Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

State, Islam, and Religious Liberty in Modern Turkey: Reconfiguration of Religion in the Public Sphere

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

State, Islam, and Religious Liberty in Modern Turkey: Reconfiguration of Religion in the Public Sphere

Article excerpt


Turkey occupies a unique place among the modern nation states. Not only from a geopolitical point of view but also from cultural and religious points of view; Turkey lies at the crossroads between Eastern and Western interests. The political and cultural identity of modern Turkey emerged under the influence of domestic and external forces that existed in and around Turkey throughout the centuries. Since modern Turkey was established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, periods of conflict and cooperation between Turkey and other political entities, such as Europe and the Middle East, have led to the development of the modern Turkish state and influenced its move toward modernization.

The establishment of a modern Turkey based on Western political models was a watershed in Turkey's history as an Islamic empire. The early republican elite distanced themselves from the cultural and ideological heritage of the Ottoman Empire and laid the foundational elements of modernization and westernization.1 These foundational elements were vastly embraced and expanded by the early republican elite circles in the formative period of modern Turkey.2 Successor states inherited and adopted some of the ideas and practices of the old regime. However, even today, the Ottoman political culture and state traditions continue to influence politics, though in a modified form.3

Nevertheless, modern Turkey continues to struggle to find an appropriate balance between religion and secularism in a nation that is almost entirely Muslim. Consequently, Turkey offers an excellent case study for those seeking answers to the following questions: Can Islam and democracy coexist? How far can religion and secularism be reconciled? To what extent can religious liberty, particularly freedom of religious expression, be extended in a secular state with a majority Muslim population? How does a Muslim majority address the problems of non-Muslim minorities? These and other similar questions should be answered within the context of the global spread of democracy and the rise of religion.

This paper provides a context for addressing these questions by providing a historical overview of religion's role in the public life of Turkey in Part II. Part III then looks at the role of religion in Turkey's current political situation. Part IV concludes that while it is still progressing towards finding an ideal balance between religion and politics, Turkey shows how Islam and modern democracy can peacefully coexist.


Because centuries of the Ottoman dynastic rule created a legacy that no successor regime could afford to disregard, a consideration of how modern ideas entered and shaped Turkish political culture during the Ottoman Empire is imperative to understanding the country's current attempts to reconcile religion and secularism.4 This section will begin by discussing the political reforms that occurred during the Ottoman Empire. It then explains the millet system, the system of religious law that operated during that time.

A. Modernity and Reforms

The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state in which the head of the state served as a caliph who held both temporal and spiritual authority.5 The traditional political culture of the empire, as well as its administrative machinery, continued with little change as long as the state preserved its military might and economic power. However, beginning in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of military and economic decline.6 New ideas emerged regarding the necessity of reforms in political, economic, educational, and military fields.7 Consequently, Ottoman leaders found it necessary to introduce reforms into the empire's political, economic, educational, and military structures.8

The resulting modernization and secularization of the Ottoman Empire occurred in several phases that were ushered in by significant events. …

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