Walking the Line: Turkey's Struggle with Islamism

By Morris, Melissa | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Walking the Line: Turkey's Struggle with Islamism


Morris, Melissa, Harvard International Review


On December 10, 1997, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel withdrew from the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Tehran. Many suspect that he did so to avoid facing criticism for Turkey's increasingly close ties to Israel. Turkey's cooperation with Israel and its withdrawal from the conference both illustrate the unfaltering secularism of the present Turkish government and promise to fuel the ongoing conflict between Islamists and secularists in Turkey.

The forced resignation and subsequent trial of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan is the latest in a long series of confrontations that dates back to the founding of modern Turkey. Seventy-five years after its founding, Turkey still struggles with its self-definition as a Western-oriented Muslim society.

In the early 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led a revolution that replaced the Islamic traditions of the Ottoman Empire with the secular practices of modern Turkey. From the elimination of religious schools to the replacement of Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, these sweeping secular reforms spanned all levels of society. To counter the influence of religion on society, the secularists sought to place religious and educational institutions under state control. In the years that followed, the increased involvement of the military as secularism's champion and protector characterized Turkish politics. The army staged three coups (1960, 1971, and 1980) to counter opposition Islamist elements that threatened secularism. Although Turkey has been under civilian rule since 1983, the pervasive power of the military asserts itself in governmental affairs in a number of ways, most clearly through the decision-making power of the National Security Council.

In Turkey, as in other Muslim countries, religion and religious symbols have always held immense power. In the same spirit that Ataturk and his contemporaries placed religion under state control, the Turkish military used religion as a tool to suppress extremists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, Islamists have integrated religious principles and a political agenda for social reform under the banner of Islamic nationalism. In the eyes of the military and the intellectual elite, Islamic nationalism poses a serious challenge to the established order, as it constitutes an alternative to Ataturk's secular nationalism.

The Islamist Welfare Party secured 21 percent of seats in the 1995 Turkish parliamentary elections, and its leader, Professor Necmettin Erbakan, became modern Turkey's first Islamist Prime Minister. In the year Erbakan spent as Prime Minister, the government made several distinctly Islamist reforms, including reinstating religious academies and strengthening ties with other Islamic nations. Frightened that Turkey was slanting towards fundamentalism, the military forced Erbakan to resign in June 1997. President Suleyman Demirel appointed Misut Yilmaz of the conservative, secular Motherland Party to the vacated post. …

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