In his discussion of the impacts of modernity on religion, John Wilson aptly states that the changes observed in religions’ response to modernity “by no means run in one direction only”. This is certainly the case for manifestations of Islam amongst the political elite in the republic of Turkey, which, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 has responded in multiple ways to modernity. Islam amongst many of Turkey’s powerful elite during the country’s foundation began with a response of self-accommodation to modernity, has changed how it responded to modernity multiple times throughout the last century, and is currently at a point of reasserting more conservative, traditional values. The multiplicities of these religious responses to modernity since 1918 are seen through Turkey’s politics, which have attempted to strike a balance between Islam, secularization and democracy. Despite the religious beliefs of people in power, and how those beliefs are reflected in Turkey’s politics, it is important to note that these positions are not representative of the beliefs of all Turkish Muslims.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire occurred during a time of ambiguous global Muslim leadership and paradoxical ideological movements. Characterized by pan-Islamic sentiment, increased nationalism, and a desire for modernization, the period of Turkey’s foundation was a time in which a noticeable shift in Islam’s response to modernity occurred. Initially, Islam amongst the elite in the newly founded state of Turkey responded to modernity by “self-consciously accommodating religious traditions to modern society”. In other words, people in power moved away from old Islamic traditions of the Ottoman Empire and began accommodating Islamic traditions to increasing Turkish nationalist sentiment. The leaders of the newly founded country were cognizant of Islam’s societal importance and conditions of Pan-Islamism, and consequently incorporated a Turkish-oriented form of Islam into the country’s foundational framework. This religious response of self-accommodation to increased nationalism during Turkey’s foundation is an example of one of five “explicit religious responses to social change as represented in modern society”. This self-accommodation response is shown through powerful Muslim actors in Turkey embracing economic and cultural models of globalization, as well as the ways in which the state included Islam during the foundation of its constitution during the 1920s. One primary example of this self-accommodation is that the drafters of the original constitution of Turkey included Islam, but deliberately changed the ways that it would be practiced, such as translating the Quran from Arabic into Turkish. This policy action during the country’s foundation reflected not only the Republican elite’s passion for modernization, but also an attempt to formulate a new, modernist version of Islam. This effort to incorporate Islam into the new country’s political system through conscious accommodation to “modern” standards showed how pan-Islamists, nationalists, and modernists cooperated with one another during this time.
Following the country’s foundation, Turkish political leaders such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the policies that he enacted during the 1920s and 1930s were increasingly secular. The implementation of policies such as replacing the Ottoman Turkish alphabet with Latin, not only disconnected Turkey from other Muslim-majority societies in favor of Western societies, but also reflected a different religious response to modernity. Atatürk’s policy decisions reflected his attempts to completely reject the old Islamic traditions of the Ottoman Empire rather than to accommodate Islamic traditions to Turkish nationalism the way the country’s founders did. This response fits into Wilson’s fifth form of religious responses to modernity, which states that the generation of wholly new traditions as an attempt to reject old traditions is one way that religion responds to modernity. In this case, Atatürk’s secularism and the policies it produced are the “wholly new” traditions that rejected and replaced ideals from the previously Islamic Ottoman Empire. Atatürk’s secular policies indicate a second shift of Islam’s response to modernity in Turkey, from a response of self-accommodation to one of complete newness of traditions. The ripple effects of Atatürk’s secularism continued throughout the mid-1900s, with policies such as the banning of Sufi orders and veiling of women in public. Again, these policies reflected the abandonment of “traditional” Muslim values, and instead favored strong secularism and modernism as the country’s new values.
In response to the secularism that was implemented on the greater Muslim majority society, many Turkish politicians in the late 1900s enacted different responses to modernity in attempts to maintain their political agency. Throughout the late 20th century, several politicians in Turkey played what Ayla Göl has aptly termed “the Islamic card”, a method of using Islam to gain political agency and influence. At the beginning of the 21st century, the AKP played the Islamic card with an “ambivalent” attitude of acknowledging Islam’s sociological significance, while maintaining pro-West attitudes. This ambivalence shows that the AKP were not only using Islam to gain political agency, but it also indicates a shift back towards the self-accommodation response that occurred during the early twentieth century. This return to self-accommodation from a previous position of implementing the “wholly new” of the mid-1900s is representative of a third shift in Islam’s response to modernity.
Recently, the response of those in power has shifted towards a reaffirmation of more traditional values, another one of Wilson’s five religious responses to modernity. Now, the religious response to modernity amongst people in power in Turkey has changed from conscious accommodation to a reassertion of traditional values, representing the fourth shift in Turkey’s history to a third type religious response to modernity. Turkey has shifted towards more conservative values as the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his political party, the AKP, have consolidated power. Although this response shift may have been driven by a desire to maintain political power rather than an ideological shift amongst Turkey’s political leaders, their reaction to citizens presumed religious leanings had political and subsequent societal implications. This kind of response is shown through the increased presence of Islam in the everyday lives of Turkish people. In 2017 for example, Turkey introduced a new curriculum for its schools which cut out topics such as evolution, a subject which is rejected by certain groups of very conservative Muslims . This policy change by the AKP is a clear example of returning to more traditional values, similar to some of the Islamic values of the Ottoman Empire.
President Erdoğan’s religious beliefs and the subsequent policies that have come about do not represent the beliefs of all Turkish Muslims. While it seems that Turkey, like the rest of the world, is becoming more conservative in its politics, it is important to remember that this shift towards conservatism is not caused by religion or clashes between religion and modernity, but rather by power and who has it.
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