Global Extremes

The perils of mixing religion and politics: the case of Turkey

Mixing religion with politics does not even serve religious purposes.

Haldun Gülalp
3 February 2020
Erdogan praying at the national Mosque in Ankara.
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Picture from Twitter: @miqazi
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In the mid-twentieth century, Turkey was touted as a model of secularism in Muslim society, which could only be achieved, it was argued, top-down through state imposition. By the end of the century, however, when postmodern multiculturalism prevailed, Turkey began to be seen as an example of authoritarian secularism, intolerant of religious expression.

After 9/11, Turkey was flaunted again, this time as a model of “moderate Islam,” an alternative to the presumably dangerous “radical” version, although the designation has been rejected by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), initially self-described as “conservative democratic” and in continuous power since 2002.

Erdoğan’s rejection of the designation and his unconcealed intention to institute an Islamic regime throw in doubt the existence of a difference between the goals of the so-called “moderate” and “radical” Islamisms, except perhaps in terms of political method. On 28 November 2019, during the closing session of a meeting of the Religious Council of Turkey, Erdoğan clearly stated his priorities as President:

“According to our faith, religion is not restricted to certain spaces and times. Islam is a set of rules and prohibitions that embrace all aspects of our lives. … We have been commanded to live as Muslims … No one can deny these tenets, because a Muslim is obligated to adapt his life to the essence of his religion and not the religion to his conditions of existence. … Even if it may be hard for us, we will place the rules of our religion at the center of our lives and not the requirements of our time.”

I have elsewhere questioned the accuracy of the received wisdom about Turkey’s tradition of “secularism.” Here, however, I want to question the wisdom of mixing religion and politics, as pursued by the AKP government.

Its dire consequences may be observed in nearly all areas of social and political life, even if we leave aside those problems that, one may argue, are not exclusively associated with Islamism and may appear in other regimes as well. These problems would include, for example, the widely reported issue of crony capitalism, corruption and economic mismanagement, or the authoritarian practice of prosecuting academics, students and journalists critical of the government’s policies, or the rapid decline in the status of women, including an explosion in the cases of murderous violence against them, although the link between these issues and the attempted authoritarian imposition of an Islamist regime may well be established.

More to the point, in foreign affairs, the government pursues a “neo-Ottomanist” policy, building on Muslim Brotherhood networks, losing allies and tending to resort to military hard power in the region instead of diplomatic soft power. Domestically, intervention in people’s life-styles, primarily in the form of restricting the consumption of alcohol through exorbitant taxation and a policy of limiting times and zones of alcohol sale and consumption, does not only violate citizens’ freedom of choice, but has also indirectly caused loss of lives owing to the illegal production and sale of fake drinks to evade the restrictions. Blatant discrimination on the basis of religious identity or degree of religiosity, including in public employment, has been rampant. One could go on, but rather than offering a complete litany, here I aim to focus on the critical issue of education.

The electoral support for the AKP is in an inverse relationship with the level of education, but in direct correlation with the level of religiosity

Erdoğan’s repeated calls since 2012 to “raise pious generations” led to a radical overhaul of the entire educational infrastructure. Religious instruction began to occupy a greater part of the curriculum at all levels. More specifically, Imam-Hatip Schools, originally created in the early republican period to train preachers and prayer leaders employed by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA), began to turn into a mainstream venue for secondary education for both boys and girls.

From 2012, both their numbers and share in the public budget multiplied. The number of Imam-Hatip high schools rose fourfold, from 450 (in 2002-2003) to 854 (in 2013-2014) and to 1623 (in 2018-2019). The total number of Imam-Hatip middle and high schools (the former had been previously closed but then reopened by the AKP government in 2012) went from 2215 (in 2013-2014) to 5017 (in 2018-2019), housing over one million pupils.

More striking is the comparative budget per pupil for these schools, which is nearly twice the average for other schools. Despite all this, however, the success rate of Imam-Hatip graduates in university entrance exams is the lowest among all types of high schools. Such diversion of resources toward them risks a decline in the overall level of education.

Similar tendencies prevail at the university level. Nearly half of the 200+ (public and private) universities in Turkey have faculties of theology, the majority of which opened since 2010, and currently enroll more than 100,000 students, 60 percent of which are women. Moreover, the recent trend in the appointment of university rectors by President Erdoğan has been in favor of those with Islamic theology backgrounds.

The ultimate goal of this policy is not hard to fathom and is often clearly expressed. A pamphlet prepared by the DRA and distributed free of charge in early 2019 expounds the inverse relationship between secular education and religiosity, and suggests that higher levels of education encourage “individualism and freedom” and discourage “belief and worship.”

Erdoğan’s effort to “raise pious generations” has been a self-defeating process.

The director himself repeated the same observation in his address to the Religious Council, noting the growing “popularity” of the assumption that scientific advances will “transform or completely displace religions” and lead to “new threats toward belief.” The threat that “secular education” poses to the government is not illusory. There is indeed an inverse relationship between the level of education and the level of religiosity, and, likewise, the electoral support for the AKP is in an inverse relationship with the level of education, but in direct correlation with the level of religiosity.

Paradoxically, however, Erdoğan’s effort to “raise pious generations” has been a self-defeating process. Those youths from the secularist upper and middle classes, whose families could afford to send them abroad for better education, have begun to leave the country. Those youths from the conservative lower classes, whose families have been the power base of the AKP, may be unable to leave but they have begun to turn away from religion. Reports indicate a decline in religiosity and rise in deism and atheism, alarming the AKP government and its religious establishment. It appears that mixing religion with politics does not even serve religious purposes. Politics needs to be kept free of religion.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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