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Turkish Islam and European values
– two irreconcilable concepts? – a contribution to the symposium Beyond Nordic Legal Modernity held in Reykjavik April 24-27 2008

When the Turks converted to Islam, they adopted Hanafitic law, considered as the most open and tolerant of the four judicial traditions within Islam. The first sultans added parts of traditional Turkish law. This applied above all in the case of Mehmet Fatih, the conqueror of Constantinople, and Süleyman I who was also given the additional name kanuni, the legislator.

The religious landscape of the Ottoman empire was characterised by its diversity. It was not governed by a theocracy. In reality it had a secular administration. The secular laws that were enacted by the Ottoman rulers were more important than the religious laws and ulema, the Islamic jurists, mainly had the task of giving the Sultan religious legitimacy. Through the millet system, the monotheistic minorities had extensive autonomy in matters that concerned their own affairs. During the 1850s and 1860s the judicial system was further secularised in that new legislation inspired by Europe was introduced, both penal law and commercial law, and new courts, councils and ministries were created according to a European model.

Growing nationalism among the Christian population groups during the 19th century also led to an ambition to give Ottoman rule a legitimacy with both a national and a democratic dimension. The empire’s subjects were to become Ottoman citizens who identified with their state. As 40 per cent of the Ottoman empire at that time was made up of non-Muslims, it also meant that a process of secularisation was necessary.

The Ottoman state was therefore in practice a secular administrative apparatus, whose policies were legitimised in religious terms. Islam came to serve as a cultural and political bridge between the elite and the masses, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. Without this religious superstructure the empire would not have been able to retain the loyalty of the Muslim majority and survive for six hundred years.

However, for Kemal Atatürk who, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, wanted to create a modern nation state of the remainder of this multicultural empire, Islam appeared to be a reactionary force and a main cause of the decline and fall of the empire. He was therefore deeply convinced that belief in religion must be replaced by a belief in modernity and progress.

Family law, which was the only area of law based on religious law, shari' a, was abolished and replaced by Swiss family law and the popular Sufi Orders were banned.

The state Atatürk created is certainly expressly secular in its constitution but this secularism has its idiosyncracies, not least because state and religion were not really separated. Since the founding of the republic all religious matters have been subject to strict control exercised by Diyanet, the Directorate for Religious Affairs. It supervises and administers the some 75 000 mosques in Turkey and not only employs and pays the salaries of about 60 000 Imams out of tax revenue, which consequently makes them public servants, but also controls and issues instructions on the contents of Friday sermons all over the country. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education has a monopoly on all religious instruction and educates all prayer leaders and preachers.

The return of Islam as a political factor

When Turkey acquired a multi-party system in 1946, religion gradually became a stronger political factor. After the establishment of the Democratic Party, Atatürk’s presidential successor, Ismet Inönü, was forced to depart from the secular path of Atatürk´s creation, the Republican People’s Party in order to prevent a major loss of voters. This did however not prevent the Republican People’s Party from losing the parliamentary elections in 1950. When the Democratic Party assumed power, there was further departure from Atatürk’s secularism. The call to prayer in Arabic was again permitted and state funds were allocated to the opening of religious schools to educate Imams and other religious representatives.

The move from rural areas into the cities accelerated and was on a greater scale than the emerging industries and municipal institutions could absorb and these immigrants brought with them into the cities their traditional way of life marked by Islam. This development created a sociological base for Islamic parties. The first steps towards the formation of such parties were mainly taken within the formally forbidden Sufi orders and above all the Nakshibendi.

The first Islamic party, the National Order Party, was founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1970. Accused of anti-secular activities, the Party was prohibited as early as March 1971 when the Turkish army took power behind the scenes. In 1973, Erbakan became leader of a new party, or rather the same party with a new name – The National Salvation Party – which proved attractive to a large proportion of the traditionally oriented electorate. In the 1973 elections the Party received 12 per cent of the votes.

Erbakan now held a central position on the political stage and surprisingly formed a coalition government with Bülent Ecevit. The latter was chairman of the Republican People’s Party whose prime goal was to uphold Atatürk’s legacy. Thus, in this alliance two opposite poles of Turkish politics were to cooperate, on the one hand Atatürk’s secular party and, on the other, the new self-assured Islamic movement. The only thing that really united them was a strong Turkish nationalism which led them to order the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority in the face of an impending enosis with Greece.

