In 2017 İhsan Fazlıoğlu, an Islamist professor of philosophy at Istanbul Medeniyet University, was visited by a group of concerned teachers and parents from the İmam Hatip high school (a government-funded secondary school that trains Muslim preachers) he once attended. The visitors wanted his advice on the growing trend of deism and atheism among young people and what was to be done about it. The professor responded with a shocking observation of his own: In the past year, of the many religious students who came to consult with him, no fewer than 17 women had confided that although they continued to wear a hijab (headscrarf) they had left Islam and considered themselves atheists.
With Fazlıoğlu’s public recounting of this anecdote in 2018, a controversy that had been welling up in Turkey’s religious underworld finally burst into the consciousness of the conservative mainstream. Coupled with the findings of a local study on the religious beliefs of İmam Hatip students from the conservative city of Konya, it ushered in a vociferous debate in the media and among politicians about the crisis of faith among the younger generation. The BBC covered the debate under the headline, “The Young Turks Rejecting Islam,” while the Islamist Gerçek Hayat published a story with the title, “Mom, I Became a Deist.” Newspaper columns with attention-grabbing headlines about “hijabi atheists” drew swift denials and condemnations from the religious authorities.
Yet the problem, it appeared, was real: A flurry of anonymous confessions, newspaper interviews and personal observations confirmed the existence of a growing phenomenon among Turkey’s religious youth who, repulsed by institutional religion, sought refuge in either deism–a monotheism shorn of its institutional trappings–or in atheism. Fazlıoğlu himself believes that the common cause of all these departures from institutional religion is “the behaviors of those on the stage claiming to represent religion.” While avoiding direct criticism of the regime, which could have unpleasant repercussions, he is clearly gesturing toward the moral failure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elites and the civilian religious authorities. “The matter is serious,” he observes, “Unless we confront these outcomes, in about thirty years we will be talking about totally different things.”
The growing attraction of deism and atheism for religious youth in Turkey, emerging as it does during the peak political dominance of religious conservatism in Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP, points–surprisingly–to an internal collapse of religiosity among the new generation of pious Turks. Most religious communities harbor dreams of a “golden generation,” and Erdoğan and the AKP were no exception: Upon coming to power in 2002, they implemented their own project to create a “pious generation.” During his 16 years in power, President Erdoğan has revamped the educational system to serve this purpose, dramatically increasing the number of İmam Hatip high schools and making them the mainstream and preferred public schools for all.
Yet even as the AKP’s dream of political dominance has come to fruition, the dream of creating a “pious generation” seems to be slipping from their grasp with the turn to deism among young people from pious families; representing what may be a Pyrrhic victory for Erdoğan and the AKP. More than that, it reveals a deeper set of transformations, most notably the emergence of a new and organic secularization and the transition from a cemaat (community)-centric religious culture to a politically administered one.
Declaring War on Deism
The immediate response by official religious authorities and pro-government clerics to media reports about a crisis of faith among religious youth was denial and condemnation. Such a development was impossible; but even if it were true, it was attributed to missionaries, the internet and conspiracies fomented by foreign governments. Deism and atheism were rejected and demonized as unnatural, foreign ideologies. In an emblematic series of statements, Ali Erbaş, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), initially denied the turn towards deism, then later, after accepting its existence, condemned it: “No member of our nation can be interested in such a perverse, false notion.”
Despite these denials and the Erdoğan government’s obvious displeasure with the story, discussion and debate persisted in the Turkish media, as more and more religious parents and young people found the courage to talk about it. Thus, after first vehemently rejecting reports of the so-called plague of deism, Diyanet conceded its existence a few months later, convening a consultative body to discuss the problem. Taking place on September 11, 2018, it explicitly named the enemies: “Deism, Atheism, Nihilism, Agnosticism.” According to the only journalist invited to the meeting, the pro-government Yeni Şafak columnist Kemal Öztürk, almost all of the 70 participants hailed from the religious and educational bureaucracy or were academics from theology schools. Following the official line, participants argued that deism belongs to a European context and as such cannot be found in Turkish society. Frustrated by this conclusion, even Öztürk was moved to ask his readers: “If no such deism exists in Turkey, then what is the name for the problem we are discussing?”
