How Turkey’s Repressive Secularism Helped Rise Of 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, fell short of an outright majority before he defeated Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a runoff vote in June 2023. He faced the toughest election of his career but ultimately prevailed to extend his 20-year rule. In 2018, he registered an outright victory over three candidates with 53% of votes with his closest opponent managing just 31% of the votes.

The 2023 Turkish election was keenly watched globally as its outcome was 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 has maintained cordial ties with their arch-rival Russia much to the dismay of many in the West.

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

The Appeal

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

Much of Erdogan’s appeal, however, 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. 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 thrice 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 not about freedom of religion. It was freedom from religion.

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.

Erdogan alluded in his 2023 election speeches to ‘the dark period’ when the secular elite marginalized ‘pious’ citizens between the 1920s and early 2000s. He sought to undercut anger over the cost-of-living crisis, and inflation through this. Erdogan performed better than what pre-election opinion polls projected. The polls suggested a tight race with Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead.

AKP, the nationalist MHP, and others fared better than expected and secured a majority in the parliamentary vote. The election results confirmed growing polarization.

The Odds

Erdogan managed to overcome the anger over the slow response of his government to the earthquake that left 50,000 people dead months before the polls. He maintained popularity among the rural, working-class, and religious voters over developing Turkey, enhancing its global standing, and expanding the rights of devout Muslims wary of a return of suppression at the hands of hardline secularists.

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

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