Erbakan wanted to go further than Ecevit and occupy the entire island and this and many other political differences of opinion resulted in the fall of the government. Erbakan and his party later returned in two right-wing coalitions during the remainder of the 1970s and when the decade reached an end he had been deputy Prime Minister for over three years and had held posts at ministries that were important to his electorate of loyal supporters – above all entrepreneurs with small and medium-sized enterprises.

When the military intervened in 1980, Erbakan’s National Salvation Party was banned as well as all other political organisations. Erbakan himself was prosecuted but later acquitted. The main focus of the party’s activities was transferred to Europe, in particular Germany where those who supported Erbakan had considerably greater room for manoeuvre than in Turkey but there too the party was reorganised and in 1983 the Welfare Party – Refah – was born. When the old guard was allowed to work politically again in 1987, Erbakan officially became party leader after having previously governed by remote control.

Erbakan’s strength lay on the one hand in the fact that he was a good organiser and, on the other, that he was a gifted speaker. Under his leadership, Refah became the best organised party in Turkey. It created a network of local branches and carried on much more efficient and active campaigns among supporters than other parties. The demographic development gave the party a new broad recruitment base. Migration to all of Turkey’s major cities exploded during the 1980s and 1990s. The number of inhabitants in Istanbul doubled. In the 1994 municipal elections the party was able to mobilise 69 000 women party workers. Organised in 600 so-called neighbourhood groups, they called on over two and a half million voters.

Erbakan described his ideology as milli görüs, the national vision. The programmes for his parties contain typically Islamic points such as the importance of ethics and morals in education, and the fight against usurers and against corruption and also secularism are stressed. Freedom of opinion and speech are said to be fundamental for democracy and for respect for human rights. Erbakan’s interpretation of secularism differs from that of the Kemalists, however. By secularism he means total freedom of religion beyond state control. He rejects the Kemalist view as the dictatorship of non-believers.

A concept that has constantly been repeated in Erbakan’s rhetoric is a just order (adil düzen) but he has never specified what this means. It therefore attracted both radical voters who believed that shari’a legislation would be introduced and more moderate voters who in the concept saw a promise and hope of a less corrupt political system. Erbakan could rouse his supporters with promises that interest rates would be abolished since they were contrary to Islam, that Turkey would join an Islamic common market and that an Islamic dinar would be introduced but changed his tune entirely if the forum before he was addressing called for a more statesmanlike performance.

With 19 per cent of total votes in the 1994 municipal election, the Welfare Party won mayoral posts in 30 cities, including Istanbul and Ankara and in 327 small municipalities. Both in Ankara and Istanbul, citizens saw how the financial scandals that had been typical of previous administrations decreased although corruption was not eradicated. In Istanbul, trees were planted under the direction of the new, young, dynamic mayor Tayyip Erdogan, water supplies began to function as well as refuse collection and the city’s air improved and it soon became clear that this man had more far-reaching political ambitions.

The established parties continued their intrigues against each other which contributed towards Refah’s becoming the largest party with 21.3 per cent of the votes in the 1995 parliamentary elections. This breakthrough for the Welfare Party caused panic in the Turkish secular establishment which was further intensified when Tansu Çiller, leader of the True Path Party, fell for Erbakan’s offer to stop the parliamentary investigations that were to be initiated against her on grounds of numerous accusations of corruption and economic irregularities. The price for this was a political pact in which Erbakan would assume the post of Prime Minister for the first two years in a coalition government to be subsequently succeeded by Çiller and, after many complicated turnabouts, Erbakan formed a government with Tansu Çiller on 28 June 1996.

Erbakan now quickly forgot all previous talk of Turkey leaving NATO and ending military cooperation with Israel and annulling the customs union with the EU nor did he make any attempts to fulfil his earlier promises of increased cultural rights for the Kurdish minority. None of this rhetoric had been heard in the 1995 election campaign when the Turkish electorate had become more nationalist as the civil war in the south east escalated.

