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Religion, Politics, and Civil Society in Turkey:Transforming the Public Space

Carool Kersten, May 11, 2010

For the better part of the twentieth century, Turkey was a country enforcing the strictest separation of religion and state in the Muslim world. From the 1920s until the mid-1980s, the state ideology of Kemalism -- named after the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal (a.k.a. Ataturk) -- ensured that any expressions of religiosity were not only out of bounds in politics, but actually kept out of the public sphere altogether. In particular the military positioned itself as the guardian of the constitutional limitations on any form of political Islam. However, in two decades or so, Turkey has developed into one of the most interesting 'places to watch' in regards to new ways in which Islam is allowed to feature in the public sphere. Now religion even has found a new place in Turkish political life.

ronically, it was in the wake of the 1980 coup d'etat that the military itself allowed the creation of what Hakan Yavuz  calls a 'new opportunity space' by acknowledging the link between national and religious identity in the form of a 'Turkish-Islamic Synthesis' (TIS). This major shift in political thinking was actively advocated by Turgut Özal (1927-1993), who served as prime minister from 1983 until 1989 when he took over the presidency from General Kenan Evren, leader of the 1980 putsch and the most senior military official to condone the TIS. Although Özal was often hailed as the most influential political figure after Ataturk, it was only three years after his sudden death in 1993 that the so-called Refah or Welfare Party, an overtly Islamic political party, was able to take real political control, even though this was short-lived. Quickly banned following a 'velvet coup' by the armed forces in 1997, it resurfaced first as the Virtue Party (1998) and then, in 2001, as the Felicity Party. But it was not until a younger generation of politicians redrew the map of Turkish politics by establishing the Justice and Development Party ( AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi ) that an Islam-inspired party managed to make more enduring inroads into the country's political landscape.

Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the AKP party, first under Prime Minister Abdullah Gül and then under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (b. 1954), a former mayor of Istanbul and the real leader of the AKP (Gül first moved to the ministry of foreign affairs, before winning the presidential elections). In contrast to the Welfare, Virtue and Felicity Parties, the AKP does not promote an overtly Islamic agenda. Its ideological orientation has more parallels with Christian-Democratic parties in Western Europe than with its Islamist predecessors. Although Islam definitely provides AKP politicians with a moral compass, this is translated in decidedly pragmatic political programmes. Their prime focus is on economic policy, democratic reforms, active engagement in international diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution. All these initiatives are geared towards securing EU-membership.

Aside from these drastic changes in political developments, perhaps an even more interesting development during the same time frame is the emergence of what can be called a Turkish 'civil Islam'. This is most prominently exemplified by the initatives deployed by the so-called Gülen Movement, led by Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941). This former mosque Imam gives direction to a somewhat amorphous and multifarious organisation involved in reshaping Turkish civil society through wide-ranging activities in the fields of education, media, charity and philantropy. His influence has been so pervasive that in a 2008 survey by Prospect Magazine, Gülen surfaced as the most influential global public intellectual. The movement does namely not limit its activities to only Turkey, but is also involved on the international scene, especially in Central Asia, Southeastern Europe, and Western countries with Turkish communities or substantial numbers of citizens of Turkish descent.

One such international exponent is the UK-based Dialogue Society. Established in 1999, it recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. During the first decade of its existence it has been highly successful in networking with the political establishment, supporting the foundation of a number of private schools, deploying initiatives towards community cohesion, and organising academic seminars, workshops, and round-table discussions in which politicians, civil servants, academics, social activists and journalists are brought togehter to discuss issues affecting pluralist societies such as those emerging in the UK, in particular in the London area.

The Dialogue Society also facilitates trips enabling participants in its various activities to gain first-hand experience of current developments in Turkey. During a recent visit to Istanbul, I was thus in a position to become acquainted with some of the projects initiated, supported or inspired by the Gülen Movement. Meetings and discussions were held with, for example, representatives of the charity organisation Kimse Yok Mu ('Is Anybody Out There?'), which had started out as a TV programme to raise funds for earthquake victims and quickly developed into a prominent disaster and poverty relief agency.

Media form a very important part in the network of Gülen Movement-associated organisations. These include the Samanyolu TV Station and Zaman Media group. Samanyolu operates a network of satellite stations in Kurdistan, Istanbul and the United States, where it broadcasts as Ebru TV.

The Zaman group publishes an English-language edition known as Today's Zaman. Numerous leading political commentators and academics, including Şahin Alpay,Kerim Balci and Ihsan Yilmaz write columns for this periodical.

On the intellectual front, the Journalists and Writers Foundation connects a plethora of forums and platforms engaged in such activities as interfaith dialogue, gender issues, and the facilitation of relations between Turkey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. One of its most prominent initiatives is the Abant Platform, envisaged as an alternative to the annual Davos World Economic Forum.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Gülen Movement is its worldwide network of private schools, ranging from nurseries and primary education to academically rigorous and highly successful high schools and colleges, and even universities, such as Fatih University on the outskirts of Istanbul. The entire system is privately funded, not only relying on fees, but also on large-scale donations from an increasingly affluent and assertive middle class, with roots in the socially conservative provincial cities and towns of Anatolia and the Black Sea area.

Reflective of this connection with a professional middle class is the fact that these primary and secondary schools are very much geared towards the three 'R's (reading, writing, arithmetic). On the tertiary level too, the curricula focus on the natural sciences, engineering, medicine and law. Fatih University, though, offers also courses in history and languages. Religion is markedly absent from all programmes. The explanation given for this is that it is assumed that religious and moral values are instilled in the home environment. Interestingly, though, very recently Fatih University was actually requested by the education ministry to start developing a programme in divinity.

Dr Ihsan Yilmaz during a frank discussion on the careful navigations required for operating a private university associated with the Gülen Movement in Turkey. Final reflection and discussions with political commentator Kerim Balci.

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