The State of Islam in Turkey under the AKP administration

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Translated by Melissa Clissold

Hello good day. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a long speech yesterday at the closing session of the 6th Religion Council. He addressed issues such as Turkey’s current position in the Islamic world and The State of Islam within Turkey during this speech. Presently there is an administration that has been in power for 17 years; Erdoğan has been here since the beginning, and especially in the last 4-5 years, Erdoğan has been ruling over the country by himself.

All of the other powerful names within politics have become marginalized, liquidated – currently there’s a one-man administration, an authoritarian regime. We see that Erdoğan, who speaks from within the Islamic religion, has nothing to say regarding the balance of the last 17 years. I examined his speech: there is not much mentioned other than certain observations and concerns regarding problems being experienced in the Islamic world, Turkey’s problems, young people in Turkey distancing themselves from Islam, and cliché remarks regarding Alevism. So, despite the fact that people from within the Islamic movement in Turkey have kept this issue on the agenda all the time, they have left almost nothing behind; they are still in power, but they have also not done much for the upcoming period. 

For example, he states that the Islamic world is lifeless – this is something that has been said for a long time: He states that “We have fought great struggles regarding this issue, talking is not making a decision; we must make it a part of our lives”, but there’s not much to show for this. After saying such things, he doesn’t say “we did this and we did that”. Other than the buildings established by the Islamic world in Turkey – namely the Ministry of Religious Affairs and its Foundation or the Maarif Foundation – these buildings being mainly mosques, there isn’t much that Turkey’s administrators can say regarding the Islamic world

He says that the number of Imam Hatip high schools are increasing in Turkey, the number of students too; However, there are serious doubts about the quality of the education and the Ministry of National Education is putting aside additional budgets to improve the quality of these schools. There are many people speaking in the name of Islam on social media, but most of these people are very superficial; there are people who are declaring a lot of fatwas, but even if you put all these together they wouldn’t manage to make up one person. The result of the 17 years is a complete fiasco.

The AKP government paved the way for Islam and religious people to flourish completely within Turkey -especially Sunni Islam, not Alevism- the doors were opened wide; but not many people went through this door or those that did, did not come out the other end the way that the AKP desired. Erdoğan has said that “Most of our children which we look at as a guarantee of our future, are unfortunately left defenceless against twisted movements which have originated in the West, which are the products of the Western mind-set.” When he talks about our “children” here, he is talking about young people in Turkey, but especially children of religious families. 

Because – we have discussed this here many times before –, deism and atheism have been growing rapidly especially amongst new generations of children of religious families. There has been a lot of research carried out and observations that show that many people are distancing themselves from children – there are some who carry out certain practical religious duties but do not have much belief at all – I personally have observed this too in a serious manner. There are different manifestations of this – we talked about the headscarf issue before – for example, some women decided to stop covering themselves and are clearly expressing themselves more openly.

How should all of this be interpreted? In fact, two years ago, I made a broadcast here which I titled “Religion is slipping away” – the notes that I made for that broadcast are in front of me – and the things I said then are still the same, in fact they are continuing on with even more strength. For example, there are some who have started questioning religion as a result of the political administration constantly attaching itself to religion, as they are also unpleased with the way that they are ruling over this country. Therefore, AKP’s loss, Erdoğan’s loss also somewhat means that Islam is also losing in Turkey. Is Islam gaining anything at all? I’m not sure, but people can easily equate their losses with Islam. An important and unchanging aspect: it is not possible for a society to become religious by force of the government.  

For a very long time, researchers working within the Islamic movement in Islamic countries – especially sociologists, anthropologists, and in some ways political scientists – whenever they talk about this issue they create such a concept – at least these existed in the beginning of the 90s, I’m not sure if it still exists: Top-down Islamification, and bottom-up Islamisation. Islamisation from the bottom to the top usually exists in authoritarian-totalitarian regimes – and in some times democratic regimes – religious people moving towards the centre and in this respect a large amount of mobilisation, action and a dynamic movement. 