In spite of this restraint, confrontations with the secular establishment soon occurred which, however, were not based on the formulations in Refah’s party programme where loyalty to the secular system was emphasised or on bills presented by the government. Instead, suspicion of a hidden religious agenda were aroused by statements from different party functionaries with, for example, demands that it should be permitted to pray during working-hours. Women party members wore headcloths in official contexts and, in speeches outside parliament, Erbakan asserted the right of believers to live under the shari’a laws.

In February 1997 the Turkish military forces started a campaign in which Islamic fundamentalism (irtica) was depicted as the greatest threat to Turkey’s national security. A catalogue of 18 points was presented which in practice were conditions the Erbakan government must fulfil. The threat was implied but clear. If this did not take place the military would intervene. When Erbakan attempted to play for time, a campaign was set in motion in which the media, the state bureaucracy, the judiciary and also parliamentarians belonging to the coalition partner the True Path Party were mobilised. Trade unions and employer organisations formed their own “secular fronts”. As a result of this pressure, the Erbakan government fell on 18 June 1997 in what has come to be called the first post-modern coup d’état.

In January 1998 the Constitutional Court banned the Welfare Party for a period of five years, a ruling that was subsequently approved by the European Court of Human Rights.

This decision in its turn was based on Articles 68 and 69 of the Turkish Constitution which came into being after the 1980 military coup. Under these, no party may be formed that “is in conflict with the principles of the secular republic” (Article 68) or that “exploits religious feelings, symbols or arguments” (Article 69). In its motivation the Constitutional Court stressed that religion shall not play a role in politics and social life and that religion “controls an individual’s internal aspects while secularism controls an individual’s external aspects”. Thus, the court strictly followed the ideas of Kemalism.

As so many times previously, the answer to the ban was the formation of a new party, Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party) and it became the largest faction in parliament with 140 seats. However, the Virtue Party only received 15 per cent of votes in the 1999 parliamentary elections and thereby lost a quarter of its supporters and became only the third largest party.

It was soon accused of being just a direct continuation of the Welfare Party and in June 2001 it was banned by the Constitutional Court, which led to an internal debate about its future political path between the conservatives who advocated a strictly conservative Islamic line and the modernists who wanted to reshape and modernise the party, move it to the centre and tone down its religious rhetoric.

AKP takes the European path

The party’s younger generation headed by Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül now realised that their party had reached an impasse. Only a small minority of Turks wanted an Islamic state. A party characterised by Erbakan’s policies would therefore never gain more than the fifteen per cent of votes received in the most recent parliamentary elections. According to electoral analyses, about five per cent of the electorate made up what could be called a hard core who wanted a religious state that implemented shari’a law in all areas and who were totally against a secular state. Another group, around ten per cent, wanted to see a greater role for Islam in society. Religion was important for their personal identity and as a bearer of identity for the Turkish nation while the issue as to whether or not shari’a should be applied was considered unimportant.

It is also questionable whether those supporters of Erbakan who voted for a religious state really knew what such a state would imply. Their knowledge of Islamic law was very limited and they were attracted in the first instance by Erbakan’s slogan that an Islamic system in Turkey would mean a just order without any detailed explanation. With this rhetoric, he collected votes above all from among those who had lost economically from modernisation policies.

Furthermore it had clearly proved that the armed forces and the bureaucracy (the deep state) were firmly determined to prevent any Islamisation policies. Erbakan’s idea of a Turkey that would turn to the Islamic world lacked support not only in Turkey but also among the countries that were expected to accept and follow this Turkish leadership. Erbakan’s Islamic rhetoric also cooled down when Egypt’s President Mubarak did not have time to receive him as Prime Minister and when Quadaffi used Erbakan’s visit to Libya to censure him for oppressing the Kurds.

Fazilet’s parliamentary faction was divided and the “modernists” broke away and formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül . It was presented as a broad conservative party that respected Islamic values but without a pronounced religious programme. Erbakan’s supporters also formed a party of their own, Saadet Partisi (closest translation the Happiness Party!).

This division of the Islamic movement was something the army and the deep state had long aimed for but the result was not as expected.