The participants nevertheless conceded that youth seemed to be drifting away from religion and Diyanet launched a survey to investigate the existence and scope of deism and similar ideas in Turkish religious schools. About two weeks after the meeting, the media reported that Diyanet had “declared war on deism.” In the meantime, a group of individuals declared on October 15, 2018 that they had created a formal organization, the Deism Society. In its launch statement, Özcan Pali, a founding member, said, “Because we do not belong to any religion, we were insulted and our dignity was wounded. People in the government called us ‘psychos’. But we are like Adam and Eve. Like us, they were not following any religion. We too are like them. If they call us deviant, they are calling Adam and Eve deviant, too.”
An Organic Secularization?
The odd occurrence of the highest religious authority in Turkey declaring war on such an otherwise obscure belief as deism, at the height of political dominance by the conservative-religious AKP, suggests an unexpected turn in Turkey’s modern history: Turkey, it seems, is undergoing a new and deeper process of secularization. This process, it should be emphasized, has little to do with Kemalist laïcité, the state-led secularization project of founding statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Rather, it is an organic secularization, entirely civic and happening not at the behest of, but in spite of, the state. It is the consequence of a local, indigenous enlightenment, a flowering of post-Islamist sentiment. Disillusioned by their parents’ religious claims, which they perceive as hypocritical, the younger generation is choosing the path of individualized spirituality and a silent rejection of tradition.
While some have called it “religion fatigue” and others downplay it as a temporary fad, the trend should be viewed from a broader perspective. Released from its decades-long victim status under the Kemalist secular regime, Turkey’s religiosity has begun to breathe free–and its newfound political power has, in turn, deprived it of its former excuses. As a result, Turkish religiosity has been put to the test, and while it has succeeded politically, it has failed spiritually in the eyes of many in the new, internet-literate generation. The political success of Islamist movements has paradoxically turned religion into a tool in the hands of the politicians. The political class has maintained its claim to piety, while the clerical class has endorsed and supported their corrupt politics. Many pious youth, seeing in this a betrayal of religious ideals, have concluded that religion has always been instrumentalized by politicians and clerics and become disillusioned, not only with institutional religion, but with faith as a whole.
Increased religious literacy and access to expertise and knowledge that historicizes Islam among this generation has also played a role in this trend. Both comparative knowledge of other faith traditions and disenchanting explorations of the origins of a range of Islamic practices have rendered mainstream religion less able to attract and sustain belief. Young Muslims today are exposed not only to the polemical anti-Islamic content generated by non-Muslims, but also to legitimate critiques of Islam produced by once-marginal Muslims themselves, and to the striking diversity of voices within the larger Islamic canon. In an increasingly connected world, religions no longer enjoy the luxury of isolation (or of isolating their followers) from outside influences.
Exposure to intra-Islamic debates surrounding the authenticity of hadiths and the increasing popularity of the “Qur’an-only” movement and historicist school of theology (exemplified by such authors as İhsan Eliaçık, Mustafa İslamoğlu, Edip Yüksel, Mehmet Okuyan, Caner Taslaman and Mustafa Öztürk) have significantly undermined the credibility of Sunni orthodoxy. Although not, perhaps, potent or resourceful enough to offer full-blown alternatives to that orthodoxy, their criticisms chip away at the received wisdom of traditional religion. Individuals like Edip Yüksel, who utilize the power of social media to expose inconsistencies in the hadith literature and practices of the ulema, can launch attacks on Sunni orthodoxy that garner followings in the thousands. Popular exposure to marginal yet startling bits of information about early Islamic history, and newfound access via social media to critical theological perspectives previously accessible only to Islamic scholars, have all transformed the landscape.
Turkey’s religious institutions are also confronting new challenges that contribute to the search for alternatives among Turkey’s youth. The Kemalist Republic in Turkey was characterized by the rise of cemaat (religious community) structures, which provided rural-to-urban migrants a refuge and platform for religiosity and appealed to socially disenfranchised people from conservative backgrounds. Despite the general repression of religion at the time, the cemaat thrived under a sort of pluralism derived from their very exclusion and enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, both from the state and other religious groups.
