Turkish Islam is tied up with Turkish nationalism in a unique fashion, the product of Turkish history and identity. Turkey’s brand of Islamist ideology challenges the secularist components and the European identification of Kemalism, historically the dominant form of Turkish nationalism, but retains the central core of Turkish nationalism and statism.

Probably a majority of Turks do not perceive a contradiction between Islam and their attachment to Kemalist symbols, viewing both as integral to national identity. [1] Strikingly, a recent survey found that 41 percent of those who voted for the Islamist Welfare Party declared themselves laik (secular) which is a Kemalist identification. [2] Those same voters regarded Atatürk as the first among the great men of all time, even before the Prophet.

The army is the strongest symbol of the state-another association with Kemalism. Kemalist secularism, with its history of controlling religion, is a major factor making Islam in Turkey different from Islam elsewhere. In a general survey, 85 percent declared confidence in the army, 71 percent in the police, 60 percent in the courts, 54 percent in Parliament and only 49 percent in the government. [3] This underlines a deep sense of Turkish identity and unity based upon the Republican state and Kemalist symbols. These attitudes are attested to by strong popular support for the military’s repressive policy towards the Kurdish insurgency. Welfare leader Necmettin Erbakan accordingly has toned down his earlier criticisms of these policies, risking the loss of his Kurdish constituency in the process.

The ingredient of Islam nonetheless provides one dimension of modern Turkish political identity, as illustrated by the debate about the civil war in Bosnia. This issue has stimulated great resentment at all levels of Turkish society, and Bosnia featured prominently in Welfare’s campaign for the municipal elections of March 1994. Welfare supporters argued in streets and cafes that Bosnian Muslims are racially and linguistically identical to their Serb neighbors, differing only with respect to religion. This shows, so the argument goes, that a Christian Europe remains deeply hostile to Muslims, and that Turks who think they can be Europeans are deluded. While many educated Turks, including Islamists, do not see the issue in such stark terms, there is widespread fear of an “orthodox alliance” — Russia, Serbia and Greece, historical enemies of the Ottomans and oppressors of their Muslim populations — allied on regional and international issues, of which Bosnia is but one.

The Political Field

A crucial feature of the Turkish political system is its pluralism: political parties alternate in government through elections, and Welfare is fully integrated into this system. This may account for the marginality of violent Islamist groups, as compared with the vigorous, armed opposition in Egypt and the revolutionary forces in Iran. The fact that Turkish parties are engaged in real electoral contests leads them to seek constituencies of support. As in other political systems, this support is often clientelistic, based on communal and regional networks. In many parts of Turkey these constituencies are socially conservative and religious. As a result, the mainstream center-right parties (at present, the True Path Party and the Motherland Party) have always contained significant Islamist elements, including deputies in the parliament. This Islamist presence became more open and active in the relatively permissive atmosphere of the Özal era, in the 1980s.

Özal’s liberal reforms included a relaxation of Kemalist and secularist stances of the state, and public admission of Islam as an essential component of Turkish identity. The party he formed, Motherland, did not hide its strong connections to the Naqshbandi religious order. During this period, Muslim associations, foundations and charities flourished, making use of economic liberalization to pursue extensive activities and enrichment. A thriving “print capitalism” also had a strong Islamist presence. Most importantly, deregulation of broadcasting brought into being two channels with Muslim orientations. By contrast, in the Arab world and Iran broadcasting remains firmly under state control.

The other center-right party, True Path, until recently the ruling party, also contains Islamist elements and deputies in Parliament. Its leaders, President Süleyman Demirel and former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, protest their secular credentials and loyalty to Kemalist principles, but they are keen to be seen in public as pious Muslims, depending on the occasion. In this they resemble some Arab leaders, as in Egypt, who underline their secular credentials to their Western allies while emphasizing their piety and Islamist identity for internal consumption. Turkish leaders, though, face the added constraint of powerful and vocal secularist opinion at home.

