Islam and laicism in Turkey

By Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, Istanbul 2002 (Translated 2007)

When people in the West discuss Islam they usually discuss its classical version as it appears in the Quran and Islamic law. Muslims in Turkey, however, cannot be lumped together with Muslims from other Islamic countries. Many, Turks included, feel that the country suffers from a sort of split personality because it has placed one leg in the West and the other one in the Islamic world.

One does not need to read a lot of Turkish newspapers of various political and religious persuasions to understand that people in Turkey recognize the existence of the problem, but they naturally disagree as to its causes as well as to its solution. Some devout Muslims complain about encroachments on their religious freedom and even about being worse off than the Christian minorities in the country. On the other hand, Muslims who are oriented towards the West claim that the practicing Muslims intend to slip in Islamic law through the back door.

One may ask whether the religious problems in Turkey are to be found in Islam or in the special brand of secularism in this country. Or perhaps the root of the problem is to be found in the peculiar attitude to religious freedom found with both the practicing Muslims and with those who support secularism. Understanding of this bifurcation within the culture of Turkey is important as this problem affects nearly everything that is going on in the country from domestic and foreign politics to art and literature.


According to some Western scholars, and many Muslims too, Islam is not just another religion as for instance Christianity. It is also a political and social ideology comprising all aspects of society and human life. Some try to find the reason behind this in the so-called “principle of Divine Unity” or “tevhit” as it is found in the primary sources of Islam. Some even claim that because of this idea Islam is imbued with totalitarian ambitions.

In this connection one should not forget that the opinion and practice of most religious people have nothing to do with the primary sources of their faith. In spite of the merciful and nearly pacifistic background of Christianity Christendom has seen the most atrocious outrages against humanity. So instead of seeking the answers in the primary sources of Islam it might be more obvious to look for the answer in the understanding of Islam found with the believers. And here things get complicated.

Contrary to what is assumed in Western Europe the Turks often disagree on religious matters. This applies to both doctrine and practice. The majority of the population in Turkey is Sunni Muslim, but there is also a considerable Alevite minority. These are regarded as heretics by many of the Sunnites. The Alevites normally do not frequent the mosques, they do not fast and they have their own rituals. They are naturally not interested in having Islamic law as this would make them fall out with the state.

But also the Sunni Muslims disagree. Among them one can find anything from deists to radical Islamists. The liberal Muslims are not interested in having an Islamic state that interferes with their lifestyle. These Muslims are often the target of criticism from Islamists like Abderrahman Dilipak who writes (1991, page 175): “If Islam will come, will it be prohibited to drink alcohol? And what about our relationship to women and girls …? These are their biggest problems. ‘Are we also going to wear a headscarf,’ they ask. … Nobody is forced into being a Muslim. Still they do not want to leave their religion. They say: ‘Let us keep our religion, but continue to do what we always did. Let us not adjust to religion, but let religion adjust to us.'”

Dilipak argues in favour of religious freedom with the words (1991, page 176): “Let people live according to what they believe and freely express what they think. Let people live in freedom. Let us live together in peace.” But the following words of his make Muslims with a secular approach uneasy (page 90): “It is without discussion both logical and consistent for a Christian to be a secularist. But this would be inconsistent on the part of a Muslim. To claim to be both a secularist and a Muslim is a ludicrous claim that is both self-contradictory and inconsistent.”

Political Islam

The support behind parties with an Islamic programme witnessed since the eighties indicates that many Muslims in Turkey want Islam to play a greater role in the legislation. Many Alevites and liberal Sunnites are uncertain about what is going to happen if the religiously inclined politicians get more power. Their fears are sought justified by the experience they have had with radical Muslims, especially with the religiously inclined Refah party in the middle of the nineties. A mayor in Konya for example suggested having separate school busses for girls and in Sivas Sunnite extremists set fire to a hotel where a meeting was held by a group of intellectuals. People in the Refah party have not tried to conceal their intention of limiting the sale of alcohol. At some universities students who do not fast during the month of Ramadan are beaten up by religious radicals.

Concerning the situation in the nineties David Shankland observes (1999, page 116): “The rise of political Islam in Turkey has created a situation where plurality of religious belief is not bolstered, but threatened. In effect, this means that where people do not wish to conform to matters of religion, they may be threatened, forced to accede against their will, or worst killed. It is painful to liberal sensivities to spell these things out but absurd to ignore them.” With these words he also expresses the feelings of Muslims with a secular approach. They are convinced that freedom can only be upheld if secularism is forced upon the country. They are satisfied with the interference of the National Security Council on the 28th of February 1997 where political Islam for the time being was checked.

In whichever way the primary sources of Islam are interpreted, it is certain that many Turkish Muslims regard their religion as a totalitarian ideology. Professor Sırma (1997, page 101) writes: “Contrary to the secular opinion religion comprises all aspects of human existence from education to politics, from worship to social activities.” In the foreword to his book the same author writes (page 9 ): “What we want is emri bi’l-ma’ruf.” This Arabic term in its Turkish variation means ‘to impose what is good.’ This of course sounds quite acceptable, but to a secular Muslim this means ‘Islamic law.’ As Dilipak observes (191, page 160): “Islam is a religion where worship is politics and politics worship.” This thought is expressed in another way by Ziyaüddin Serdar (202, page 8): “If equal rights are given to Islam and to the state, there is a danger of an authoritarian and despotic system because all power will be left with those who rule.”

