Trends in Turkey and the Future of Islamic Modernism

Trends in Turkey and the Future of Islamic Modernism

For decades, modern Turkey has been regarded as an “exceptional” country in the Islamic world, with various achievements to admire. Although it is predominantly Muslim, it has a secular state, a relatively open society and a functioning democracy, despite suffering four military interventions since 1960. This has led some, especially in the West, to even offer Turkey as a “model” to other Muslim nations, some of which have long suffered under dictatorial regimes or illiberal religious traditions.

To be honest, as a Turk, I must concede that this model idea might be a bit exaggerated, for modern Turkey in fact has many flaws. (To learn more about them, simply consult our Kurds or Armenians.) Yet still, at least on the issue of Islamic aspirations and their compatibility with democracy, Turkey indeed seems to be the best example in the Middle East.

But to what do we owe this? The common answer, especially in the West, is that we owe modern Turkey to its founder, Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk, and his radical secularist reforms between 1924 and 1938. It is believed that with these authoritarian measures – which included the banning of all Islamic schools, Sufi orders and even religious garments – Atatürk’s regime tamed Islam enough to make it democracy- friendly. The Arab world, the narrative goes, only needs its own Atatürks – secular dictators who will crush the power of Islam and make it bow down to modernity.

However, there are two good reasons to doubt that narrative. First, Arabs and other Muslims in fact did have their Atatürks – secular dictators who tried to crush the power of Islam. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt tried similarly authoritarian measures against Islamic groups and individuals. In fact, most of the regimes overthrown or challenged by the Arab Spring are these very secular dictatorships.

Secondly, the Turkish story is much more complex than the creation-ex-nihiloby- Atatürk narrative – as this piece aims to show.


In the beginning, there was, of course, the Ottoman Empire. But it was not in an “age of darkness” before its destruction in World War I, as the Kemalist literature has claimed for decades. Quite the contrary, the Ottomans achieved a lot on the road to modernity.

There was a good reason for this: From the 15th century onward, the Ottoman Turks were the superpower of the Islamic world, and they were right next to Europe. That’s why they discovered the advances of the West before most other Muslim nations, and why they saw the need to cope with them. They started by reforming their military. Soon, they realized that they needed to incorporate not only the hardware of modernity but also its “software,” i.e. modern political and legal concepts.

Hence came the reform edicts of 1839 and 1856, by which the powers of the Ottoman Sultan were limited and the idea of modern citizenship introduced. The non- Muslim subjects of the empire, who had formerly enjoyed “protected” but nevertheless second-class (dhimmi) status, according to traditional Islamic law, were granted equal rights. In 1876, the Ottoman Empire accepted a constitution based on liberal principles. Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, an Ottoman bureaucrat and an Islamic scholar, prepared the Mejelle, a new legal code based on traditional Islamic law that also included many important modifications thanks to the maxim, “as time changes, the laws should also change.”

In 1908, the Ottoman Parliament reconvened with not just Muslim but also Greek, Armenian and Jewish deputies. At the time, the most popular maxim among the Ottoman intelligentsia, who included many devoutly religious figures, was “freedom.” Prince Sabahattin, the nephew of Sultan Abdülhamid II, promoted the principles of individual entrepreneurship and a limited, decentralized government. The compatibility of Islam and popular sovereignty had long been declared by Islamic modernists such as Namık Kemal. In the last decades of the empire, societies emerged with names such as Taal-i Nisvan (“The Advancement of Women”) or Mudafaa-i Hukuk-u Nisvan (“The Defense of the Rights of Women”). In 1910, Ottoman feminist Fatma Nesibe, a Muslim follower of John Stuart Mill, even argued that the Empire was on the eve of a “feminine revolution.”

In short, the Ottoman Empire had begun its modernization at least a century before the Turkish Republic, and had achieved a lot on that route. The Kemalists owed much to their Ottoman predecessors. After all, its leaders, Mustafa Kemal included, had been educated in the modern schools founded by Sultan Abdülhamid II.


Yet there was a profound difference between the Ottoman reformers and the Kemalists: The former tried to create a synthesis of Islam and modernity, whereas the latter had neither the time nor the vision to do that. Instead, taking their inspiration from the staunchly secularist French Enlightenment and the anti-clerical French Revolution, they tried to minimize the role of religion in society through the use of state power.

The Kemalist project, carried out by the People’s Party founded by Atatürk, was not the only available vision for the Republic of Turkey. In the beginning, there was another political party with a more Ottomanlike mindset. Founded by war heroes such as Kazım Karabekir, Refet Bele or Rauf Orbay, the Progressive Republican Party (PRP) outlined a program in 1924 that proposed a free-market economy, a more gradual reform process, a kinder approach toward Kurds, and, most important of all, esteem for religion. But the party survived only six months: It was closed down by the Kemalist regime on June 5, 1925, and its leaders were excluded from politics. The announced reason was Article 6 in its program, which noted, “We are respectful to religious ideas and sentiments.”

