The erosion of Turkey’s secular character has contributed to deeper domestic divisions, growing concerns about personal freedoms and a worrying deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the West.
Turkish voters on 24 June decisively re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to another five years in office. However, many argue that the steady deterioration of Turkey’s democratic institutions means Erdoğan’s opponents were not competing on a level playing field. In addition to concerns about growing elements of authoritarianism in Turkey, it is important to examine how ideology continues to shape Erdoğan’s path and Turkey’s future.
Erdoğan’s period in power—first as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, then as president since 2014—has coincided with a remarkable transformation in Turkish politics. The country’s political climate has evolved from one in which religion in the public and political spheres was largely shunned to one in which religion has become a focal point of domestic and international policy. This weakening of Turkey’s secular character has contributed to increasing internal divisions in the country, growing concerns about personal freedoms including women’s rights and a troubling deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the West.
Erdoğan’s political evolution has seen him go from Islamist to reformer, and then back towards Islamism. After training as a cleric and starting out in politics with several Islamist parties founded by his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, Erdoğan established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 with the vision of bringing together reform-minded Islamists with liberal and centre-right figures. Against the background of a serious economic downturn in Turkey, many Turks embraced this new party and enabled it to secure a major victory in the 2002 general election.
In the early years, Erdoğan sought to distance himself from his Islamist past, pushing for liberalisation on some social issues and reaching out to minority groups. He developed productive relationships with the United States, Israel and Europe, commencing full negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Around the world, many held up the AKP as a successful model of Muslim democrats who were open to other groups in society, respected individual liberties and advocated conservative rather than Islamist policies.
Yet as the years went on, Erdoğan’s desire to consolidate power, neutralise political foes and gain international influence resulted in two intertwined phenomena in Turkey: a resurgence of religious influence in the political sphere and a deterioration of democratic norms. Repeated attempts by the military, the judiciary and other secular forces in Turkey to challenge Erdoğan’s position have prompted major government crackdowns and moves to increase his power.
Erdoğan’s political evolution has seen him go from Islamist to reformer, and then back towards Islamism.
Some initially saw these efforts as legitimate actions to protect the democratically elected government. But over time these moves became ever more troubling, including reforms to increase governmental control over the judiciary and the near-takeover of the Turkish media by Erdoğan allies. According to the Financial Times, 90 per cent of the media in Turkey today is controlled by figures close to the president.
While struggling with his political opponents at home, Erdoğan revelled in his increasing international stature, striving to cultivate his image as one of the most important leaders—if not the most important—in the Muslim world. Following the Gaza conflict of 2008–2009, Erdoğan took an increasingly vocal stance against Israel, famously admonishing then President Shimon Peres in front of a large crowd at the World Economic Forum in Davos before exiting the event in anger.
Positioning himself as an outspoken leader and defender of the Muslim world also played well with Erdoğan’s base at home. Over time he began to ramp up his conservative religious rhetoric, leading him to retract some of his past tolerance on issues such as alcohol and women’s rights. In the past year alone, women’s rights campaigners in Turkey have protested the overhaul of marriage legislation that they argue will lead to more child marriages and what they perceive as increasing societal pressure to dress conservatively.
Internationally, Erdoğan’s growing Islamist and anti-Western tone has led to warmer relations with Hamas and the broader Muslim Brotherhood, and a vision of spreading a Turkish brand of Islam to rival the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia. This effort has been backed by massive increases in the power and resources of Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which sets standards for religious life and trains and employs thousands of clerics to work not only in mosques in Turkey but also in countries around the world. The Diyanet reportedly has links to around 900 mosques in Germany alone, or around 30 per cent of the country’s total.
Erdoğan’s desire to consolidate power, neutralise political foes and gain international influence resulted in two intertwined phenomena in Turkey: a resurgence of religious influence in the political sphere and a deterioration of democratic norms.
Erdoğan’s efforts to exert influence over the Turkish diaspora across Europe has contributed to his deteriorating relationship with the West. In 2017, he referred to the Dutch as “Nazi remnants” and accused the Germans of “fascist tactics” after authorities in those countries prevented the AKP from organising major campaign events on their soil.
FADING SECULARISM AND TURKEY’S FUTURE
FADING SECULARISM AND TURKEY’S FUTURE
Back at home, there are worrying signs that Erdoğan’s Islamist tenor has weakened commitment to the secular underpinnings of Turkish politics even beyond the AKP and its base. During this year’s presidential election campaign, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which in the past boycotted the Turkish parliament to defend the secular foundation of the Turkish state, competed with Erdoğan to win over conservative Turks with religiously tinged political rhetoric and public attestations of religiosity from the party’s presidential nominee, Muharrem İnce.
If it continues, this gradual erosion of Turkey’s secular democracy will undermine the country’s ability not only to overcome internal divides and rebuild relations with the West but also to revive its troubled economy. Even as figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that educational achievement of Turkish students has declined in recent years, Turkish schools have shifted to an increased focus on religious education and doctrine, evidenced among other things by the elimination of the study of evolution.
This shift raises real questions about whether young Turks are being equipped with the necessary tools to succeed in the modern, increasingly globalised economy. Turkey’s future will now be shaped by how far Erdoğan is willing to depart from the early ethos of the AKP, which provided a voice for conservative voters while respecting political freedoms, democratic institutions, and the separation of religion and state.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.