Op/Ed 2: Religion, Populism, and Authoritarianism – Andrew Devenish

Since its founding in 1923 as a democratic nation after the fall of the religious Ottoman Empire, Turkey has officially been secular. Unique in its geographic region, Turkey has a long tradition of secular politics despite its overwhelming religious majority of Muslims. However, that has been changing recently.

Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forming the Republic of Turkey and serving as its first President for many years. Despite Turkey’s secularism not being written into its constitution at the time of its founding, secularism was a strong principle of Ataturk’s, so he amended the constitution in 1928 to include a mandate of secularism. This was an extraordinary feat – just a few years earlier the Ottoman Empire had reigned, which was a fundamentalist Islamic empire which had controlled vast territory as a caliphate, and which was now, only six years after its fall, constitutionally a democratic, secular republic. Ataturk accomplished all this within a few short years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but his work is now at risk.

In the past, whenever Turkey’s government strayed too far from its secular roots or overstepped its authority, there has been a military coup. Whether it’s a good or bad thing for the military to overthrow the government (it’s bad), these coups have done their jobs. Turkey has had five successful coups since the country’s founding, but the last one was in 1997, with a failed coup occurring recently, in 2016. Over the recent years, Turkey has been leaning further and further into its religious side. This doesn’t come as a total surprise – any nation with a 98% majority of one religion, as Turkey has with Islam, would likely cater its laws and practices toward that vast majority. However, this goes against Turkey’s original secular ideals. Especially since its current leader, Erdogan has come to power, Turkey has faced much criticism over the state of its religiosity. As an authoritarian, Erdogan exercises the use of religion within his state, which promotes religious fundamentalism. The government has built mosques and religious schools, changed the education system to include more instruction in Islam, and politicians and national leaders frequently use religious language to garner support. The Turkish government is acting as though Islam is an official religion and supporting it publicly. For example, when the Turkish president says that Muslims discovered America, before Columbus did (the Vikings discovered it long before anyone else), by saying that Columbus saw a mosque in what is now Cuba, that is the head of state for a secular nation promoting Islam. He is not saying the Turkish people or Turkey discovered America, he is saying Muslims did it. These invasions of religion into the responsibilities of government flies in the face of the purpose of secularism. But it’s working. Turkey is nearly 99% majority Muslim. That is an incredibly high percentage of people that are religious, so it’s something all politicians can appeal to. The move away from secularism for Turkey is a calculated populist move – pairing religion with populism is extremely effective. What better way to appeal to the common person than with a common religion? We can see how well it works by looking at election results. Erdogan’s own party, the AKP, has consistently won elections with large majorities for nearly 20 years. Erdogan isn’t just a religious authoritarian, he’s a populist that uses religion to fuel his populism. But Turkey’s populist leader isn’t just pro-Islam, he is also anti-Christian. Outside of the Muslim majority, the next largest religious denominations are Christian, which make up around 0.2% of the population. According to a US watchdog, Christians in Turkey are facing increased religious persecution. This is just another example of the authoritarian populist Erdogan’s government getting involved in religion and overstepping its traditionally secular authority.

If Turkey is to return to the secular society envisioned by Ataturk nearly a hundred years ago, something must be done. The government’s involvement in religion as well as the rhetoric used by politicians and leaders like Erdogan must be stopped if Turkey is to regain its position as a secular and democratic leader in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. A military coup may not be the ideal answer, but this trend will only continue if the power of populists like Erdogan are left unchecked.


Works Cited

Ackerman, Elliot. “Atatürk Versus Erdogan: Turkey’s Long Struggle.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 26 Oct. 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/ataturk-versus-erdogan-turkeys-long-struggle.

Bekdil, Burak. “Pillars of Turkey’s Islamization: Schools, Mosques, and Prisons.” Middle East Forum, 27 Sept. 2016, http://www.meforum.org/6315/pillars-of-islamization-in-turkey.

Butler, Daren. “With More Islamic Schooling, Erdogan Aims to Reshape Turkey.” Reuters, Reuters, 25 Jan. 2018, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/turkey-erdogan-education/.

“Christians in Turkey Face Increased Persecution – U.S. Watchdog.” Ahval, 24 July 2019, ahvalnews.com/freedom-religion/christians-turkey-face-increased-persecution-us-watchdog.

“Erdogan Hits Back at Ridicule of Claim Muslims Discovered America.” The Guardian, Agence France-Presse, 18 Nov. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/18/erdogan-ridicule-muslims-discovered-america.

Raja, Raza Habib. “Is Turkey Transforming into a Fundamentalist Religious State?” The Express Tribune Blogs, 19 Apr. 2017, blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/48916/is-turkey-transforming-into-a-fundamentalist-religious-state/.


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