At the same time, it is an attractive movement for young people, women and those who criticize the centre. We have experienced examples of bottom-up Islamification in the Arab world and Asia a lot, in certain places in Africa and in Turkey especially in the middle of the 80s in Turkey. This is an aspect that has been experienced through certain religious organisations, groups, certain charismatic people; sometimes via political parties – we have witnessed this a lot in Turkey. And then there is the aspect of top-down Islamification. 

One of the most striking examples of this is of course Iran; but at the same time it is an incident that we saw during a certain period in Gulf countries that have adopted Wahhabism as an official ideology – especially in Pakistan. Almost all of them ended in failure; that is, the regimes still exist, people have not been Islamised by the state. Although sometimes this happens: Islamisation by the state is actually used as a means of controlling society; “People are not Islamised , the state is Islamised  but when we look at individuals’ devotion to religion, the numbers are not very high. The most striking example is Iran at this point.  There are still serious questions regarding young people’s devotion to Islam in Iran, especially young people who were born after the Revolution.

Another aspect of the events occurring in Turkey, actually when we say Islam the first thing that comes to mind – of course we mentioned the party, the politicians – but there are also religious groups, organisations. When we talk about religious groups, we saw a domination of Fethullah Gülen in Turkey. Gülenism became a sort of central aspect to Islamisation through the permission, acceptance and incentive of the state and the AKP administration – it will be remembered that Erdoğan had said “We gave them everything they wanted, didn’t we?” We know that fields of culture, media and in fact the economy were in some way handed to the Gülenists via the AKP administration, they also handed over the state in some ways.  But in the end, this alliance ended and turned into a war. It has become a cut-throat war – as well as a coup attempt – we witnessed a war between Political Islam and societal Islam, and the reason I say that this is a war: People have died. 

This war, in the end, led to a huge fraction of Turkey putting a distance between themselves and people, structures who represent Islam both politically and socially. It may not be exactly possible to see this today, but we can easily predict that any religious group in Turkey will probably experience some difficulty in raising money to open schools, Quran courses etc. or hand out scholarships to students. Because this incident, all of what the Gülenists have done, and then them becoming criminalized by the administration who claims to be Islamic, has changed the situation quite a lot. 

This war, is a war with no gain and both sides lost as a result of this war; not only did these two sides lose, but Islam as a religion has also lost this war and continues to lose. This didn’t happen: no single structure has managed to stay out of the war between Gülenism and the administration, and come out and say “Look, we are true Islam, we are the ones who interpret Islam in the most real way” and fill the void that this war has created. But we must stress this point specifically; many people have benefitted from these tensions and this war. Other than these Western rooted perverse ideas and movements that Erdoğan discusses – those “jihadist” – this is a term that has been used a lot in recent periods – radical Islam commentaries have also benefited from this in a serious way. 

Another aspect: We observe the people who appear to be representatives of Islam, those appearing on the TV, those tweeting, sharing videos on Facebook. They are especially trying to market backward thinking, especially through women and children. Such a thing exists and therefore people feel a lot colder towards Islam. And the AKP administration and the state are not taking a serious stance against these structures, whilst it is expected that the Ministry of Religious Affairs would take a stance, what they are doing is unimportant. Apparently recently, the Minister for Religious Affairs stated that certain groups claiming that they are Islamic should be more transparent.

This is a very important suggestion; but because the Ministry of Religious Affairs is not transparent itself, because it doesn’t explain where and how it spends its budget, their claim is an empty one. The Minister of Religious Affairs – especially recently – has adopted an attitude of “I hope the administration doesn’t do anything to me”, so it has kept a low profile. And despite receiving so much money, for 17 years, The Ministry of Religious Affairs does not have the influence on society that the AKP and Erdoğan expected. In fact, such a problem exists:  Turkish society is religious enough; but when states try to create Islamisation, the existing devotion to religion can in fact lessen and this is also my view. 

If we are to summarise here: What’s happened in 17 years? Firstly, that opposing claim disappeared, the stance of being a victim disappeared – even though they try to create victimhood through small things here and there – and most importantly, there is a concept that Şerif Mardin really likes: the concept of “charm”. That was a reference to the French philosopher, originating from Algiers, Muhammed Arkoun, who is also no longer alive.  Charm within Islam, charm within religion, within the Quran; that thing which cannot be fully explained, that thing which grabs people. So long as it exists, people will turn to religion. I think that the AKP administration has destroyed the charm of Islam in Turkey; they have destroyed that which attracted people to Islam.

