Religion in Turkey

By Oktem, Niyazi | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Religion in Turkey


Oktem, Niyazi, Brigham Young University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Turkey is a secular state.1 Among Muslim countries, only Turkey and Senegal prescribe secularism in their constitutions. Secularism focuses on human reason rather than divine inspiration to resolve political or social issues2 and is one of the most important principles of the Turkish Republic.3 From the first republican Constitution of 1924,(4) through the more liberal and democratic Constitution of 1961,(5) and finally to the most recent and more authoritarian Constitution of 1982,(6) the concept of secularism has always occupied an important place in Turkish legislation. But in a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim majority, secular legislation always presents IMAGE FORMULA5

practical problems in the conduct of social life.' For many Turks, general principles of Islam are not compatible with Western philosophy. Muslim fundamentalists and some Muslim intellectuals believe that the ideas of democracy and secularism are inimical to Islamic dogma.8

Clearly, certain Islamic traditions, interpretations, and practices are in conflict with the concept of a modern state.9 Nevertheless, philosophically, sociologically, and theologically, Islam is multidimensional. Historically, Turkey has not been a classically traditional Muslim society. The historical, social, and cultural situations in Turkey have always fostered a synthesis between Islam and Western political thought.10 IMAGE FORMULA7

Describing both the historical and current philosophies of Turkish Muslims and non-Muslims creates a foundation for explaining how Islamic beliefs can be reconciled with Western progressivism. Part II of this article will present the current sociological and demographic situations in Turkey. Part III will detail the historical background of various religious traditions that have influenced Turkey's demographic structure. Part IV will then discuss the current legal status of the various Islamic sects and describe the numerous problems each sect presently faces. Finally, Part V will offer a brief conclusion.

II. THE SOCIOLOGICAL AND DEMOGRAPHIC SITUATIONS IN TURKEY

Before discussing the current legislative situation in Turkey, this section will address the sociological, demographic, and historical aspects of religion in Anatolia.

A. Muslims in Turkey

The population of Turkey today is estimated to be between sixtytwo and sixty-five million,11 of which ninety-nine percent are at least nominally Muslim.12 The great majority of Turkish Muslims are of the Sunni branch of Islam, as are a great majority of Muslims in the world.13 However, in Eastern Turkey, near the Iranian border, particularly among numerous villages in Kars, reside many fervent Muslims of the ShTa sect. There is also an important community of Shias IMAGE FORMULA12living in Istanbul. Shia literally means "party," "faction," or "sect," and denotes those Muslims who are faithful to the genealogical line of Ali,14 the cousin of Mohammed.15 Shias believe that this genealogical line (ahl-i Beyt)16 was inherited from Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, the wife of Ali,17 a divine light that is still transmitted through Ali's successors. The total number of Turkish Shias is estimated to be approximately 300,000.

Another Islamic sect faithful to the genealogical line of Ali are the Alevis.18 However, this common devotion to Ali and respect for his genealogical successors is the only link between Alevis and orthodox Shias.19 Alevis do not accept many of the traditions and rituals of Shias. For example, Alevis do not fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan, instead fasting for twelve days during the month of Mouharrem; they do not go on the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; nor do they pray five times daily; and the Alevi women do not veil themselves.20

Even among the poorest, most uneducated sections of the Alevi community, a certain degree of enlightenment and sophistication exists.

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