Welfare, then, while an openly Islamist party, does not enjoy a monopoly on Islam in the political arena. At the same time, unlike some counterparts in the Arab world, it has to contend with a dominant Kemalist ideology whose banishment of the şeriat (shari‘a in Arabic) was one of the founding acts of the secular republic. Powerful sectors of the Turkish bourgeoisie view the şeriat as a threat to their lifestyles, and advocacy of its restoration remains highly fraught. While many Islamists are convinced of the justice and desirability of the şeriat, the leadership is often evasive and restates the reassuring formula that the şeriat is merely a general program, a path, and that democracy and pluralism preclude forcing its precepts on people.

At the same time, the Welfare leadership must cater to their constituencies by maintaining a strongly critical stance against secularism, Western orientations and educational curricula. Positions taken on these issues depend on the time and place of the pronouncements. The recent electoral campaign, and subsequent negotiations between Welfare and the other center-right parties to form a coalition, displayed this vacillation between moderation and anti-secular rhetoric. The pressures of electoral contests seem to produce a degree of moderation and compromise not seen in the Islamist groups operating under more repressive regimes in neighboring countries. This flexibility, however, is limited by the views and aspirations of the core Islamic constituencies.

Given that the most distinctive element of Islamist advocacy elsewhere — the application of the şeriat — is blunted in the Turkish case, what remains of the Welfare platform? Its economic program is not unlike that of Islamists elsewhere: neither capitalism nor socialism, but promotion of social justice, ending slavish dependence on the West, fostering cooperation with the Islamic world, protecting the national economy, and so on. It is not so much a concrete program as it is a critique of government corruption and the failure to achieve economic development and social justice — in the words of one critic, it amounts to lafzoloji, the art of pronunciation. The Islamists are not supported so much for their program as for their air of virtue and cleanliness.

Islamists everywhere are distinguished by their penchant for community work: charities, schools, clinics, cooperatives and so on. In Turkey, Welfare combines these communal works with electoral canvassing. The other parties mount high-powered media campaigns, enlisting glamorous personalities to support them in public meetings, but they are distinctly deficient in campaigning and canvassing at the grassroots level. They rely on local party machines involved in clientelistic networks. Welfare partakes in high-profile public and media events but also undertakes extensive and energetic campaigns at the local level. This is especially significant for the vast numbers of gecekondu (shantytown) inhabitants who are marginalized and neglected by the political system.

In its grassroots approach, Welfare fields a devoted body of cadres from all walks of life. In Istanbul one is impressed by the enthusiasm, friendliness and optimism of the many young men and women who have established networks in the localities and work through them. Candidates accompany local cadres on home visits. They offer advice on how to deal with complicated bureaucracies, provide support during family celebrations and crises, such as weddings and funerals and, for the religiously devout, offer help with hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) trips. Women cadres play particularly important roles in gaining access to homes and establishing female networks. Similarly, Kurdish Welfare members work in Kurdish neighborhoods of major cities, addressing their particular problems and frustrations in Kurdish.

In municipalities controlled by Welfare, this ethos of community service has been reinforced by the establishment of halk meclisi (people’s councils), through which people can present problems and grievances to local leaders. Welfare supporters cite these as instruments of direct democracy. Opponents contend that Welfare local politics are based on political favoritism and clientelism in employment and services — practices just as corrupt as those pursued by the other parties. Official Islam is represented in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, one of the largest and best financed government departments, which controls mosques, religious education, foundations and charities. Oppositional Islam, often hostile to this body, nonetheless benefits from its many dispensations.

Islamists have built strongholds in the Ministries of Education and Interior, where high officials are able to select supporters and sympathizers for key jobs and staff positions. Islamist dominance in the Education Ministry is reflected in policies, textbooks and teacher selection. In April 1994, following Welfare’s success in municipal elections a month earlier, secularists vociferously denounced şeriat education officials said to be collaborating with Islamists. As a result, 15 top ministry officials were sacked, accused of distributing pro-şeriat materials to schools and of leaking confidential materials to rightist and religious parties. The press suggested at the time that these officials were fired at the instigation of the National Security Council, in which the military is heavily represented. Pro-Islamist parliamentary deputies in the ruling True Path strongly attacked the minister of education for victimizing patriotic officials and favoring foreign influences. [4] It is widely believed, however, that the sackings were only a gesture and that the education system is still deeply infiltrated by Islamists.

