Repressive Religious Political Strategy and Everyday Politics in Turkey

By: Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

April 15, 2019

Politics and Piety in Turkey

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not the most influential Islamist political actor in his country’s history; that title goes to his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan. But one might point that alongside his high-level daily political abilities, Erdoğan is the most hegemonic and repressive leader his country has seen in modern times. He is trying to recast Turkey’s diverse society and multilayered state structure in a religious mold, specifically a Sunni Islamic one. Beyond that, he holds himself out as both representative and protector of the global ummah, issuing sweeping declarations and turning Turkey’s transnational religious state apparatus, Diyanet, into an instrument of foreign policy strategies. Yet it seems that most of his efforts—building hundreds of new mosques, rewriting high school curricula to leave out evolution but include the concept of jihad—aren’t exactly hitting the nail on the head. A recent survey by polling company Konda found signs that the general population’s religiosity is steadily declining; the percentage of respondents calling themselves "religious conservatives" fell from 32 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2018. It seems that in both domestic and foreign policy, as well as in the functioning of the state itself, Turkey’s repressive government is running up against the same problems that frustrated the country’s founding fathers.

Almost a century ago, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrades set about building the modern Turkey, they tried to simultaneously establish both a secular state and a homogenous Islamic society which is under the secular state’s control. They treated Islam as both a threat to be controlled and an instrument with which to build a nation. The Kemalist regime monopolized and dominated Turkish Islam via Diyanet, abolishing old Ottoman institutions and ostracizing Sunni Islamic communities in the name of "state secularism"—a term that described not the separation of religious and state institutions, but the subjugation of Islam under state bureaucracy. On the other hand, the regime attempted to “reinvent” the citizens of Turkey by imposing upon them a homogenous Islam, one tightly circumscribed by the state and venerated as the new society’s moral foundation.

These state and society relationships to Islam might look contradictory, but ultimately, both of them were controlled by a single regime and enforced by that regime’s repressive methods. Yet in the long term, the regime fell short of its controlling goals. When Turkey entered a period of multi-party politics, the genie got out the bottle. The country’s new political actors soon realized that religious appeals could win over a wide base of support, and that appealing to people’s deep sense of Islamic identity was a powerful political tactic. As this realization set in, so began the long march of Turkey’s religiously sensitive cadres from periphery to center, defying the repressive power of Kemalist institutions. It was in this process that Erdoğan began his political project of forging state partnerships with Islamic communities, essentially atomizing Turkish society to consolidate power—a project precisely at odds with Atatürk’s vision.

Many have argued that since 2002, Turkey’s sui generis secular state-society structure has been endangered by Erdoğan's pro-Islamic policies and Islamic communities’ increasingly central role in his government. There are certainly signs that Turkish secularism is under pressure, from Diyanet's fatwas on political issues to growing enrollment in religious schools. But Erdoğan is hardly the first political leader to exploit religion for his political goals, and he surely won’t be the last. More than that, if Turkish secularism means the governing of Islam by the state, one might argue that Turkey is still a secular state on its own terms. Yet on the other hand, Erdoğan’s repressive policies—to say nothing of his party’s alleged misdeeds and corruption, both of which it has tried to cover up by invoking Islamic discourse—is stirring up a popular backlash, particularly among the younger generation.

According to Konda data, between 2008 and 2018, while the number of individuals who define themselves as atheist increased from 1 percent to 3 percent, the number who describe themselves as “very religious” fell from 13 percent to 10 percent. More than that, the number who regularly fast and wear the hijab has also decreased under Erdoğan’s rule. From these results, one might argue that Turkey’s society has once again resisted religious-oriented social engineering, just as it has throughout history. But despite the moderating trend when it comes to personal religiosity, the same survey found that the percentage of respondents identifying with the term “traditional conservative” has increased from 37 percent to 45 percent—and in Turkey, one of the principal tenets of being “conservative” is to be religiously sensitive. Yet, again paradoxically, the percentage of respondents identifying with the term "religious conservative" has decreased from 32 percent to 25 percent.

At a glance, these numbers look like evidence enough that Erdoğan’s strategy of religious hegemonic repression isn’t working. Yet on other fronts, it does appear that Erdoğan’s efforts are starting to pay off, even if in subtle ways. While the strongman’s party recently lost control of Istanbul and Ankara, the cities that power the country’s economy, even the social democrat candidates who eked out victories carefully campaigned within religiously sensitive discourses. Some even chose to swear oaths on the Qur'an for the cameras. Even if these gestures were more tactical than heartfelt, they still betray the reality: whatever society as a whole might think, Erdoğan is successfully reshaping Turkey in his preferred image.

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