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Erdogan and Strengthening of Political Islam in Turkiye

Ms Tejusvi Shukla is a Research Associate with the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems at Chanakya University, Bengaluru, and Research Analyst with the Online Indian Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution.
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  • July 12, 2023

    Defying the majority of the predictions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retained power in the May 2023 polls amidst a major economic crisis and polarized domestic and international situations. Supporters at the sixth-century church-turned-mosque, Hagia Sophia, jubilantly chanted shouts of victory of “Islam” in the aftermath of the elections.1 On the eve of the national elections, Erdogan led the prayers at the Grand Mosque, where he re-emphasised his commitment to conservative voters.2

    There has been an expanding dominance of political Islam in recent Turkish politics. The central reasons are often cited as the ‘rebranding’ of the country by shedding the remnants of its colonial legacy and revival of the ‘Ottoman glory’. This revivalism, most prominently visible since Erdogan’s political rise in the early 2000s, enjoys significant popular support, as reflected in his historic victory in the recent polls.

    Historical Trajectory   

    Islam was an integral part of the Ottoman empire’ politics. However, the domination of the orthodox Islamic clergy and the challenge from the Europeans, resulted in the Ottoman Sultans initiating reforms distancing religion from public and administrative life.3 The reforms met with opposition from the conservative sections, even leading to the assassination of Sultan Selim III in 1808. These reforms witnessed some success under Sultan Mehmood II. Called the Tanzimat reforms (1839-67), they aimed at controlling the role of the ulemas and janissaries in political spheres.4

    However, the tussle between political modernisation based on de-Islamization and resistance to such changes continued. This formed a defining contradiction in Turkish Nationalism as it emerged in the years following the fall of the Ottoman Empire post World War I. Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the formation of a new Republic emphasised the ‘official civic’ form of Turkish Nationalism that focussed on the modern, westernised Turkish national identity comprising citizens across religions and linguistic communities.

    By the early 1930s, Islam was removed as the official state religion, Tarikat (religious orders) were banned, and the Latin alphabet was introduced in an attempt to break the bond between Islamic identity and Turkish nationalism. However, these initiatives contradicted popular sentiment yet again and this contradiction soon re-emerged under Nekmettin Erkaban through his Democratic Party in 1950.5 His party was banned on several occasions but re-emerged under different names.6 President Erdogan, co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, the AK Party), has carried forward the vision of creating a “pious generation” imbibed in Islamic revivalism.7  

    Turkish Nationalism under Erdogan 

    Since the rise of Erdogan in the political space of Turkiye in the early 2000s, Islamic revivalism has become pronounced and has prevailed over secularist tendencies. Three spheres may be examined in this context—domestic policies; symbols and popular culture; and international politics. 

    In terms of domestic policies, previously banned (or discouraged) religious expressions in public have been reversed. This includes state-supported revival of Islamic education through Imam Hakip schools, construction and enlargement of mosques for encouraging community prayers (over 9,000 new mosques built in 10 years)8 , and discouraging family planning with Erdogan himself arguing that methods of birth control were un-Islamic.9 Adoption of Islamic principles in various domestic economic spheres including banking (no-interest banking as under Shariya) has also been encouraged, although at the cost to Istanbul’s economic stability. 

    In terms of symbols and popular culture, this revivalism can be sensed in the tone and terminology of official media communication, the rise of revivalist themes in popular culture (with a special push on exporting such content as soft power tools), and the rebranding of national structures and identities. The content disseminated through official channels comprising the TRT world videos, Anadolu Agency’s reportage, and communication through Diyanet shows a renewed, emphatic emphasis on Islamic themes—including controversial reportage on Indian Jammu and Kashmir.10

    Popular culture has adopted revivalist themes in the face of widely watched Ottoman-era web series called Ertrughul Ghazi that has been widely exported—encouraging popular passions within and outside.11 The Hagia Sophia was declared as a mosque. It was previously identified as a museum since Ataturk’s era owing to the Christian–Muslim sensitivities attached with it.12  Moreover, the country’s official name was changed from Turkey to Turkiye.

    This revivalism of political Islam has also been visible in the international diplomacy undertaken by the Erdogan-led government, more prominently since 2014. The attempt to create a bloc alternative to the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 2019 is a case in point. The bloc led by Istanbul was supported by Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur. This effort though failed to fructify.13 This challenge to the leadership of the Islamic world through the reclamation of the Ottoman glory was a loud statement that created ripples throughout diplomatic circles.

    A similar actively-Islamic posturing had been adopted during the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis where Istanbul openly supported (diplomatically and through the provision of drones) the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan that created ripples among the NATO allies. His strong messaging with respect to supporting Pakistan against India on the Kashmir conflict, and support to the Muslim Brotherhood is another case in point. Moreover, despite having official relations with Israel, Ankara also opposed the Abraham Accords calling it a “treacherous act against the Palestinian cause”.14

    In Closing 

    To be sure, Islam has been an integral part of popular identities and regional imaginations historically. There have also been historical contradictions between a ‘civic’ secular Turkish nationalism and a resistant, revivalist Islamic nationalism. Ataturk’s policies created obvious resentment among the conservative sections (a significant portion of the Turkish population) which surfaced most strongly during economic or political crises. Hence, support for political Islam sustained and grew over the years.

    This is reflected in the gradually rising vote share of Islamic political parties across national elections since Erbakan established his first Islamic Party in the 1970s.15  Even in 2023, the support of conservative sections, especially devout Muslim women, has been recorded as crucial for Erdogan’s victory.16 The economic crisis facing Turkiye, the destruction caused by the recent earthquake, among other factors, was expected to curtail Erdogan’s political appeal based on Islamic revivalism. The electoral verdict, however, defied such expectations, leading political pundits to re-examine the domestic sentiments and popular perceptions of current Turkish Nationalism and the strength of the message of political Islam.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.