Personnel of the Interior Ministry, the police and the security services are widely believed to be sympathetic to the ultra-nationalist right and to the Islamists. It was reported that 700 of the 1,600 key ministry executives, provincial governors and other functionaries are believed to be Welfare supporters. [5] Of the 76 provincial governors, 24 had performed the pilgrimage in the last few years at the invitation of the Saudi authorities. In 1994, the minister did not permit 20 more governors to accept such invitations. The police are brutally zealous in suppressing unauthorized demonstrations by leftists and trade unionists, yet were remarkably friendly to the unauthorized massive Islamist demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul in April 1994.

Sufi Orders and Social Islam

Turkey’s Sufi orders, still today one of the main manifestations of the particularity of Islam in Turkish society, were dissolved in 1925, their wealth confiscated, and any reorganization prohibited. Deeply rooted in Turkish social and religious life, these orders went underground and cemented their secret networks and solidarities. The secularization of foundations (vakıflar, from the Arabic awqaf) made them suitable vehicles for Muslim social activism. Both these processes contributed to the formal and public institutionalization of Muslim activism in Turkey.

The liberalization of state policy from 1950 allowed for a wide range of religious expressions and associations but did not end the formal ban on Sufism. At the same time, it did allow the orders to enhance their networks and activities, spawning a variety of charities, publications and educational and cultural activities, including the famous Mevlevi “whirling dervish” ceremonies in Konya and Istanbul.

Two religious orders in particular have played central parts in the flourishing field of social Islam. One, led by Fethullah Gülen, is the order of the Fethullahçılar, the richest and most important offshoot of the Nurcu movement. [6] The other, led by Mahmut Esad Coşan, is known as Iskender Pasha (the name of a mosque) and is one of the various offshoots of the Naqshbandi.

The Fethullahçılar have their own vakıf (foundation) and engage primarily in publishing: They own the influential daily Zaman, operate a TV channel and publish magazines, books, cassettes and videos. They are also involved, like all other Muslim organizations, in education, both in Turkey and in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. Fethullah Gülen himself is well connected with political and public figures. While not formally committed to any political party, the Fethullahçilar are known to support True Path and to have influential connections within it. [7]

Like that of the Fethullahçılar, the great wealth of the Naqshbandi organization is channeled through its Hakyol foundation, founded in 1980. The first Islamist party under Erbakan in the 1970s, the National Salvation Party, is said to have originated in this Naqshbandi milieu, blessed by Coşan’s predecessor and father-in-law Mehmet Zahid Koktu. Subsequently, Erbakan fell out with the new leader, and the links between the two organizations consisted in their overlap of membership. Korkut Özal, brother of the late President Turgut Özal, was part of the Naqshbandi group, and exerted great influence within the party and the government during Turgut’s leadership of the government and of Motherland. Turgut’s death in 1993 ended the association, and the Naqshbandi community remains formally uncommitted to any political party.

In the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, vakıflar were the vehicles through which many Islamist associations, including the orders, organized themselves and their activities. [8] Turkish legislation in 1967 and 1983 enabled the formation of new vakıflar — established for a variety of purposes, not just religious. The law stipulates that foundations should not have political objectives, but in practice the political parties registered support organizations as vakıflar, and religious associations and orders have made extensive use of this legislation to organize educational, religious and charitable activities based on clientelistic networks. [9

These groups and many others in the Islamist sector have exercised their influence primarily in the field of education and in the formation of a new generation of Islamist public functionaries, professionals and cultural leaders. The central educational focus of the Islamic foundations have been the imam hatip schools established by the government for the training of mosque imams and preachers. Their number increased dramatically from 72 in 1970, to 374 in 1980, to 389 in 1992. [10] The Islamic foundations have played a crucial part in the operation of these schools by providing scholarships, running residence halls and clubs, publishing books and the like. Their curricula, by no means confined to religious subjects, offer a full range of secondary education. Only a small number of graduates go on to work in religious professions. Many proceed to higher education at the main universities and find employment in public service, with the help of connections and networks established by the Islamic foundations. Only military academies have remained closed to imam hatip graduates, although there have been many rumors of Islamist attempts at infiltration.

