The Turkish state is becoming more religious – will Turks be OK with that?

Ataturk’s republic, which marks its centennial next month, has changed profoundly

Tourists at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul last June. The AKP reconverted the sixth-century, Byzantine-era church into a mosque in 2020. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Down two games to one to Balkan rival Serbia on Sunday evening, the Turkish women’s national team surged back to win the last two games and dramatically clinch its first-ever European volleyball championship. One western news outlet called it “a rare source of national pride that holds appeal across the country’s social divides”.

That may be a bit of wishful thinking, as the volleyballers have in the last few days run head-on into their country’s right-ward lurch. Turkey’s religious conservatives are thought to view the volleyballers, with their exposed heads, arms, and legs, as poor role models.

Several ultra-conservative columnists rejected the championship as a disgrace. An Islamist newspaper labelled a player who posted suggestive images with other women on social media “a national shame”, while the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) long-time Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek said that player was “not worthy of the national team”.

To understand all this, it's best to start at the beginning. After founding his West-embracing, purportedly secular republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk famously abolished the post of Muslim ruler, squashed conservative initiatives and, with the creation of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, took the reins of Islam in Turkey.

Since coming to power in 2002, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP have openly sought to champion Turkey’s marginalised conservatives and revive Ottoman-era religious ideas, potentially undoing much of Ataturk’s legacy. They appear to have moved away from Islamism in recent years, curbing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, in exchange for improved regional ties.

If the waters are rising more quickly today, it may be a response to reduced religiosity, rather than a reflection of a changing society

But since partnering with right-wing religious parties and besting his Kemalist rivals for perhaps the last time in May, Turkey’s longtime leader seems to have recommitted to carving out a more Islamically conservative state, before Ataturk’s republic marks next month’s centennial.

Every day seems to bring another traditionalist move. Turkey’s broadcast regulator fined major streaming platforms, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Mubi, for sexualised content. An Istanbul cafe was shut down for hosting a speed dating event, which apparently hinted at casual intimacy.

Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT fired a top actress after she posted a photo of herself in a bikini on Instagram. Authorities banned camping and alcohol consumption on the grounds of a major music festival, prompting its last-minute cancellation.

The governor of Istanbul province last week issued a circular banning alcohol consumption in public parks and beaches. The Istanbul Bar Association promptly called for the cancellation of the ban, arguing that it violated citizens’ right to privacy enshrined in the constitution.

Of course, all these recent moves follow a long-standing trend. A decade ago the AKP government lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves in government jobs, a landmark decision. Also in 2013, Turkey banned ads for alcoholic drinks and their sale after 10pm, with Mr Erdogan defending the law as “something that faith orders”.

But Turkey’s constitution forbids “even partially basing the fundamental social, economic, political, and legal order of the State on religious tenets”. This might help explain why the President, this past weekend, vowed to install a new constitution befitting the coming “Turkish Century”.

Two years ago, Turkey pulled out of the Istanbul Convention, the world’s strongest enforcement mechanism against domestic violence. The number of religion-focused schools has increased sharply under the AKP, and the Diyanet’s budget has increased 60-fold to nearly 36 billion liras, though some of that increase is due to inflation.

The latest moves seem to directly target the country's founder and his ideals. Islamist columnist and AKP member Galip Ilhaner recently called for a mosque to be built on the grounds of Anitkabir, Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara. When Mr Erdogan concluded his May electoral campaign with prayers in Hagia Sophia, news stations endlessly replayed the footage.

The AKP reconverted the sixth-century, Byzantine-era church into a mosque in 2020, decades after Ataturk had made it a museum despite Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s curse on anybody who made the ancient structure anything other than an Islamic place of worship.

I lived in Istanbul a decade ago and recall locals complaining even then that Turkey had become an Islamist state. I would gently disagree, but in 2014 I reported on the state gradually becoming more religious: “Floodwaters inching up the wall, rather than a massive wave crashing on the shore.”

If the waters are rising more quickly today, it may be a response to reduced religiosity, rather than a reflection of a changing society. A 2019 study by Konda found that just 7 per cent of Turks aged 15-29 described themselves as conservative, down from nearly a third in 2008. A government-backed study the next year revealed that high schoolers were resisting compulsory religious study and its effort to create a “pious generation”.

The victorious women’s national team could be Exhibit A. After a win last week, one of the players said the team was advancing the vision of the country’s founder. “We try to be role models for future generations,” said Zehra Gunes, “by holding a light on the path Ataturk showed.”

The government’s response has been to double down on religious education. Turkish high schoolers returning to classrooms last week may have been surprised to find that the required number of Islamic courses has doubled. This is big news in Turkey, which until the late 20th century required zero religious study.

Whether the new courses will make young Turks more religious or better prepare them for a tough global marketplace remains to be seen. In the end, Turks are probably going to be as Muslim as they want to be. “There is no compulsion in religion,” says the Quran, “for the right path becomes distinct.”

Published: September 05, 2023, 5:00 AM