Islam has had a complicated relationship with the Turkish state, given the country’s secular heritage and the deep religiosity that has recently come to characterise President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP).
Many Turks have chafed at Erdoğan as he increasingly sought to reflect his own Islamist views on public life following his party’s election in 2002, but the president has persisted in his imposition of a more religious character on Turkey.
The Turkish state has long used religion to help govern Turkey but the relationship was more asymmetric than it may be today, political scientist Gökhan Bacık said in a podcast interview with Ahval News’ Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar
“What we call Turkish state tradition has been more or less the same since the thirteenth century,” said Bacık, who teaches political science at Palacky University in the Czech Republic and is an expert on Turkish and Middle Eastern politics.
Rulers in Turkey during the Seljuk, Ottoman and republican era have all used Islamic groups in different ways as part of their governance. As the host of the caliphate and while controlling Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Islam’s three holiest cities, Ottoman rulers relied especially on Islam to cement their legitimacy as the centre of the Muslim world.
Once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the new Turkish republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk underwent a process of reducing the power of Islam vis-a-vis the state, but not removing it completely. To this end, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was established in 1924 “to administrate the affairs related to faith and worship of the religion of Islam”.
Bacık said that Islam in Turkish politics was frequently used as an “ideology of justification” and was not always a “dynamic paradigm”. To this end, Turkish governments were content to work with religious groups, but only so long as it was the dominant player.
“When a group becomes too powerful to challenge the power elite, the state is quick to purge it,” Bacık said.
This has been a defining feature in the story of President Erdoğan’s rise to power and take-over of the state. For years, Erdoğan was a member of numerous Islamist parties that were suppressed by the republican authorities.
But once he became prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan found a ready ally in the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen. Together, they took over numerous posts in the government and worked together to defang the military, which saw itself as the protector of state secularism.
This partnership began crumbling after the Gezi Park protests and corruption investigations against Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2013. The drift reached a climax in 2016 after the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan that his government blamed on Gülen and his followers. Today the group is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish state.
In some sense, Erdoğan is a part of both historic trends in Turkey – he has used religion as an ideology of justification and increased pressure on it when religious forces opposed to him become a force in their own right.
“Erdoğan has always been a part of this network, but sceptical of these religious orders,” Bacık said.