Since 1937, Turkey has been officially defined as a secular state, albeit with a Muslim-majority population. However, secularism in the Turkish context is distinctive, a product of its particular historical experience and development. Both the Ottoman heritage and contemporary Turkey’s Kemalist founding fathers’ apprehension were decisive factors in the evolution of Turkish secularism (laiklik) and set Turkey’s experience apart from that of other modern secular states. Turkish understanding of secularism itself has never had one single, unambiguous interpretation in Turkey, but in general it is widely understood that it reflects a sense that the state should not be totally blind to religious issues, but also should never favor one particular religion over another. Thus, Islamic practice was carried over in the society from the Ottoman state to the new Turkish Republic and allowed republican elites to declare a new structural order, without losing hegemonic power over religion. At the same time, the older Ottoman tradition of state management of religion was retained. For this reason and as a continuation of a social and political heritage from the Byzantium Empire, the Presidency of Religious Affairs (hereinafter the Diyanet) was established in March 1924 in the wake of the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate and its associated institutions, including the Şeriye Vekaleti (Ministry of Religious Affairs) and the Evkaf (Pious Foundations). Even though the Diyanet started its journey as a protector of both religion (read Sunni Islam) and secularism, it started as a promoter of raison d’etat’s Islamic understanding, and afterward it was instrumentalized by dominant political structures. In this regard, Turkey’s attitudes and the Diyanet’s different positions regarding Islamic issues, as well as various sociological phenomena in Turkish society, have always played a determinant role in the political arena. Under these circumstances, Islam in Turkey, and its status in the political arena, has been contentious in different areas, such as the historical heritage of Islam’s role in politics, Alevism and other Islamic sects, non-Muslim others and minorities, Islamic communities and cults, institutional Islam, and women and LGBT rights. Furthermore, Turkey has been coming face to face with a new experience over the second decade of the new millennium: The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) and its authoritarian shift through instrumentalizing the religion. The party’s leadership, mostly coming from an Islamist background, recast itself as conservative democrats. They promised a new social contract between the state and society and called for a series of liberal reforms that would enhance the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, and the rule of law. Yet since 2011, the AKP has opened discussions advocating for a change from parliamentary democracy to establish an executive presidential system to consolidate its power, and Islam is one of the prominent pillars of this new process. In this respect, political Islam has been the subject of various studies in such diverse disciplines as political science, international relations, sociology, history, anthropology, religious studies, and gender studies. The sources cited here serve as a guide to the politics of Islam in Turkey, and they broadly offer an introduction to a deeper engagement with the literature.
Despite the fact that the role of Islam in politics is one of the oldest and most fundamental subjects of Turkish studies, most of the prominent works were published after the late 1960s, and most of these studies’ first editions were in Turkish. But, thankfully, almost all of these studies were translated in English, and thus have reached a wider audience. Furthermore, most of these studies explain the relation between politics and Islam in Turkey from the perspective of various fields, such as political science, sociology, and history. Analyzing the relations between Islam and politics in Turkey, as with other structures of Turkey’s republican era, is not possible without making comparisons with the Ottoman period and society, and determining the points of rupture and continuity between the two eras. Among these studies, several works listed here provide both a background and a general overview of politics and Islam in Turkey. Berkes 1998 scrutinizes the Turkish type of secularism, including its origins and mentality, from a sociological perspective. Karpat 2001 analyzes the transformation of the Ottoman Empire over the 19th and 20th centuries under the effects of Islam. Mardin 2006 looks at Islamic identity within the Turkish modernization and its implementation from the late Ottoman period to early republican area, and Gözaydın 2009 clarifies the complicated structure of the Turkish state apparatus, the Diyanet, and its legal status in a secular state. Howe 2000 provides an ethnographic survey of the societal and cultural dimensions of religion in modern Turkey’s sociopolitical life. Lewis 1961 and Zurcher 2004 discuss aspects of religion, culture, and politics in relation to the modern Turkish Republic, modernization, and Turkish secularism.
Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. New York: Routledge, 1998.
This is one of the best and most fundamental books to understand the historical and political backgrounds of Turkish secularism. It also shows how the late Ottoman period is significantly important to understand the role of Islam in Turkish politics.
Çarkoğlu, Ali, and Barry Rubin, eds. Religion and Politics in Turkey. New York: Routledge, 2006.
A must-read edited book that covers most of the issues regarding Islam and politics in Turkey. Important topics in the book include the issue of Islam and democracy, the military and religion, and Turkey-originated transnational Islam.
Gözaydın, Istar. Diyanet. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2009.
A unique study that explains the position of Turkey’s Diyanet within the secular state structure. It is also important to establish an interpretation of the Turkish type of secularism. Only available in the Turkish language.
Howe, Marvine. Turkey Today: A Nation Divided over Islam’s Revival. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.
An ethnographic study of the rise of political Islam in the 1990s and its impact on the perceptions of Turkish secularism. Based on interviews and personal profiles, the book catalogues the return of Islam as a social and political force and its relevance for such notions as democracy and religious minorities.
Karpat, Kemal. The Politicization of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
A well-written analysis of the role of Islam in the late Ottoman period that provides the backbone of the early republican area. It details the social, cultural, and political modernization and ethnic transformation of the Ottoman state and the role of Islam in social transformation and modernization. It is one of the best books that deals with the role of identity, faith in the society, and state structure during the late Ottoman period.
Kuru, Ahmet T., and Alfred Stepan, eds. Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Very well-edited book that covers many different issues. Contributors tackle critical research questions, such as the legacy of the Ottoman’s ethno-religious plurality and the way in which Turkey’s assertive secularism can be softened to allow greater space for religious actors. Authors address the military’s “guardian” role in Turkey’s secularism, the implications of recent constitutional amendments for democratization, and the consequences and benefits of Islamic activism’s presence within a democratic system.
Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.
A historical survey of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the new Turkish Republic. Lewis adopts the classical modernization framework to explain the new ideology and identity of the Republic. New editions of this work have been published, the latest in 2001.
Mardin, Şerif. Religion, Society and Modernity in Turkey. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
A must-read for those who want to understand the role of Islam in Turkish political and social life. It brings Mardin’s remarkable essays on Turkish modernization together and provides detailed explanations regarding Turkish secularism and the position of Islam in the Turkish state structure.
Zurcher, Erik. Turkey: A Modern History. 3d ed. London: I. B. Taurus, 2004.
This is one of the essential books to be read for beginners of Turkish political life, and it has been viewed as one of the most important contributions to the literature. Zurcher provides a fairly comprehensive survey of social and political developments since the 1950s, when Turkey entered into a multiparty system and sociopolitical actors began to change and multiply.
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