Hence came Turkey’s single-party regime (1925-50) and its iron-handed policies aimed at secularizing the public square. Sufi orders, Islamic schools and even traditional religious garments were outlawed. Textbooks and state rhetoric started to glorify the pagan culture of the pre-Islamic Turks, and scientism became a sort of official faith. Some Kemalists even considered turning the magnificent Blue Mosque of Istanbul into an art gallery. The cultural self-hatred came to a point of banning Turkish songs on the radio: For a period, only “modern” (i.e. Western) music was allowed. The universal Muslim call for prayer, the adhan, was forcefully translated into Turkish, a move that conservatives perceived as an attack on their tradition.

The early Turkish Republic crushed not only political opposition but also civil society. Among others, the feminist societies dating from the Ottoman years were closed down. The regime did not oppose feminism per se, but assumed that, like everything else, “of the state, by the state and for the state.”

Quite notably, the Kemalist Revolution was a great leap forward for secularization, but it was a great regress for democracy. The latter had its roots in the late Ottoman period, in which an elected parliament and competing political parties had emerged. But Atatürk turned the multi-party system into a single-party dictatorship. He sacrificed democracy, in other words, for the self-styled secularism he introduced.


Had Turkey remained under the thumb of the Kemalist single-party regime, its political fate probably would not have been too different from those of Egypt or Tunisia, which suffered under secular dictatorships until the Arab Spring of 2011. Luckily, though, Turkey experienced its “spring” as early as 1950, when the country had its first free and fair elections since the beginning of the republic in 1923.

This restoration of democracy had a few notable reasons:

1) Atatürk died in 1938. His successor, İsmet İnönü, was a relatively moderate and less authoritarian figure who could tolerate being challenged by an opposition party and concede power to it.

2) The Turkish society, at least its elite, was conscious of representative and multiparty politics, thanks to the democratic roots in the Ottoman period.

3) In the post-1945 era, unlike most Arab countries, whose main political problem was de-colonization (and later Israel), Turkey’s main concern was the Soviet threat. This led Ankara to orient itself toward the “free world,” and a transition to democracy seemed necessary to cope with the Western block.

All this led the Kemalist regime to accept the formation of Turkey’s “second party,” the center-right Democrat Party (DP) led by Adnan Menderes in 1946. This party entered the elections of 1950 with the slogan, “Enough! The nation has the word!” The DP was an heir to some of the liberal ideas of the Progressive Republican Party. The DP was therefore more tolerant of and respectful to religion, more lenient to the Kurds and in favor of a market economy rather than the “statism” of the Kemalists. The DP won the elections decisively. Menderes, who promised to make Turkey “a little America,” soon embraced the Marshall Plan, sent Turkish troops to the Korean War and joined NATO. He also created an economic boom that would grant him three election victories in a row – the second with 57 percent of the votes, an unmatched record in Turkish political history. Among his supporters were pious Muslims, who realized that democracy would bring them at least some of the religious freedom they yearned for under Kemalist oppression.


However, the Kemalist “center” – the bureaucracy, military, judiciary and universities – despised Menderes, regarding him as the leader of a counterrevolution. Their cumulative hatred was unleashed May 27, 1960, when the Turkish military staged a coup, established martial law and imprisoned hundreds of DP members on Yassıada, an island on the outskirts of Istanbul. The junta soon set up a show trial, which sentenced Menderes and two of his ministers to execution for subjective crimes including “empowering religious retrogrades.” On September 17, 1961, Adnan Menderes, the most popular prime minister in Turkish history, was hung on the gallows.

This was a crucial turning point in Turkish history. The “Turkish Spring” had begun in 1950 by transferring political power peacefully via free and fair elections. But a decade later, that “spring” was crushed by a military junta, which would leave behind a new constitutional regime in which the military would remain ascendant over elected politicians.

In the next 50 years, this quasi-military regime would be the “Turkish model,” and the political scene would be defined by the fault line created by the 1960 coup: Secularists became the best allies of the military, seeing the latter as the “guardians of the republic” – the republic being a euphemism for Kemalist oligarchy. The Islamic camp, on the other side, despite an Islamist swing in the 1970s and ’80s, increasingly became the champion of democracy. Thanks to the DP experience, pious Muslims realized that they could bring their favorite politicians to power and tame an otherwise oppressive state.


If Menderes introduced democracy as a key value for Turkey’s mainstream Islamic camp, another leader who followed the same center-right line, Turgut Özal, introduced the market economy as another value – and a very transforming one.

