Secularism in Turkey: Stronger than Ever?

Turan Kayaoglu
Turan Kayaoglu Former Brookings Expert, زميل سابق في بروكنجز

April 10, 2012

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Massive uproar in Turkey over the government’s role in religious education shows that despite fears the nation is on the verge of abandoning its secular past, a version of secularism has actually gained traction in Turkey, even among pro-Islamic conservative elites.

Controversy began last month when an opposition deputy from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed a lawsuit against a new regulation aiming to level the playing field for students of the Turkish imam-hatip (a type of secondary school with a religious curriculum along with the standard curriculum) in university exams. Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—an imam-hatip graduate—responded to the lawsuit January 31, stating that his government wants to “raise a religious youth.” Within a week, Turkish secularists and conservatives alike had hurled a barrage of criticism at the Prime Minister, accusing him of abandoning secularism and dangerously meddling with religion.

For secularists, Erdoğan’s statement was a revelation of his true colors. The leader of CHP called him a “religion-monger,” and the staunchly secular teachers union Eğitim-Sen claimed Erdoğan had for the first time publicly admitted his hidden agenda. Criticism also proved rampant in academic circles, which put forth a petition within 24 hours of Erdoğan’s statement.  Signed by over 2,000 individuals, it reads: “[O]f Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi’i, religious and nonreligious, atheist and agnostic backgrounds, all joined with a firm belief in secularism, [we] find your recent remarks about raising a religious and conservative youth most alarming and dangerous.” Each of these statements reflects liberal beliefs, which argue that a state policy to raise a religious youth is undemocratic, let alone impractical because millions of Turkish people have embraced secular lifestyles for decades.

Perhaps the most biting criticisms of Erdoğan’s remark were accusations of hypocrisy based on the contrast between his statement on January 31 and one he made on Egyptian TV last September, when he stated: “As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I am a Muslim but not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular regime.” This statement, representative of Erdoğan’s long-standing political tendency toward secularism, renders his recent statement seemingly contradictory.

While opposition from secular and liberal corners was expected, more surprising was similar opposition in pro-Islamic media. In pro-government Bugün, columnist Gülay Göktürk noted, “These words did not befit Erdoğan at all.” She continued: “no one has the right to convert this society into a religious one, or the opposite.” In Zaman, the leading conservative daily, commentator Tamer Cetin asserted that because of the diversity of religious interpretations, focus should be on common ethical values, not religious ones. Further, regular columnist Mümtaz’er Türköne said raising a religious youth is actually dangerous for religion, as formal and public indoctrination would cheapen a religion which requires intimate and private connection to God. All argued that religious education should be left to civil society and parents’ demands.

This overwhelming consensus among elites reflects a broader trend in Turkey, whereby religious segments of Turkish society have increasingly accepted secularism throughout the rule of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), which Erdoğan heads. According to a study conducted by the left-leaning Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), despite the relatively stable level of religiosity in Turkey, the percentage of people who want a religious state has actually plummeted from 25% in 1996 to 9% in 2006. And a recent poll conducted by Konsensus Research concluded that only 34% approved of Erdoğan’s January 31 statement.

While Turkey’s religious communities are deeply interested in raising a religious generation and society, they object to this becoming a state policy. For these religious groups, secularism appears to constitute not secularization of behavior or society, but rather secularization of state law and policy, such that religious education is conditioned on parents’ choices. Pro-Islamic conservatives’ overwhelming preference for civil society to supply religious-based education implicates they have grown to accept the separation of state and religion.

Turkey’s widespread secular consensus forced Erdoğan to make a rare political retreat. On February 6, he accused critics of misinterpreting his statement, and reaffirmed a commitment to liberty and democracy. He further asserted that his government would not impose any policy against the people’s wishes.   Therefore, not only is the public majority’s consensus on secular government undeniable, but so too is the strength of the majority’s voice as Turkey’s politics move forward.

In a time when the Arab uprisings have brought Islamists to the power, Turkish religious groups’ embrace of secularism during rule by a pro-Islamic party shows growing consensus around secularism in Turkey. Whether or not the same will happen in newly formed governments of other Arab countries under majority-Islamist rule is yet to be seen, but growing factionalism in groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood suggests the Turkish trend may be upheld.