Tendencies towards Islamisation in Turkey

Power Struggle between Laicism and Islam

The political climate of the last few years in Turkey has made it possible for conservative religious elites to expand into more public domains and extend their social and political influence. Ömer Erzeren examines this development

Turkish newspapers reported recently on a conflict which took place in a long-distance bus. Some of the passengers wanted the driver to stop at a mosque so that they could say their prayers. Other passengers protested.

A spokesman for the Association of Bus Operators made a statement on the matter, pointing to regulations saying that no allowance was to be made for breaks for prayers on cross-country bus journeys.

Wine in the risotto

There was another incident which occupied the Turkish press for several days: ahead of the elections, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed Osman Günes as a transitional interior minister. In a luxury restaurant in the town of Mugla on the Aegean Sea, Günes found himself eating risotto together with the provincial governor.

The interior minister asked the chef for the recipe. There was uproar when he learned that wine was included. The pious interior minister insulted the chef; the governor stood up for the man and was dismissed from his office as a result.

And there's no end to the number of reports in the media on the design of headscarf to be adopted by Hayrinnüsa Gül, the wife of the president. The issue of which fashion designer is to advise her just runs and runs.

Islam in the headlines

In public discourse, Islam and Islamic religious practices have come to play an increasingly important role. That led to political demonstrations last spring. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the big cities to protest. They accused the government of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, of promoting the Islamisation of the country. Laicism was, they said, under threat.

But the organisers of the demonstration suffered a serious defeat when the AKP won an overwhelming victory in the polls. Even though the content of the two terms – Laicism and Islamisation – remains unclear, in recent years, under the rule of the AKP, they have become key terms in the country's political debate.

It is fairly clear, from the party's programme and from what it actually does, that the AKP is not trying to set up a theocracy or to introduce Islamic Sharia law.

But the AKP has permeated the whole of Turkish society – with AKP mayors in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara since 1994, with an AKP majority in parliament and an AKP government since 2002, and now, with an AKP president in Abdullah Gül – and it has been making active efforts to promulgate conservative religious values.

The people who make up the leadership of the AKP learnt their politics in the Islamist parties they belonged to until the 1990s. They shared a common reactionary religious world-view well before the AKP was founded as a party of reform.

Islamist party supporters making progress

In the last few years, it has also been quite noticeable how many graduates of Islamic preaching schools have been appointed to senior official posts. Political Islamist party supporters have never found it so easy to get on in the civil service.

The AKP government has also relaxed the rules for operating courses to study the Koran. Around a million school students visit Koran courses, mostly in the summer holidays. Successful students are promised presents, such as gold, bicycles or CD players. Advertising campaigns are sponsored by companies which are close to the AKP.

It would have been unimaginable a few years ago that a deputy governor could have said during the week of festivities marking the birth of Mohammed, that "the world needs a leader like the Prophet," or that religious books which attack the theory of evolution should be found in schools.

But the dissemination of conservative religious values is not primarily due to the AKP. Since 1950 and the end of the one-party system set up by the Kemalists, conservative governments have regularly used Islam as a way of mobilising political support. The call to prayer, which used to be in Turkish, became Arabic once more.

Quoting suras against Kurdish separatism

All the right-wing governments of the last sixty years have relied on the support of religious sects and groups. A half a century ago, people were chasing votes with Koran schools. After the putsch in 1980, the military too used Islam as a kind of unifying ideological principle against the Left and the Kurdish movement.

Under military dictatorship, religion became a compulsory subject in schools, and the military authorities organised the distribution of suras from the Koran to counter "the sin of Kurdish secessionism."

With the AKP, something new has come into the public domain: a way of life and daily practice which is motivated by religion. A particular design of headscarf which was developed as a consequence of the prohibition against female students wearing the headscarf to university has become a symbol of political commitment.

New influence for the conservative religious elite

The new conservative religious elite has found new areas in which to exercise its influence: hotels which require separation of the sexes in the swimming pool, whole areas of towns where alcohol cannot be served and where it has become the social norm to attend the Koran school.

Together with the neo-liberal economic model promoted by the AKP has come a highly suspect form of social politics. The AKP has made it customary for large donations to be given to private associations in connection with the awarding of public contracts or building permits.

Private religious social welfare organisations with dubious financial practices have replaced the state's social activities; they deliver religious content together with the practical assistance they bring to millions of people in need.

A conflict waiting to happen: the role of women

The issue of the role of women will face the AKP with major problems. The party has mobilised women in large numbers and uses them for party work, but decisions in the party are made by the men at the top.

The AKP wants girls to go to school, to drive cars and to attend university. But the role with which women are presented is that of the good wife and mother, as befits the party's conservative religious world view.

President Abdullah Gül married his wife when she was fifteen. According to current law, that would no longer be possible. The daughters of the AKP leadership study, just as they are told, but they marry young, and don't take up a career. The proportion of women in work in Turkey is 28 percent, one of the lowest in the world.

In the Global Gender Gap Index drawn up by the World Economic Forum, Turkey lies behind the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Cameroon and Burkina Faso in 105th place.

Should the proportion of women at work rise as a result of the economic boom, it may be expected that they will turn into a significant, material factor in the power struggle between laicism and Islam.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton


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