Before “the Özal Revolution” (1983-93), Turkey had a very state-dominated and protected economy. The small segment of businessmen was made up of secular urbanites who shared the worldview of Kemalist officers and bureaucrats. Being a pious Muslim implied being either rural or a poor immigrant to the big city. “The nation-state belonged more to us than to the religious poor,” writes Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s recent Nobel laureate in literature, in remembrance of his childhood in the 1950s. But he adds that his secular folks were also afraid of “being out-classed by people who had no taste for secularism.” Pamuk’s fears began to come alive when Özal – following Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – radically liberated Turkey’s economic system during his decade in power. By diminishing the role of the state and personally inspiring a religiously devout and economically entrepreneurial spirit, Özal created a space for Islamicminded entrepreneurs. As early as the late 1980s, economists started to talk about “Anatolian Tigers” – companies founded in the conservative cities of Anatolia that quickly utilized the groundbreaking opportunities for manufacturing and exporting in the brave new world of the free market.

In 1990, a group of these conservative businessmen created a union named MÜSIAD, a clear alternative to the well-established TÜSIAD (Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association), which represented the more secular “Istanbul bourgeoisie.” The letter “M” stood for Müstakil, or “Independent,” but many thought it actually meant “Muslim,” as most MÜSIAD members are mosque-going conservatives whose wives and daughters wear headscarves.

In the next two decades, Turkey witnessed the steady rise of this new Muslim upper-middle class, which, after Özal, would find its political counterpart in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In other words, the AKP – and its pragmatic and globalist policies – would not be possible without the vision of this “Islamo-capitalist” class.


In 2005, the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think tank, conducted an extensive study of the Anatolian tigers. Researchers interviewed hundreds of conservative businessmen in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri (most of whom voted for AKP) and discovered that “individualistic, pro-business currents have become prominent within Turkish Islam,” and a “quiet Islamic Reformation” was taking place in the hands of Muslim entrepreneurs. The term they used to describe these godly capitalists was also the title of their report: “Islamic Calvinists.”

This phenomenon was more than just economic. As their social background changed, these Islamic Calvinists started to develop a whole new culture. An interesting study that demonstrates this transformation comes from Turkish sociologist Kenan Çayır, who examined the content of “Islamic novels” in Turkey. The change became clear when he contrasted two eras of novels – the 1980s and the mid-1990s. In the first era, all the characters in the novels were clear-cut figures – immoral secularists versus exemplary Muslims. Each story had a hero who, after some soul-searching, saw the light and became a devotee of “the Islamic cause.” Even his marriage was about “raising good kids for Islam,” and not focused on romance and love.

In the second era, though, the characters in the “Islamic novels” became much more real and their stories more complex. Now the secular figures were not necessarily all bad, and the Islamic ones were more human – with sins, self-doubts and love stories. Moreover, criticism was now directed not only to the outsiders but also to the Islamic camp itself. One female author whose earlier novels idealized “the Islamic way of life” was now criticizing injustices within the Islamic community, such as misogynist husbands who adopt mistresses as their second wives.

In short, and in the words of Çayır, Islamic literature shifted from “a rhetoric of collective salvation” to “new individualistic Muslimhoods.” And this was directly related to the changing socioeconomic background of the writers and their readers. The Islamic novels of the 1980s “reflected the experiences of the newcomers to the big cities . . . people of the lower class.” But in the late 1990s, those people were no longer newcomers; “they had found modern jobs as engineers, mayors, businessmen and businesswomen.” No wonder that, in this era, the old “salvation novels” and other “ideological books” did not sell well anymore. What instead had become popular were books about personal development. As pious Muslims entered the urban middle class, in other words, their understanding of religion became less ideological and more individualistic.


This is the story that lies behind the make up and the success of Turkey’s AKP – which has become the only party since the DP of the ’50s to win three elections in a row and transform the country.

In a nutshell, what has happened in Turkey in the past 80 years is that the society has not become thoroughly secularized as the Kemalist Revolution aimed. A large part of the society rather remained piously Muslim. But thanks to their access to democracy since 1950, these pious Muslim Turks never followed a radical, let alone violent, agenda. Instead of opposing democracy – as some Middle Eastern Islamists have done – Turkey’s Islamic movements gradually became the champions of democracy.

On the other hand, the expanded market economy, along with urbanization, gradually closed the gap between the urban seculars and the formerly rural conservatives and Islamists. This is important, for throughout the Middle East, the secularist- Islamist divide is often also a class conflict – the rich versus the poor. Turkey’s Islamist Calvinists have overcome this added layer, making themselves as cosmopolitan-minded as, or sometimes even more than, the secularists.

Therefore, Turkey’s secret lies less in the secularist legacy of Atatürk and more so in the “conservative” legacy of Menderes, Özal and lately Erdogan. Atatürk’s vision was based on a rejection and suppression of Islam for the sake of modernity. The latter vision, however, is about how to be modern and Muslim at the same time. And if there is any good “Turkish model,” this is it.

Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist and author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

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