The result of these activities has been the production of large numbers of well-educated Muslim intellectuals, professionals and government functionaries. Their networks and organizations are not clandestine or conspiratorial, but mostly public and open. They provide an Islamist platform of modernity that effectively challenges the hegemony of Kemalist secularism and the Western orientation of Turkish educational and political culture.

The Kemalist state’s suppression of Sufism seems to have facilitated preservation of its networks and solidarities, secretly and informally, so that it could emerge, at the appropriate moment, into activism and renewal. The secularization of the vakıflar, moreover, made them into suitable vehicles for Muslim social activism. These two processes contributed to the formal public institutionalization of Muslim activism, in contrast to the informal and communalistic operations in Egypt and elsewhere.

Associational Life

Islamists everywhere have been active in trade unions, professional associations and chambers of commerce. In Egypt they have scored remarkable successes in the control of professional associations through election to their ruling bodies. What distinguishes Turkey in this sphere is its pluralism. While Egypt has only one federation of trade unions, operating within the ambit of government, Turkey has several. In the 1970s each political party had its own trade union organization, the most prominent being Türk-Iş, associated with the government, and DISK, linked with the parties of the left. In the 1980s another federation with Islamist credentials, Hak-Iş, came to prominence. With the decline of the left, Hak-Iş has displaced DISK as the radical union, and now includes some leftist militants. Links with Welfare or other political parties are not allowed by law, but it seems to cooperate with municipalities controlled by Welfare and with Islamist businesses, which in turn favor its members.

Unlike in Egypt, the main professional associations in Turkey do not seem to be arenas of political struggle: The secular intelligentsia appear secure in these areas. At the same time, there are many local and regional associations of professionals, and given the increasing prominence and influence of an organized Islamist intelligentsia, Islamist challenges to secular hegemony in the professions are quite likely in the future.

Business associations are prominent in Turkish public life. TÜSIAD, the mainstream national association, includes the largest corporations and uses its extensive resources for research, publications and public relations. MÜSIAD, the Muslim business association, seems to act as a club and a network for mostly small- and medium-sized businesses. Members observe Muslim rituals by not serving liquor at their dinners, for example, and by celebrating the Muslim festivals. In dealings with non-Islamist businesses and banks, their guidelines advise that normal interest rates should apply. They have no formal links with political parties or with Hak-Iş trade unions, but informal cooperation and accommodations are reported.

Intellectual Currents

Mainstream modem political Islam, whether promoted by the Muslim Brothers in the Arab world, by Iranian revolutionaries, or by the main Islamist trends in Turkey, has explicitly accepted the science and technology of the West (while rejecting its cultural values) and implicitly adopted modem models of the state as centralized, bureaucratized nation-states. Indeed, in Egypt and elsewhere, the ranks of the Islamists are dominated by engineers, technicians and medical professionals. This is also true for a good part of the Turkish Muslim intelligentsia. There is, however, a prominent and influential group of Muslim intellectuals who stand apart from these positions. Ali Bulaç, Ismet Özel, Rasim Özdendören and Ilhan Kutluer — all graduates in the humanities and social sciences — are the prominent figures in this trend.

Bulaç and the others are fully acquainted with the main trends in Western thought and draw upon it extensively. The references in Bulaç’s works to Western writers are wide-ranging. [11] These are not obscurantist reactionaries, but well-informed and thoughtful “post-modernists” (in the literal sense of the term rather than in espousing post-modernist theories). Their critical themes recall Marxist discussions of “fetishism” and the Frankfurt School notion of “instrumental reason” as the ultimate form of domination. They read like a combination of Adorno and Sayyid Qutb.

Books by these writers share the theme of cultural critique. [12] They discuss modernity in politics, culture, urban life, sexuality and so on, diagnosing in each case the maladies and problems of modem Western life. In their critiques, modem life is alien and contrary to the way in which God conceived that man as his khalifa (steward) should live. Western cultural values and economic systems are not separate from the West as a scientific and technical civilization. In their view, it is precisely the deification of reason and the objectification and exploitation of humankind that are at the root of modem industrial civilization. The objective of continuous economic growth disrupts community and destroys the environment. Knowledge and science cannot be distinct from revelation and the Qur’an.