The AK Party now became the parliamentary counterforce to the ruling three-party coalition under Bülent Ecevit which had plunged the country into a deep economic crisis. The political reforms that were a condition for negotiations on EU membership had been delayed due to tensions in the coalition whose reputation had reached rock bottom.

When internal conflicts in the government coalition forced new elections to be held in November 2002, the AK Party was able to offer a new credible political alternative. The party had abandoned Erbakan’s Islamic line, no one could blame it for the economic crisis, in parliament it had voted for political reforms and hence shown that it was ready to continue along the path to the EU and indeed faster than the Ecevit government.

This election was a political landslide. The AK Party received over 34 per cent of votes and its own stable majority. Due to the ten per cent barrier introduced after the military coup in 1980 – ironically enough precisely in order to prevent religiously oriented parties from getting any seats – only the Republican People´s Party got back into parliament after previously having been outside.

The AK Party won massive support not because voters thought it aspired to an Islamic state. The electorate gave this party its votes because they hoped and believed that it would put an end to yoksolluk (poverty) and yolsuzluk (corruption). Since its establishment, the AK Party has moved from being a religiously coloured conservative party to becoming a party more like the Christian Democrats, or Allah Democrats if the expression is permitted.

Prime Minister Erdogan has defined AKP’s political philosophy as democratic conservatism:

“A large part of Turkish society wants to embrace a concept of modernity that does not reject tradition, a belief in universalism that accepts local patriotism, a sympathy with rationalism that does not ignore the spiritual meaning of life and an alternative to change that is not fundamentalist. The concept of conservative democracy is in fact an answer to the Turkish people’s hopes.”

In the party manifesto it says: “Our party sees differences in faith and culture as enriching for the country and believes that people with different languages, religions, race and social status must be able to express themselves freely and take part in politics by being able to rely on the same protection under law ….. the AK Party considers political parties to be essential elements in the democratic system and opposes the prohibition of parties who work within the framework of the constitutional state.”

Regarding the EU, the party programme says: “Our party considers full membership of the EU to be a natural consequence of the process of modernisation.”

Thus, the Copenhagen criteria are not seen as dictates coming from abroad but as objective criteria that are necessary for Turkey’s process of modernisation and international position. One of the party’s leading intellectuals, Professor of theology and philosopher Mehmet Aydin, who is currently Minister for Religious Affairs, wrote in December 2002 in the largest Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet:

“In the Islamic world, politics have always tended to restrict knowledge and thinking. The result has been a sort of paralysis of reason. Politics also controls education which leads to further restriction of reason. This is in sharp contrast to the Koran according to which one should constantly meditate on the world, history and oneself. Religious knowledge must also be renewed. Membership of the EU would speed up this process.”

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections in July 2007, when AKP increased its share of the votes from 32 to 47 per cent, more and more warnings were heard from the secular and military establishment that, AKP aims to Islamise Turkey step by step by means of a salami tactic. However, a major study published in November 2006 carried out by the distinguished think tank TESEV reached a completely different conclusion.

Compared with 1999, the proportion of the population that identify themselves as Muslims first had indeed increased from 36 per cent to 45 per cent while those who consider themselves to be Turks first had decreased from 21 to 19 per cent. This strengthened Muslim identity, however, has not led to increased support for a politicised Islam. Instead, the proportion that answered “yes” to the question “Should there be political parties based on religion?” had decreased from 41 to 25 per cent in the last seven years and support for a religious state based on shari’a law had dropped dramatically from 21 to 9 per cent. It should be noted in particular that only 14 per cent of AKP sympathisers wanted to see a political system of that kind.

Only eight per cent considered suicide attacks against a foreign occupant justified while 85 per cent definitely dismissed such actions. Support proved to be greatest – 14 per cent – among supporters of the nationalist MHP and even the Kemalist and putative social democratic CHP had more advocates of these violent methods than AKP – 11 and 9 per cent respectively.

70 per cent of those who described themselves as secular or left oriented considered that use of the headscarf had increased and saw this as a threat to the secular state. However, TESEV’s study showed that between 1999 and 2006 the proportion of women who covered their head had decreased from 53,4 to 48.8 per cent and that the custom of wearing a turban - a headscarf tied under the chin - had decreased from 15.7 to 11.4 per cent and that the use of full-body black çarsaf had gone down from three to one per cent.