 İçtihat, tarikat and takiye

The misgivings of secular Muslims when it comes to Islamic law has to do with the idea that the door of “içtihat” is closed. This means that the legal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam has been closed and is final. This constrains the believer within the traditional interpretation of Islamic law that is more than a thousand years old. True, intellectual Muslims like Professor Yaşar Nuri Öztürk have argued in favour for a reopening of the ‘door of interpretation,’ but most of the practicing Sunnites in Turkey are traditionalists, so there is no sign of any immediate change.

Another reason for the concern of the secularists is found with the Muslim brotherhoods, the so-called “tarikat.” These brotherhoods usually have their roots in Sufism and they are very influential among the faithful. These brotherhoods claim that they have no political ambitions, but secularists fear that their influence will push the country towards Islamism.

This fear is often sought justified by claiming that the brotherhoods, the religious movements and many radical Muslims practice “takiye.” This means that they on purpose express themselves in a way that conceals their real intentions and ambitions. In other words, the secularist accuse the Muslim activists of being basically untrustworthy: They claim that many of them pretend to support democracy and religious freedom, but one cannot trust them. This suspicion has automatically turned into mutual distrust and has resulted in mutual dislike.

Secularism in Turkey

The word secularism normally denotes at total separation of “church and state,” but this does not apply to the secularism of Turkey. Dilipak scornfully calls it “byzantinism” and thus implies that religion is controlled by the state.

It is correct that secularism in Turkey has been mixed with “devletçilik” (etatism, centralism) which is one of the basics of Kemalism. By bringing matters of religion under the control of the state both Muslims and non-Muslims should be guaranteed religious freedom. This should furthermore ensure that religion would remain a private matter and that Islam would ‘stay inside the mosque.’ According to the jurists S.M. Ünal and A. Akdamar the problem is relevant and acute because Turkey was a theocracy before it became a secular system. (1983, page 35) Two of the most fundamental concepts of the Ottoman world scheme were ümmet (the community of believers) and din-u-devlet (religion and state) which put anybody calling himself a Muslim under obligation to live according to the rules and the state under obligation to enforce them.

Many practicing Muslims do not want their religion to ‘stay inside the mosque.’ They would like Islam to play a more active role in the political and social life of Turkey (Özek 1962, page 14). But every time they try to change things in that direction, they are checked – usually by the military and to the satisfaction of liberal Muslims. This has made them say that the new religion of Turkey consists of Kemalism and secularism. They complain that their religious freedom is violated, for instance by the prohibition of women wearing head covering in the universities. According to Ocak (1999, pages 134, 135) the situation has resulted in a bifurcation of society with two sorts of Turkish, two sorts of history and two sorts of Islam as the official Islam does not match the religion of the people. Başgil (1996, page 183) observes that this situation makes civil servants and politicians play the role of reformers and doctors in divinity.

A solution?

It seems that the problem is created by the attitude of the parties involved. The religious are not inclined to relinquish their totalitarian demands on their fellow believers and the secularists do not dare to grant the devout Muslims full religious freedom. Both parties are uneasy about freedom of religion: The religious feel that freedom of religion for the liberals would be contrary to Islamic law. The liberal are certain that full religious freedom would be a deathblow to democracy. Başgil speaks about religious and political fanaticism (page 172). Perhaps fear would be a better word than fanaticism: Fear of abandoning tradition and fear of abandoning modernity.

The wound that has been caused by the clash between traditionalism and modernity can only be healed if both parties unreservedly accept religious freedom. But this would mean accepting that the state, whether it is Islamic or secular, has no right to interfere with the conscience of the individual citizen.


This article was written in 2002. In the meantime many things have changed. However, many of the problems discussed are still of current interest.


Başgil, A.F.: Din ve Lâiklik (Istanbul 1996)

Berkes, Niyazi: The Development of Secularism in Turkey (London 1964)

Dilipak, Abderrahman: Laisizm (Istanbul 1991)

Mardin, Şerif: Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey, in J.P. Piscatori (ed.): Islam in the Political Process (Cambridge 1983)

Ocak, A.Y.: Türkler, Türkiye ve İslam (Istanbul 1999)

Özek, Çetin: Türkiyede lâiklik (Istanbul 1962)

Serdar, Z. and M. Gaiberi: Devlet ile din bir olursa faşizm gelir! (Radikal, 13. May 2002)

Shankland, David: Islam and Society in Turkey (Eothen Press 1999)

Sırma, İ.S.: Alaturka Demokrasi – Alaturka Laiklik (Istanbul 1997)

Turkish Daily News, Ankara (Daily newspaper)

Ünal, S.T. and A. Akdamar: Türkiye’de Laiklik İlkesi ve Yehova’nın Şahitleri (Istanbul 1983)

About Antiochene

Writer and translatorliving in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey) and Copenhagen.
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