Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Patronage, Party, and State: The Politicization of Islam in Turkey

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Patronage, Party, and State: The Politicization of Islam in Turkey

Article excerpt

The recent rise of political Islam in Turkey is examined in terms of a complex interplay between four major processes: the policies of the parties on the center right toward religion; state-sponsored religious activities and the consolidation of establishment Islam; the impact of Sufi tarikats and communities; and the growing organizational strength, ideological appeal, and electoral base of the Islamist Welfare Party (WP).

In the local elections held on 27 March 1994, the religious Welfare Party (WP) won 28 of the mayorships in Turkey's 75 provincial centers. It raised its share of the votes to 19 percent from the previous 9.9 percent in the general election held on 20 October 1991, and in some regions emerged as the leading party in the highly politically fragmented landscape of the 1990s. What startled many Turks, their Westernized elite, and foreign observers was this party's success in the two largest metropolitan areas. Istanbul and Ankara were known as the bastions of secularism and the democratic left for the past two decades. Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the WP, interpreted his party's victory as reclaiming Istanbul, the ancient capital where the caliph of Islam had been based until 1924 when Kamal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate. He also saw it as winning over Ankara, the capital city of the Turkish Republic, which had been a symbol of modernization for many reformists throughout the Muslim world.

This article examines the rise of political Islam in Turkey within the context of very recent developments and essentially political variables. The complex interplay between four major processes is identified as crucial in this respect. These processes are: the policies of the parties on the center right toward religion; state-sponsored religious activities; the impact of Sufi Islam; and Islamic party politics. The policies put forward by political parties on the center right and the religious activities of various government institutions have tended to heighten religious consciousness, increase levels of religious observance, and reinforce religious identity among the masses. On the other hand, Sufi Islam and Islamic party activity, though by no means militant in content, have strong radical and fundamentalist leanings. They are antithetical to the compartmentalization of religion and state, insisting instead on the Islamization of the society and polity according to the principles of Islamic law.


In the early 1920s, the creators and leaders of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal and his close associates, saw in Islam both positive and negative aspects. They clearly recognized that Islam was a significant part of Turkish society, that religious faith was important for national unity and mobilization, and that it could contribute to social and moral welfare. On the other hand, they also saw Islam as a traditional force and a source of conservative influence, superstition, false ideas, and dogmas that they felt were responsible for Turkey's backwardness, and were obstacles to the achievement of national ideals. The attitude of the Republican leaders was supportive when Islam was consistent with Republican reforms, but extremely hostile when it was at cross-purposes with the main objectives of modernization.(l) Their aim was to enforce a secularization program and make Islam compatible with the modern nation-state.

The secularization program involved a set of major legal and institutional changes implemented by the government in the years following the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923. In 1924, the new regime introduced drastic measures, abolishing the Caliphate, Islamic schools, seriat (Islamic law) courts, and the Ministries of Seriat and Evkaf (pious foundations). In 1925, sects and orders were banned and monasteries were closed. In the same two years a unified educational system under a secular Ministry of Public Instruction was established, as was a Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA) (under the Premier's office), to replace the two previously mentioned ministries. …

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