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic, banned Sufi orders, put mosques under government control, mandated officials to wear European-style brimmed hats, and banned Arabic as part of sweeping measures to impose secularism on Turks

Erdogan alluded in his election speeches to ‘the dark period’ when the secular elite marginalized ‘pious’ citizens between the 1920s and early 2000s

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, has fallen short of an outright majority needed to extend his 20-year rule. He now faces a runoff vote on May 28, 2023, despite leading over his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board head Ahmet Yener said Erdogan got 49.4% of the votes and Kilicdaroglu 45% after the counting of 99.4% of the domestic and 84% of the overseas votes. Sinan Ogan, a third candidate, received 5.2%. A candidate needed to clear the 50% threshold to avoid a second round.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003. He faced the toughest election of his political career. In 2018, he had an outright victory over three candidates with 53% of votes. His closest opponent five years back managed to get just 31% of the votes.

The election was keenly watched globally. Its outcome is expected to reshape Turkey’s political landscape. Turkey, one of the world’s 20 largest economies, is a member of the European and North American grouping NATO. But it has maintained cordial ties with their arch rival Russia much to the dismay of many in the West.

Turkey’s foreign policy is expected to shift profoundly in the event of Kilicdaroglu’s victory. Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, has pledged to rebuild ties with the West and to put Turkey on a more secular and democratic path.

Erdogan has been Turkey’s longest-serving leader. He has turned the country of 85 million into a global player and a military power. Erdogan, who survived a coup attempt, has since 2003 transformed Turkish cities and pulled millions of Turks out of poverty.

Much of Erdogan’s appeal stems from the democratic reforms that ended restrictions on the public expression of Islam reflected in the ban on wearing headscarves in public institutions of an overwhelming Muslim majority nation.

Turkey’s secularist elite dominated institutions such as the military and repressed the religious Turks for around eight decades following the foundation of the strictly secular Turkish Republic in 1923. 

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the secular Turkish republic, undertook sweeping top-down measures to transform Turkey along Western lines. He placed religious institutions under state control to limit the role that religion in public life following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Atatürk banned the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic as he sought to promote nationalism to neutralize the idea of a global Muslim community. The military became the guardian of secularism. It toppled elected governments three times citing its responsibility as the ultimate guarantor of secularism. In 1997, the military forced prime minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power for veering away from the secular path.

The system Ataturk created forced secularism on Turkey’s people. It outlawed men from wearing the traditional fez hat. The headscarf was banned in government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools until Erdogan’s rise to power allowed practicing Muslims the same rights as other citizens.

Atatürk presided over a single-party autocratic regime of his People’s Republican Party. The regime forbade dissent. It sought to transform society under the idea of Kemalism that rested on pillars of Turkish nationalism and secularism. 

Atatürk, who continues to be eulogized in Turkish textbooks, even banned Sufi orders and put mosques under government control. Government officials were mandated to wear European-style brimmed hats and the teaching of Arabic was banned as part of sweeping measures to end the influence of Islam in education, law, and public administration. 

Turkey’s secularism has been more extreme than the French. Turkish writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol has likened it to a ‘doctrine of preemptive authoritarianism since it was reacting to a speculative future threat, not one that had actually yet emerged.’

Unlike most Western liberal democracies, the Turkish model was about freedom from religion. It was almost never freedom of religion, writes Akyol.

In 1989, the Turkish Constitutional Court annulled a law passed allowing the covering of hair and neck with a headscarf or turban because of religious beliefs in universities, saying it violated the constitutional principle of secularism. The court defined the separation as not just of the state and religion but rather a way of life.

Erdogan, who was jailed for four months in 1999, was forced to resign as mayor of Istanbul after a court sentenced him to prison for reciting a poem in 1997 that compared mosques to barracks and the faithful to an army.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) emerged as a splinter of the Islamist Virtue Party, which was banned in 2001 on the grounds of engaging in antisecular activities. 

The party first came to power in the November 2002 election following an economic crisis a year earlier that wiped out almost all of the established parties of the secularist elite. It would soon expand religious education and ease rules restricting religious dress.

The rise of AKP, which widened its support base by promising expanded religious freedoms as part of a democratic reform agenda, was initially viewed favorably in the West as a possible model for the wider Middle Eastern region.

It has sought to model itself on the conservative Christian democratic parties and shown pragmatism on religion while insisting Turkey will remain secular. In 2016, AKP leader Ismail Kahraman’s suggestion for the removal of ‘irrevocable principles’ enshrining secularism from Turkey’s constitution forced Erdogan to distance himself from the idea.

AKP supporters claim they have their own brand of secularism challenging Turkey’s foundational militant secularism. Erdogan has maintained his commitment to secularism but not at the cost of those seeking to express their religiosity more openly.

Erdogan alluded in his election speeches to ‘the dark period’ when the secular elite marginalized ‘pious’ citizens between the 1920s and early 2000s as he sought to undercut anger over the cost-of-living crisis, and inflation.

He performed better than what pre-election opinion polls projected. The polls suggested a tight race with Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead. On Friday, two polls showed Kilicdaroglu above the threshold.

AKP, the nationalist MHP, and others fared better than expected and were headed for a majority in the parliamentary vote. The election results confirmed growing polarization even as Erdogan’s ruling alliance was set to get a majority in parliament and give him an edge in the runoff.

The slow response of Erdogan’s government to the earthquake that left 50,000 people dead this year also fuelled anger. Sunday’s vote was seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s performance.

Erdogan remains popular among the rural, working-class, and religious voters for developing Turkey, enhancing its global standing, and expanding the rights of devout Muslims in Turkey’s strict secular state.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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