Portrait Yasar Nuri Öztürk

Religion and Politics in Turkey

When Turkish TV networks broadcast debates on Islam and politics, Yasar Nuri Öztürk is bound to be among the studio guests. Over the past few years, the reformist theologian and politician has become a popular media personality. By Ömer Erzeren

When Turkish TV networks broadcast debates on Islam and politics, Yasar Nuri Öztürk is bound to be among the studio guests. Over the past few years, the reformist theologian and politician has risen to become a popular media personality. By Ömer Erzeren

Yasar Nuri Öztürk with Kemal Atatürk in the background (photo: www.hyp.org.tr)
Öztürk has been very concerned about the rise of the Islamist movement in Turkey. He has always eyed with mistrust the Justice and Development (AK) Party, writes Ömer Erzeren

​​Does the Koran permit sex during the fasting month of Ramadan? What is the nature of Turkey's relationship with the EU? The professor of theology always has an answer, no matter what the topic. He can lecture for hours on the correct path for a devout Muslim who wants to follow the teachings of Mohammed.

Virtually everyone in Turkey is talking about him. After all, it's not every day that a 61-year-old theologian vehemently defends democracy and women's rights based on the Koran.

A best selling author in Turkey

Öztürk has written dozens of books on theological questions. He is also a frequent contributor to daily newspaper columns. And not a week goes by without him appearing at least once on television.

After completing his law degree, he worked as a lawyer before receiving a PhD in Islamic philosophy. He then went on to become the dean of the School of Theology at the University of Istanbul.

Öztürk has been very concerned about the rise of the Islamist movement in Turkey. He has always eyed with mistrust the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which currently heads the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Öztürk says that religion is being exploited for political purposes.

Öztürk's Republican People's Party

The rising influence of the Islamists is one of the reasons why the professor of theology decided to go into politics. In 2002, he was placed on a list of candidates for the Republican People's Party (CHP), which advocates a strict interpretation of Turkey's secularist constitution.

The campaign was a success and he was elected to parliament. Three years later, he had a falling out with CHP party leaders and founded his own party, the People's Ascent Party (HYP).

Öztürk's widespread popularity stems from his ability to show many devout middle-class Muslims how they can reconcile a modern way of life with the Islamic faith. For instance, he points out that the Koran clearly does not require women to wear a veil. He also feels that the practice of five daily prayers needs to be revised. According to Öztürk, there is simply no reference to it in the Koran.

Reconciling Atatürk with Mohammed

Many Turks have hailed Öztürk as a reformist theologian. Yet this runs completely contrary to his image of himself. In fact, he is an orthodox, one who seeks inspiration directly from the teachings of the Koran.

He says that all the evil flourishing around the world today in the name of the Koran comes from misunderstood customs and traditions that have nothing to do with the teachings of Mohammed. Consequently, he harshly condemns the Saudi royal family, the Taliban, Al Qaida and the heads of politically active Islamic sects.

When Öztürk's party puts up posters or distributes flyers, there is always a prominently displayed Turkish flag and photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Öztürk explains: "We aim to reconcile the message of Atatürk with the teachings of Mohammed. This is how we can liberate the Turkish republic and Islamic nations."

He says that secularism, in other words, the separation of church and state, was Atatürk's crowning achievement when he founded the Turkish republic: "Secularism means that the government is legitimized not by God or divine right, but by the will of the people. I don't think it's possible for Islamic societies to embrace democracy without a truly secular constitution."

He is convinced that Atatürk's Turkey can serve as a model for the Islamic world, which is precisely why Turkish secularism is so strongly resented by the "false prophets" of Islam.

Welcomed by the secular establishment

Not surprisingly, Öztürk has been welcomed with open arms by the secular establishment in Turkey. Recently, a columnist for the mass-circulation daily newspaper “Sabah” wrote that Öztürk was a suitable candidate for the office of president. The journalist saw him as a logical choice because no one could doubt his loyalty to both secularism and the Muslim faith.

In the spring of 2007, parliament will elect a new president. Influential members of the military and Kemalist officials in the public administration fear that Prime Minister Erdogan aspires to this office himself or will name one of his supporters as a candidate.

In addition to being an influential theologian, Öztürk sees himself as a patriotic politician, and he has quickly embraced many elements of Turkish nationalism. He says it was Christian imperialists who drew artificial borders in the Middle East. In his opinion, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk was the only man capable of establishing an independent Turkish state.

Today, over eight decades after Atatürk declared the republic, Öztürk is a staunch defender of Turkish independence. He calls on Turkey to pull out of the customs union with the EU. He claims that the customs union, which has been in force since 1995, is only a means to exploit Turkey. "It has destroyed our industry and agriculture. We have been swindled out of 184 billion dollars."

Öztürk has a highly individual interpretation of Kemalism. In contrast to the majority of the founders of the Turkish republic, Atatürk was by no means a devout Muslim. Countless measures taken during the founding years of the republic could even be called anti-religious.

Even today many adherents of Islam in Turkey have a real problem with the fact that religion has no place in the daily life of the political elite and military leadership of the country. A cadet at a military academy who prays will not only be viewed with mistrust, but could very likely be discharged from service.

It remains to be seen if combining nationalism and secularism while remaining devoutly religious will be a compelling strategy to win votes at the polls. Öztürk may be enormously popular when it comes to theological issues, but he definitely lacks a strong following as a party politician.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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