Ahmet T. Kuru is professor of political science at San Diego State University. Previously, he was assistant director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion. His books include Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (2019) and Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (2009).
Every action leads to some form of reaction. This is true regarding the relationship between religion and politics in the history of Turks. In the late Ottoman era, Sultan Abdulhamid (1876-1909) combined certain Islamist policies with an authoritarian rule. His rule, however, gave birth to a staunchly secularist young elite—the Young Turks.
After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, assertive secularism became its dominant ideology. Decades-long assertive secularist policies, nonetheless, failed to diminish the religious conservatism of the majority of Turkish society. Moreover, an Islamist generation emerged in the 1990s and onward, mostly in reaction to such assertive secularist policies as the headscarf ban.
Turkey is now ruled by a populist Islamist regime. On the one hand, the regime has not changed secular laws; there is no legal Islamization. On the other hand, President R. Tayyip Erdoğan has promoted Islamic discourses in various aspects of Turkish public life—from politics to schooling, from the bureaucracy to the media, and from foreign relations to everyday practices. What are the implications of this regime in Turkey’s present and near future? I will answer by focusing on three issues: personal piety, the future of the regime itself, and the future of Turkey.
The current Islamist regime in Turkey is not leading toward an increasing level of personal piety in certain segments of society. Instead, surveys show the opposite about the overall trends. Despite its claims about Islamic morality, the regime has been associated with corruption, bribery, nepotism, injustice, and oppression, at least since 2013. This association has led to the regime’s opponents to conclude that religion does not produce ethics. It is now very difficult to persuade a critic of the regime that public Islamic discourse and rules somehow produce ethical attitudes. Even for the supporters of the regime, the moral crisis Turkey faces is becoming increasingly more difficult to deny and to cover up. In short, the corrupt Islamist regime has led to the decline of piety among certain segments of Turkish society.
There are other reasons to be suspicious about the longevity of the Islamist regime in Turkey. Material reasons include the high possibility of a major economic crisis, which would further weaken the popularity of the regime. There is also an ideological reason. The regime is based on one-man rule, which lacks a consistent and well-defined ideology. Islamism, under the rule of Erdoğan, implies a set of discourses and policies, which have been decided and pragmatically changed by the leader. No ideological principle, no ideologue, no institutional body can challenge the decisions of Erdoğan. Therefore, Erdoğan will not leave a consistent ideology or institutional framework for the survival of Islamism after his rule.
Finally, I predict that the Islamist regime will create a radical reaction: a staunchly secularist new generation. Combined with the decline of piety and the lack of a consistent ruling ideology, this reactionary secularist generation will terminate the Islamist regime. The worst-case scenario is that Turkey will end up with a secular dictatorship. The best-case scenario is that both Islamists and secularists will learn from their mistakes and jointly rebuild democracy in Turkey in the post-Erdoğan period. Unfortunately, the second scenario is increasingly becoming too optimistic or even utopian.