Today these structures are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. The party claiming to represent them, the AKP, attained power and under Erdoğan’s leadership revolutionized Turkish politics: Turkey has, arguably, undergone a second founding and produced what could be called the Religious Republic. Now, however, under the Religious Republic, these institutions are—willingly or unwillingly—engulfed in politics and find themselves under the direct control of the government. Their regime-regulated dissolution within the larger, newly religious society has been coupled with a loss of respect fueled either by their patently self-interested opposition to the AKP (as in the case of the Gülen movement), or their unstinting obedience to Erdoğan. In sum, cemaat structures are experiencing a Pyrrhic victory of their own: As they benefit from privileges granted by the party, their constituencies are enlisted by the government for either political militancy or the AKP’s nation-building project. The cemaats’ grip on their own people is weakening.
In tandem with the growing visibility of religious society in Turkey, moreover, a number of scandals have tarnished the image of trusted religious institutions such as the Qur’an schools for minors known as Kur’an Kursu. Instances of pedophilia and sexual abuse among religious communities (e.g., the Ensar Vakfi scandal) have surfaced and caused outrage. Things once passed over in silence have begun to be discussed openly.
There is also growing disillusionment with religious leaders whose suppression by and exclusion from the secular public sphere had until recently kept their more irrational and immoral behaviors local. Now that the secularist pressure on these figures has lifted, the Turkish public has witnessed an outpouring of religious fanaticism. Newfound confidence on the part of parochial religious figures allows them to share their archaic, entirely unacceptable and embarrassing opinions with ever larger audiences. Ranging from the truly horrific (defenses of child marriage and spousal abuse) to supremely silly (the supposed sinfulness of mixed-gender elevators), the claims of these anachronistic preachers and leaders, who include İhsan Şenocak, Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca and Nurettin Şirin, to name but a few, all take their turn in the 24-hour news cycle, much to the mortification of the educated and highly globalized younger generation. In some instances, the Erdoğan regime itself—which is notoriously anti-intellectual and has, in general, bogged down Turkey’s public discourse in patriotic hucksterism and endless conspiracy theories—feels sufficiently embarrassed by these figures that it is regulating their media appearances in response to public outcry.
Crisis of Religiosity in the Religious Republic
Turkey is witnessing a flight from organized religion on the part of its younger generation. The destination is frequently labeled—by them and by their critics—as “deism,” a concept from another age, to be measured against a textbook definition. This tendency, which amplifies the foreignness and threatening nature of the phenomenon, is also convenient for the religious establishment, which desires to discredit it. But the use of the term has made it hard for all parties to appreciate the trend’s organic and indigenous nature. Labeling youth disaffection with foreign concepts allows political actors to demonize and de-authenticate a strand of thought which is a natural outgrowth of contemporary Muslim experience, and one which is sure to shape the future of Islam in Turkey.
With the rise of the Religious Republic, Turkish modernization is entering a new phase. The Anatolian masses, freed from poverty and political repression, are beginning to experience modern selfhood. They embrace economic rationality and adopt political pragmatism, all the while nurturing their resentment against the secular elite and the former Kemalist state. This is why, while religiosity seems to be in the ascendant, it is also forced to transform itself from a culture of “community” to one of “society”—a distinction made by German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, who explains the modernization process as a transition from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft. In some sense, what is happening beneath the political clamor of partisan sniping and massive housing projects is the birth of a “society” of the religious—and thereby of a new radical individuality.
 Selin Girit, “The Young Turks Rejecting Islam,” BBC News, May 10, 2018.
 Emeti Saruhan, “Anne ben deist oldum,” Gerçek Hayat, April 2, 2018.
 İhsan Fazlıoğlu, “Mesele ciddi, başörtülü ateistler var,” T24, March 19, 2018.
 “Diyanet İşleri Başkanı Erbaş’tan flaş ‘Deizm’ açıklaması,” Sabah, April 12, 2018.
 Kemal Öztürk, “Deizm akımı yoksa, peki sorunumuz nedir?” Yeni Şafak, September 12, 2018.
 Meltem Özgenc, “Diyanet deizme savaş açtı,” Hürriyet, September 22, 2018.
 Özcan Pali, “Deizm dernekleşti: Adem ve Havva gibiyiz,” GazeteDuvar, October 15, 2018.
 Mucahit Bilici, “Dindar Cumhuriyet’in Müslüman Ulusu,” Taraf, September 3, 2014.