Sunni Islam is coming under heavy criticism for the first time in Turkey’s modern history because of the government’s use of religion in politics, political scientist Gökhan Bacık said.
“There’s a growing intellectual criticism on Sunni Islam because it’s very much pro-government, it’s silent on human rights abuses, it’s silent on labour rights, it’s silent on gender problems,” Bacık told Nervana Mahmoud for Ahval podcast series, Turkish Trends.
“Sunni scholars, who are blamed for that, are acting just to legitimise Islamist politics, mainly the government,” the analyst said.
While some Turks are becoming much more radical because of Erdoğan’s strategy to maximise Islamisation, others are gradually abandoning a traditional Sunni narrative, said Bacık, who teaches political science at Palacky University in the Czech Republic.
Last month, Erdoğan accused Turkish popstar Sezen Aksu on insulting Adam and Eve in a 2017 song, without mentioning the singer’s name, in what was seen as another attempt to intersperse national politics with religious rhetoric. Turkey was founded almost a century ago as a secular republic. Later in January, Erdoğan backtracked from his criticism of Aksu.
“One reason why Erdoğan stepped back on Sezen Aksu and clarified his position as saying that he was not directly targeting her, was mainly for that even among his young supporters, there is a kind of growing criticism against Sunni Islam in Turkey,” Bacık said.
Erdoğan dominates Islamic politics in Turkey and is the de-facto leader of a large league of Islamic groups, Bacık said. “But despite so, there are some groups, that somehow try to protect their autonomy against Erdoğan,” he said.
The groups are trying to challenge Erdoğan with religious arguments, Bacık said. Even staunch followers of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk have started to believe that, given Turkish people are now more religious, it might be better to challenge Erdoğan by using religious arguments, he said.
Turkey is now a divided society, Bacık said.
“If I may metaphorically speak, we have two active volcanoes in Turkey. One of them is Islam vs secularism and the other one is Kurdish vs Turkish nationalism. And Erdoğan is the master of surfing over them,” he said.
Many groups who support Erdoğan are ready to buy his religious arguments but there are others who oppose the way he uses religion in political discourse, Bacık said.
“They don’t find it morally correct. They don’t even find it epistemologically correct. So, we see more intellectuals, more Sunni scholars writing and speaking against traditional Sunnism,” he said.
This is the first time we see Sunni Islam on the defensive, Bacık said, adding, “We should wait to understand it’s impact on the long term.”
Sunni Islam in Turkey has historically had no capacity to criticise government or to propagate morality in business ethics, rather it promotes morality in rituals, such as attending mosques, fasting or praying, according to Bacık.
“Many people don’t get it but Islamism in Turkey is a copy of Islamism in Egypt. Islamism is not an original Turkish paradigm in the Turkish case. Especially after the 1960s and 1970s, Islamism in Turkey is growing in the direction of as we know it in Egypt. That’s why it’s not surprising to see that Erdoğan is very close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
“So I don’t think Erdoğan is introducing any new Islamic interpretation, he’s just revitalising the Sunni theology which was in this sense sleeping in Turkey,” Bacık said.