The critique and rejection of the nation state is perhaps the most important difference between Bulaç and mainstream political Islam. The model of the Islamic Republic in Iran and the programs of the Muslim Brothers make it clear that the Islamic state envisaged is a modem, centralized bureaucratic state with all the institutions, including the repressive apparatus, of other modem states. For Bulaç this is the mirror image of the secular state, not a departure from it.

God’s will on earth, according to Bulaç, is expressed through a community (umma), not a state. Modernity transformed the umma into a state, and therein lie all the problems. Iran, Sudan and other Islamic states have not solved this problem but perpetuated it. The solution lies in the self-assertion of civil society, in the form of multiple communities that develop their own institutions of law, education, economic forms and culture. The individual, or rather the “human” (insan) must be freed from the clutches of the state, not in accordance with liberal theory viewing the individual as a separate entity but in accordance with the Islamist view that the human being is always part of a community. This community can protect the human against the state. The atomized individual of liberal theory, by contrast has no defense against the hegemonic state.

This theory has spawned the notion of multiple law communities, which has political appeal as a recipe for pluralism. These ideas have been taken up by some Islamist politicians as a means of combining the şeriat for Muslims with liberal pluralism for others. A utopian notion that ignores the intrinsic connections of law to social power and struggles, it forms an appealing slogan for politicians seeking to establish their liberal credentials while championing Islam.

The Secular Response

The Islamist current has elicited resistance from secularist forces in all the countries in the region. Much of this resistance comes from the Westernized bourgeois elites. The fact of the matter is that, despite the liberal rhetoric emanating from mainstream Islamist leadership in recent years, there is an inherent thrust in political Islam towards social authoritarianism. At the very least, this takes the form of a censorious watchfulness toward art and literature and other fields of intellectual production. The cases of censorship and intimidation in Egypt have been well publicized: the assassination of Farag Fawda in 1992, the attempt on Naguib Mahfouz’s life, the bizarre case against Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd to divorce him from his wife on the grounds of apostasy, and al-Azhar’s efforts to censor music, books and films. Turkey has seen fewer and less important examples of Islamist censorship, the most notable being removal of nude statues from public places in 1994 by Ankara’s Welfare mayor, who angrily declared, “If this is art, I spit on it.’

This social authoritarianism threatens to extend to the liberties and lifestyles of many social groups with regard to restrictions on women, segregation of the sexes in public places, limitations on public entertainments and celebrations, access to theaters, bars and cafes, and the like. In Turkey, Welfare’s control of major cities following the 1994 municipal elections raised fears that the new mayors would introduce restrictions in these areas. After a few gestures in these directions, however, they have left well alone, except in the case of the censored Ankara sculptors. Secularists believe that this restraint is part of a stratagem for national electoral success; if Welfare were to assume control nationally, they would show their true colors.

Secularist resistance to political Islam in most parts of the region is defensive and often compromising. Given the weakened state of the left and the crisis of ideology, secular intellectuals are without clear vision or policies. Democracy and human rights have become their ultimate refuge. Even these arenas are contested by Islamists, and in some cases secularists do make common cause with liberal Islamists against government violations. In the case of Egypt, the government oppresses Islamists on the security and political fronts, but indulges Islamist ideological assertions and attempts at censorship in order to establish its own Islamist credentials.

While Turkish secularists suffer from a similar malaise, they are much more assertive and vociferous in their resistance to Islamism, and this is largely due to Kemalist ideology. Much of the intelligentsia, the old urban political and business elites, and the press are predominantly in the secularist camp. The newspaper Cumhuriyet is ever watchful for lapses in secularist principles, and uncovers and denounces şeriatcis in high places. Political leaders of the main parties, though they harbor Islamists within their own ranks, join with the secularists against Welfare.

The electoral success of Welfare is sharpening these conflicts. These divisions, moreover, are superimposed on class and regional conflicts. Islam is associated with Anatolian migrants — shantytown inhabitants — whom secular urbanites blame for the deterioration of their beloved cities and for threatening their culture and lifestyles by voting for the Welfare Party.

