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Translation Embassy | The fight between secularism and islamism
Translation Embassy | The fight between secularism and islamism
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The fight between secularism and islamism

06 Mar The fight between secularism and islamism

Foundation of the Republic

The Turkish Republic is proclaimed in 1923. Its President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, soon initiates a series of radical reforms to modernize the Turkish society. Kemal supports that religion is an individual matter and defends a secular state. To a great extent the reforms follow western standards and are applied very quickly. Things change from one day to another. Kemal is the main hero of the Turkish Independence, who founded the modern Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. During the previous years he saved his country from dissolution and disaster. Therefore he is very popular, enjoys a great obedience and his reforms are widely accepted.

The rapidity of the changes though causes a deep division in the society, which troubles the country even today. Yes, Kemal is a hero respected by everyone. A great part of the population though is shocked by the radical changes and is not ready to give up old traditions so abruptly.  This is the beginning of a very controversial issue that marked deeply the Turkish identity. Clashes affect societal as well as political life and last throughout decades until today.

Examples of Kemal’s secularist reforms:

  • The madrassas were closed and all schools were put under the authority of the Ministry of National Education.
  • Abolition of the caliphate and sultanate
  • The clergy was made subordinate to the department of religious affairs (Diyanet) controlled by the state.
  • The Ottoman alphabet (which was considered to have a religious aspect) was abolished and replaced by the Latin alphabet.
  • Western type hats were introduced instead of the Ottoman fez and were made compulsory for civil servants
  • Dress reform which introduced western type suits instead of traditional religious clothing
  • Sufi orders and their lodges (tekke) were closed down.


Military coups against islamic / conservative governments

In 1923 we have the transition of the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. This transition has a political dimension which affects the administration and the way of governance. This evolution of this dimension was pretty much successful. However the social dimension of the transition does not evolve in the same speed or the same successful way. The political and social structures are not aligned and this creates the conditions either for authoritarian governments to dictate to citizens how they should live or for coups to take place and make sure the political will is aligned with the secular principles of the republic. When it comes to coups, it is worth to mention that the military does not usually want to govern the country. With their intervention military officials rather desire to set up a system that safeguards and promotes the principles they believe in, regulate the political construction and then withdraw from the political scene.

27 May 1960

The conservative Democratic party of Adnan Menderes came into power in 1950. Although it embraced Ataturk’s principles fundamentally, it gave the impression of violating the principle of secularism to some people, because it introduced religious reforms. Furthermore this new Party was not representing the previously established elite or old military bureaucrats, like its opponent, the CHP. The coup d’état against the Democratic Party government happened in 1960 with the purpose of bringing Ataturk’s republican party, the CHP, into power again. Democratic Party MPs were put on trial for violating the Constitution, breaking the national unity, acting against the principles of the Republic, authoritarian governing etc. As a result of the trials Adnan Menderes was executed.

28 February 1997 – The post-modern coup

This coup was made against Necmettin Erbakan, prime minister and leader of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), a party with a clear islamic orientation. In response to this Islamist challenge the military send an ultimatum to Erbakan forcing him to take harsh measures against “religious backwardness” as they called it. Such measures concerned the banning of the headscarf in universities and public services, the abolition of Tarikats (sectarian groups), the closing down of religious schools and other measures meant to safeguard the principle of secularism. The generals compiled even a list of “backward minded”, namely too religious companies and boycotted their products. They also put on trial Islamic spiritual leaders and fired “undesired” journalists. It was then when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, member of the Welfare party, was put into prison for inciting hatred against the Kemalist regime. The generals also coordinated the media, universities, the judiciary and the bureaucracy to put pressure on Erbakan. Erbakan finally resigned and the mandate to form a new government was given to Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP), thus bypassing Tansu Çiller, Erbakan’s coalition partner and leader of the second party in Parliament.



Secularism vs. Islamism in the society

Turkey is a country of contrasts. The traditional rural Anatolia and the western urban metropolises. The gay bars in the area of Taksim and the traditional (though touristic) restaurants which do not serve alcohol. The cosmopolite district of Bebek, where you see modern dressed women, and the religious neighbourhood of Eyüp, where a woman may feel uncomfortable if she is dressed in shorts or mini skirt. The area of Caddebostan, where you can sit with friends by the sea and have a beer and Emirgan park, where the police may come to reprimand couples who kiss in public place.

A major factor that may put pressure on the young generation is the pressure of the family. Although we should not generalize and put everybody to the same category, there are quite a few youngsters who hide their real habits from their families in order not to get in trouble. They may often have drinks with their peers or date girls, but all this in secret. Alcohol is consumed in homes and girls are dated in areas far from their home. Nobody from the neighbourhood or close milieu should know or see them.

When it comes to islamic businesses they may have some rules which will surprise you sometimes, although you don’t notice any difference in their policies most times. I’ll give you two good examples. If you travel to Turkey for tourism, you may notice that some hotels do not allow unmarried couples to stay in the same room. When I talked about this with a receptionist once, he confirmed that this principle is applied mostly with regard to local couples reassuring me that a foreigner would be excluded. Another example from the food industry. It was a bit surprising to see that some food restaurants close for the whole month of Ramadan. These are usually very few, so people do not get practically affected. Their tactics is of course legitimate and respectful. Yet this is something we wouldn’t come across in Belgium, Ireland or another western country.

The real estate market gives also some good examples to understand the conservative mentality. Unmarried couples may find it difficult sometimes to rent a place together, especially in smaller more closed local societies. Landlords often prefer to rent their apartments to families, which are their top choice of tenants. Even single persons come to a second position regarding this. Unmarried couples need rather to restrict their house hunting efforts in more modernized areas to eliminate the chances to get rejected.

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