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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Turkey Between Secularism and Islamism

Filed under: Radical Islam, Turkey
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 352   9 Adar I 5757 / 16 February 1997


Past Secularist Reforms, The Revival of Islamism, Open Political Involvement, The National Salvation Party, Inside the Government and Outside, Towards a Refah Cabinet, Future Prospects


Past Secularist Reforms

When Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 (he was its president until his death fifteen years later), he set as his main objective the modernization of the new republic. His preferred means was speedy, intensive secularization and, indeed, every one of his reforms was tied up with disestablishing other Islamic institutions from their hold on Turkey’s politics, economics, society, and cultural life.

Under his guidance, elected parliaments (comprising the only legal party, of which he was the chairman) passed, in rapid succession, a number of daring laws. Among these, probably the most revolutionary were those on education and the legal system. The former uprooted the religious element from all schools, making secularized instruction compulsory; this meant a completely new set of curricula, textbooks, and teachers. The latter abolished all religious courts (Islamic, Christian and Jewish), setting up instead secular courts with sets of laws and procedures based on Western European, largely Swiss, models; this implied the preparation of new laws and the training of new judges. To understand the boldness of this move, it should be remembered that in some of the other successor states of the Ottoman Empire, religious courts were abolished only much later – in Egypt, in 1956 – while in others they are still active, as in Israel and Lebanon.

Among the boldest new laws were those forbidding polygamy, and others equalizing women – in divorce proceedings, inheritance rights, and in passive (and, later, active) parliamentary elections. Yet other laws instituted Sunday as the day of rest (the only Muslim state to decree this), and the Gregorian calendar instead of the Hijri, pressed for European clothing, changed the script from Arabic to Latin, and moved the capital from Islamic-minded Istanbul to a more neutral Ankara.

All public agencies were mobilized to carry out the Kemalist reforms, chiefly the People’s Party and the press and radio. The party inaugurated “People’s Homes” and, in smaller places, “People’s Rooms” to recommend and control reforms. The press, largely directed at the literate elites, continuously urged them to participate in the move for progress via modernization.

The Revival of Islamism

While active opposition to the secularization drive was rare (it had few avenues open to it anyway), a latent one persisted, chiefly in the rural areas. Indeed, the success of the Kemalist reforms was mostly noticeable in the cities and towns. Turkey’s population at the time was heavily rural (about three-quarters of the total). The smaller a village was and the more remote from an urban center, the less it was affected by the new reforms. It rarely had a school of the new type, nor a court which could judge by Western codes of law or sanction civil marriage and divorce. Consequently, the local hadja, or religious dignitary, continued to teach the local children and officiate at weddings and divorces – all along the previous, Islamic lines.

The People’s Party could have an effective impact only in the larger villages. The press arrived there, but few could read it, particularly in the mandatory Latin script. Radio, an effective tool, was of little use in the thousands of villages and hamlets which lacked electricity. Moreover, such organizations as the Islamic brotherhoods, officially prohibited, continued their existence from the pre-republican era, operating clandestinely and biding their time.

The occasion for Islam’s re-entry into the political arena came, ironically, as a result of one of the aspects of modernization. After the end of World War II, a multi-party era started due to public pressure in Turkey and to inducement by its great ally, the United States. The first parliamentary multi-party elections were held in 1946. At the next ones, in 1950, the People’s Party (now called the Republican People’s Party) lost its parliamentary majority and its rival (the Democratic Party) governed for a whole decade. Its opening towards Islamically-oriented voters maintained it in power, a lesson not lost on any of Turkey’s major political parties, then or later.

The Democratic Party did not restore the Islamic establishment to its earlier status. However, it did restore the Arabic call to prayer (instead of the Turkish) and allowed broadcasts of the Koran over the state-owned radio. Many new mosques were built and others repaired; Muslim tombs were reopened to the general public for devotions (on the pretext that they were historical monuments). More importantly, the general mood was openly changing. The authorities refrained from interfering with intensive religious instruction for children in rural localities. Substantial funds were earmarked for institutes training preachers and prayer leaders; in these, almost half of the curriculum hours are invested in Arabic, the Koran, and religious instruction.

The decade of the Democratic Party’s rule ended in 1960 with a military intervention. The armed forces considered themselves as the guardians of Kemalism and were annoyed by the party’s partial withdrawal from secularism and other Kemalist principles. Hence they closed down the party and banned it. Otherwise, their coup had few tangible results. After the military had returned to their barracks and handed the government to an elected parliament, in 1961, there followed a period of liberalization. This was expressed mainly in limiting official censorship of the press and other publications. Not surprisingly, the 1960s was a decade when many clashing ideologies became a matter of public debate. Suggestively, the common ground of Marxist, chauvinist, and Islamist discourse was their criticism of Kemalism.

The Islamists invested most of their efforts during the 1960s (and, as we shall see, subsequently) in three domains: education, publishing, and organization. In addition to pressuring the authorities for increasing allocations to Islamic classes at school, Islamists promoted an ever growing number of Koran courses for adults in the villages. A great effort was invested in the publication and sale of low-cost Islamic literature: works on Islam, the life of its Prophet and other leaders, Islamic history and mysticism, commentaries on the Koran, works explaining the dogmas and rites of Islam, collections of Friday sermons, as well as school textbooks and translation of Islamic classics into Turkish. These were supplemented by many Islamic-minded dailies, weeklies and monthlies, whose circulation rose parallel to the increase in literacy. Organizational activities were carried out on two levels: via Islamic philanthropic associations, whose number grew annually, and via underground activities of various Islamic groups which were not officially allowed to associate legally. All these served as recruitment centers of support for the first Islamic political party in the history of the republic.


Open Political Involvement

The fact that Turkey’s constitutions insulated politics from religion did not prevent the foundation of an Islamist party in 1970. The time seemed ripe for the Islamists to get out of the political wilderness and attempt to rejoin the mainstream. The Party for National Order was established on January 26, 1970. Under different names, but with the same leader and ideology, it survives to this day. Although it could not define itself outright as a religious grouping, the Islamist press hailed the party enthusiastically, so that its main characteristics were never in doubt. It started immediately to set up branches throughout Turkey, in the smaller towns and villages, especially among the religious circle.

Although the party’s program and speeches emphasized its democratic views,