Turkish secularists, however, are not all in one camp. Human rights activists, mostly from the political left, make common cause with Islamists fighting an authoritarian Kemalist state. Economic liberals and libertarians in the Özal mold — some calling themselves “Second Republicans,” some following Cem Boyner’s now defunct New Democracy party — are mostly highly Westernized secularists but identify the authoritarian state as the main problem for Turkish democracy. Islam in Turkey is distinguished by considerable diversity, both ideational content and in institutional forms. In political expression and organization, Islam is not restricted to one part and, as Bulaç observes, it is even more developed socially and culturally then it is politically. Turkish Islam is distinguished by a high degree of institutional differentiation from secular counterparts in separate trade unions, business associations, foundation, educational and media activities. Some Muslim cultural and intellectual milieus display a high level of vitality and innovation, compared to the stereotypical products of much of political Islam.

Oriented as it is to electoral contest, Turkey’s mainstream Islamist leadership is more open to political pressure and compromise than its counterparts elsewhere. This flexibility, however, is limited but the need to satisfy its core constituency. The question is whether pressures towards liberal moderation in the political sphere can hold back the social authoritarianism inherent in Islamist ideology and social ethics. An encouraging sign in this respect is the growth and vigor of a modern Muslim intelligentsia who may be expected to share some of the cultural horizons and lifestyle aspirations of their secular counterparts. [13]

Author’s note: The research upon which this article is based was carried out in Turkey in 1994, supported by grants from the Nuffield Foundation, London and Birkbeck College, London. I also enjoyed the stimulating hospitality of the Sociology Department at Bogaziçi University, Istanbul.


[1] See Richard Tapper and Nancy Tapper, “‘Thank God We’re Secular!’ Aspects of Fundamentalism in a Turkish Town,” in Lionel Caplan, ed., Studies in Religious Fundamentalism (London: Macmillan, 1987): and Michael Meeker, “Oral Culture, Media Culture and Islamic Resurgence in Turkey,” in E. P. Archetti, ed., Exploring the Written: Anthropology and the Multiplicity of Writing (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1994).
[2] Ferhat Kentel, “L’Islam, carrefour des identites sociales et culturelles en Turquie: Le cas de Parti de la Prosperite,” Cahiers d’Etudes sur ia Mediteranee Orientale et le Monde Turco-Iranien 19 (January-June 1995).
[3] Ibid., p. 218.
[4] This episode was widely reported, in particular in Cumhuriyet, April 20, 1994, and Turkish Daily News, April 28, 1994.
[5] Turkish Daily News, May 3, 1994, quoting Cumhuriyet.
[6] Strictly speaking this is not a Sufi order. Members of the Nurcu movement are the followers of Said Nursi (1873-1960) who maintained a Muslim opposition to Kemalist secular reforms and developed novel modern ideas of Islam. See Serif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989).
[7] Ruşen Çakır, Ayet ve Slogan: Turkiye’de Islami Olusumlar (Istanbul: Metis, 1990).
[8] Foundations are, of course, a feature of all Muslim societies. Modern governments in many countries, including Turkey, took over the administration of awqaf, and incorporated them usually into ministries of religious affairs.
[9] This account of vakıflar is drawn from Faruk Bilici, “Sociabilite et expression politique islamistes en Turquie: Les nouveaux vakifs,” Revue Francaise de Science Politique 43/3 (June 1993).
[10] Ibid., p. 425.
[11] They include Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Barrington Moore, Deleuze, Lyotard, Illich, as well as modern Iranian and Arab Islamists, including Shari‘ati and Al-Ahmand. Ali Bulaç, Din ve Modernizm (Istanbul: Beyan, 1992).
[12] For accounts of these intellectuals and their ideas, see Michael Meeker, “The New Muslim Intellectuals in the Republic of Turkey,” in Richard Tapper, ed., Islam in Modern Turkey (London: I. B. Tauris, 1991), and Binnaz Toprak, “Islamist Intellectuals: Revolt against Industry and Technology,” in M. Heper, A. Oncu and H. Kramer, eds., Turkey and the West: Changing Political and Cultural Identities (London: I. B. Tauris, 1993).
[13] See Nilüfer Göle, “Laicite, modernisme et islamisme en Turquie,” Cahiers d’Etudes sur ia Mediteranee Orientale et le Monde Turco-Iranien 19 (1995).

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "Turkish Islam and National Identity," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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