On the other hand, the number of women wearing headscarves in public environments had increased but not as a result of an islamisation of Turkish society but of its modernisation which has resulted in an increase in the participation of these women in professional life and the fact that they no longer hesitate to drive a car or go to cafés.

The Islamic Calvinists

One of the measures Atatürk took in his endeavour to modernise and Europeanise the new Turkish Republic was to prohibit the numerous Islamic brotherhoods or Orders and to transfer their property and meeting places to the state.

Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, every third male subject belonged to an Order and their influence was as great as that of the national Sunni religion. These brotherhoods also offered an important social community and many were renowned for their social commitment and they kept their networks alive in spite of the prohibition. Not least through their social activities they have become increasingly popular in the religious social strata as an alternative to a state apparatus that has appeared incompetent. Many of the numerous non-government organisations that have emerged in the past decade have their base in initiatives that have come from these Orders.

The Nurculuk movement is of greatest importance today. It was founded by Bediüzaman Sait-i Nursi (1879-1960). Nursi’s message was that Islam must be compatible with modern science and that the scientific description of the world can also be given a religious metaphysical explanation. He spoke of the mechanics of nature in which there is room both for modern physics and traditional Islamic philosophy. The Nurcu movement therefore aspires to a synthesis between Islam and science, acceptance of democracy, and just government within the framework of shari’a law and he stressed in particular the importance of a good education.

Nursi wanted to open Islam to reason and science and interpret the Koran in this new light. In his view no single theology or religious institution possessed the correct interpretation. Understanding of the Koran’s message rather depended on time, place and external circumstances. Several opinions can therefore exist alongside one another and in competition with each other. For him shari’a was not a system of rules determined for all time but a just order adapted to a specific time and the existing circumstances. For Nursi democracy and freedom were necessary preconditions for a just society.

After his death the movement split up and there are now some ten different Nurcu communions.

The most influential, dynamic and successful is fethullacilar which is named after its hoca (teacher) Fethullah Gülen. As in the case of Nursi Gülen also aims to reconcile faith with scientific thinking. He points out that 95 per cent of the Islamic rules apply to private and family life and only five per cent to state affairs. These must be regulated in a democratic manner. Turkey’s history and social conditions make an Islamic state impossible and the democratisation of Turkey is an irrevocable process.

In what is known as the Abant Declaration proclaimed in July 1988 Gülen pleads for a new form of modernity that is compatible with Islam’s fundamental principles, democracy and respect for individual human rights. The central message of the Declaration is that revelation and reason are not in conflict with each other, that individuals should use their common sense to organise their lives and that the state should be neutral in matters concerning faith and outlook on life and not base its rule on a predominant religious tradition. The aim of secularism must be to strengthen freedom and individual rights and it must not serve the purpose of excluding any group from the public arena.

Since Gülen supported the 1980 military coup the authorities were favourably disposed to his movement for a long time. With the willing assistance of Prime Minister and later President Turgut Özal, who was himself in close contact with the Nakshibendi Order he appeared to be a representative of a modern forward-looking Islam that was favourably inclined to Atatürk’s modernisation project and politicians across the left-right spectrum expressed their sympathies with him and his movement. Gülen further criticised the Welfare Party and its leader Erbakan for being too radical and he also supported the soft military coup that led to the latter’s fall in February 1997.

However, in June 1999 an organised campaign was initiated against him in the Turkish media. The security police reported that video recordings had been found of sermons claimed to have been given in 1986 in which he had urged his supporters to be patient and make conscious efforts to infiltrate the secular state. The Chief of the General Staff spoke openly of Gülen’s plans to undermine the latter and the State Security Court in Ankara applied for a detention order for Gülen, which was, however, rejected. After a new prosecution had been instituted in 2000, he preferred to depart for the US for medical treatment and he has lived there ever since. However, he still exercises great influence through his supporters, his writings and his media empire which includes, inter alia, a TV station and the newspaper Zaman (Time), to which many of Turkey’s best known secular political writers contribute and which to-day has the biggest circulation of all Turkish daily newspapers.

