Taming Islam: Studying Religion in Secular Turkey

By Shively, Kim | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Taming Islam: Studying Religion in Secular Turkey


Shively, Kim, Anthropological Quarterly


It is hard to overemphasize how politically sensitive religious education is in Turkish society. The debate over religious education, along with a few other touchstone issues, reveals much about how official conceptions of religion clash with the beliefs and practices of many religiously observant Turkish citizens. This clash became particularly clear to me as I became involved in an independent and unauthorized women's Koran course in Sincan, a suburb of Ankara. I participated in this course in order to understand conservative religious lifestyles in Turkey, and to gain insight into the view of secularism that many pious Muslims held in Turkish society soon after the collapse of the Islamist-leaning government in 1997. The involvement in the Koran course certainly allowed me to carry out this research, but also gave me an interesting perspective from which to examine the politicization of religious knowledge and education at a rather turbulent time in Turkey's economic and political history.

To appreciate the political importance and sensitivity of religious instruction, it is necessary to understand the nature of secularism in Turkey and most especially the relationship between the Turkish state and religion. The Turkish population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but especially since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the modern Turkish republic in 1923, Turkey's government and major social institutions have been staunchly secular. The early Republican government, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, saw secularization as essential to the creation of a truly modern nation-state. Indeed, Kemalism (the ideology based on the doctrines of Mustafa Kemal) promotes what it considers to be secularism, along with nationalism, economic development and Westernization, as the ideological basis of the modern Turkish Republic. Many aspects of Turkish society-from education and governance to the organization of daily life-were officially secularized over a relatively short period of time.

However, Turkish secularism more closely resembles French laicité than American-style secularism. Where secularism in the United States strives for a complete separation of church and state, laicism (laiklik) in Turkey strives to bring religion under the control of the state. The idea is that religion should not be in the hands of a powerful and independent cleric elite (ulema) that can rival government power, but should be brought under the control of the non-religious state, where it no longer poses a potential threat to government hegemony (Davison 2003:341; White 2002:4). As such, Turkish secularism-or laicism-does not make assumptions of religious neutrality or objectivity in the public sphere, but instead religion is tightly defined and legally subordinated to the political establishment. Religion is controlled by a branch of government, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, whose main task, according to the 1982 Turkish constitution, is to regulate Islam, especially its public expressions, such that it guarantees that these expressions accord with the needs of the state (Yavuz 2000:29; Yilmaz 2005:388).

Controlling religious education is, of course, an essential method of "domesticating" religion and guaranteeing that it remains relatively harmless. Over the course of the Westernizing reforms in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, education became more and more secular (Mardin 1993:350-353). Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923, compulsory general education has been secular, ending once and for all the influences of the traditional Ottoman medreses, or religious schools. The new Republican government put all education under the control of the Ministry of Education, developing a unified curriculum and educational system that would articulate a particular cultural and moral identity-a Turkish identity-to be shared by the (Turkish) citizens of the new nation (Kaplan 2006:39). This identity included a very particular interpretation of Islam that was encoded in official religious educational practices and institutions, while alternative interpretations were condemned and often declared illegal by the Turkish government. …

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