Now I want to quote Erdoğan. Erdoğan interprets the relationship between religion and the world like an Islamic scholar:

“A Muslim should not adapt religion to suit his/her life conditions; he/she is liable to adapt his life to his beliefs. If by any chance, a person does not live according to his/her belief, after a certain time he/she will start to believe in the way he lives. If religion is not penetrated into a persons’ life, the person will start to justify his actions in the name of religion. Therefore, Islam is not adapted towards us; we will act according to Islam.” 

There are big claims, but we can’t say that the AKP has actually carried out this philosophy in the last 17 years. If the AKP was truly acting according to, and was born from Islam, then we must interpret the state of that religion as a dreary one. It’s easy to say such things; yet when we look at all that is being experienced, as a journalist who has been researching this topic for years, from the days I started first reading about Islam I realised that Islam’s biggest claim is one of justice and currently there is no justice present in Turkey.

I finally want to discuss the Alevi issue: Erdoğan states that “We make no discriminations against different sects.” I think that there is. There is a huge imbalance when it comes to the ratio of Alevis in Turkey and their lack of representation in the state. The AKP stated that they would start an initiative towards the Alevi issue, but they almost did nothing. And the reason they showed for not being able to do this was that there were differences between Alevis themselves. 

There’s a sentence that Erdoğan always keeps in mind – from his time as provincial head, and mayor: “If Alevism is loving his holiness Ali, then I am also Alevi.” Alevilik is not about loving his holiness Ali; of course it is but it is something that begins with this concept, but it has its own history, its own thought, rituals etc. and in this respect it is different than Sunnism, especially Sunnism in Turkey. Therefore, Alevism cannot simply be explained as “loving his holiness Ali”

On the other hand, from what I know, there is a very small group amongst the Alevis who call out for “Alevism without Ali” and Erdoğan exaggerates this a lot in order to use this an excuse to not start an initiative regarding this Alevi issue. He mentioned this again in his speech yesterday; as if Alevism without Ali is the most prominent issue in Alevism and as if it is a movement from the outside – either the media did not see this or pretended not to see this – there is a very serious blame placed here:

“I’m saying this open and clear, the German state wants to plant seeds of division regarding Alevism without Ali in the Islamic World – especially our country – and they will pay a heavy price for this.” 

This is a huge accusation: That there is such a thing as Alevism without Ali, that the German state is transferring a lot of money towards this, and thus want to divide the Islamic world and especially Turkey. This is a serious claim, a very serious accusation and there need to be certain justifications for such an accusation; yet, we do not see such justifications. In the end, even if obstacles are not placed in front of Alevism for Alevis to ask for their rights or express their identities – such situations may exist – no such positive discrimination exists by the state towards them and Alevism is shown as being under the influence of foreign powers.

When we look at everything, such as for example the support the AKP municipalities and the state presents to Sunni Islamic Foundations and Alevi institutions, we would probably observe a huge difference. From what I know, a large portion of the Alevis have to look out for themselves and are experiencing grave problems because of this. For a very long time certain Sunni religious groups amongst the state and certain political administrations – in Istanbul especially in the past and other cities too -had been given with generous opportunities. Therefore, Sunni Islam in Turkey – and the Sunnis make up a majority in Turkey – has not strengthened in the last 17 years; it has lost its powers. 

On the other hand, there is an Alevism in question that has been abandoned to its own fate and whose way has never been paced open. In such a society, in such a country, if the young – especially children of religious Sunni families – are leaning towards beliefs outside of Islam or towards atheism then the ones responsible for this are of course not the children themselves; if in fact this is something wrong – yet, people are free, they can believe in whatever they want, but Erdoğan sees this as a crime, as a misdemeanour – the ones responsible for this and those ruling over the country and certain people, institutions and religious organisations that the ones ruling the country have encouraged. Yes, that is all I have to say. Good day. 

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