Supporters of the movement in Turkey are now estimated to number between five and six million and they meet regularly in special premises, dershanes, to analyse and interpret Nurcu’s texts.

Gülen’s movement has acquired many supporters above all from the emerging class of religious small entrepreneurs who have formed their own business associations with active local associations in all major Turkish cities. Through a combination of modern science and technology, hard work, thrift and social commitment based on Islam, a religiously coloured bourgeoisie known as the Anatolian tigers, has emerged.

In recent years above all the regions around the city Kayseri in central Anatolia have undergone a rapid economic development, as a result of which several expanding industrial centres have been created by Islamic Calvinists as they have come to be called. In Kayseri alone the number of dershane grew from 2 in 1970 to 60 in 2000 and they also function as networks for entrepreneurs where they can discuss business opportunities, cooperation projects and financing matters. The small town Hacilar outside Kayseri with its 20 000 inhabitants has developed into a Turkish Gnosjö and harbours nine of Turkey’s 500 most successful companies.

According to a study carried out by the European Stability Initiative published in September 2005 the main factor underlying this development is the individualistic and initiative-promoting elements in Turkish Sufi Islam. The sociologist of religion, Hakan Yavuz, claims that in recent decades Turkey has undergone a silent Muslim reformation with clear parallels with the protestant reformation, a process which has, however, been neglected due to more dramatic events elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Turkey this development – protestanlasma, to become protestant – is discussed with increasing interest. Does Max Weber’s theses on a connection between the growth of capitalism and the Calvinist message that economic success is a sign of belonging to the chosen ones also apply to Islamic Calvinists or has increasing prosperity led to an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with modernity?

Irrespective of the answer to this question, economic and social developments here have created an environment in which Islam and modernity co-exist without problems, a process that undermines the basic Kemalist thesis that economic development and modernisation are only possible if religion is kept at a distance.

Turkey – a model for the Muslim world?

In the debate on Islam and democracy and the causes of the Muslim world’s general crisis it is often said that the modern Turkish Republic could play a role as a model. As is evident from the above the situation in Turkey cannot be compared with conditions in Iran and the Arab world for several reasons.

Firstly, both the Kemalists and the political Islamists in Turkey have been deeply influenced by modern European thought and European policies.

Secondly, Turkey has never been a colony. Unlike other countries in the Muslim world, Islam in Turkey has therefore never become an ideological superstructure for opposing colonialism, occupation or western oppression. Certainly the attempts to colonise and divide up the country after the First World War still play a role through what is known as the Sèvres syndrome but those attempts were repelled by the country’s own efforts in the struggle for independence 1920-22. The Turkish Republic has therefore never lost its legitimacy among the population even if many are critical of phenomena in the country.

Thus the influence the western world exercised on Turkey was a result of the choices of Turkish politicians and not of coercion. When such influence was exercised in the process of modernisation it came from within and above but not from outside. The west is therefore portrayed as an enemy of Islam to a far lesser extent than in other Muslim countries. Instead, the non-Islamic enemy was first Russia and later the Soviet Union. This led to Turkey’s membership of NATO which in its turn meant a common Turkish-European-Atlantic military alliance in the fight against communism which was also the major enemy for a political Islam.

Thirdly, despite recurring economic crises Turkey has not been afflicted by the socio-economic destitution and frustration that has been a hot-bed for religious extremism elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Fourthly, unlike the situation in other Muslim countries, existing dissatisfaction could be expressed by political means and it has been possible to remove parties in power by means of elections. This is a further explanation why political Islam in Turkey does not have the extremist strain found in so many quarters in the Muslim world. When Erbakan’ s Islamic Welfare Party was banned in 1997, for example, he did not mobilise his supporters in mass demonstrations but applied to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. When its verdict went against him, he accepted it.

Fifthly, the different Sufi Orders, although formally banned, have had an essential influence and contributed to the pluralism and moderation that characterises Islam in Turkey.

Sixthly, the rapidly emerging middle class in the cities has contributed to moderation. Many are religious and want to have their religiosity accepted but they themselves are marked by 80 years of secular rule.

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