This post is a co-production with my friend and colleague Steven Cook, and is cross-posted on his blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.
When Turks go to the polls on August 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in the Turkish Republic’s history, the potential leading vote getter will be a man of impeccable religious credentials. This candidate has a graduate degree from al-Azhar University and previously served as the secretary-general of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Before being appointed to this position that he held for eight years, he was the founding director-general of the OIC-affiliated Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture. While in Saudi Arabia, he proved himself both an adept and savvy leader of the multinational organization in his charge as well as a faithful servant of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its worldview. He has decried the loss of spirituality in Islam and is himself the son of a well-known Islamic scholar. Yet this candidate is not Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; it is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is carrying the banner as the joint candidate of the secular Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
For all of its militant secularism and decades of dominating Turkish politics, the secular old guard has lost the battle with the political forces that represent piety and religious conservatism, a fact that they implicitly acknowledge with Ihsanoglu—their white flag of surrender. Despite his formal training as a chemist, Ihsanoglu has devoted a considerable portion of his career to religious study and outreach. Of Ihsanoglu’s 25 books, nine are devoted to Islamic thought and culture. That Turks are being offered a choice between two religious candidates should be the final death knell for the meme that Turkey is a state being pulled apart by a battle between Islam and secularism. The truth is that religion won out a long time ago, and the fundamental divides in Turkish politics and society are organized around different fault lines.
Today in Turkey there is an unmistakable sense of “Muslim-ness.” Conventional accounts of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power often use “Islamist” and “Islamism” to describe the party, but these terms have become one-dimensional and suggest parallels to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood without capturing the true nature of Turkey’s ruling party. The Justice and Development Party’s Muslim-ness is less targeted and more diffuse than Islamism, and while it certainly belongs within a broad classification of Islamist groups in the Muslim world, its underlying philosophical concerns and agenda are quite different from those organizations. This is a function of the Turkish experience, in which Muslim-ness involves a style of politics and a social setting in which piety flows through society. Limits on alcohol consumption or women donning the hicab reflect this religious sensibility, but Muslim-ness is broader. Toward this end, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have made exploration and expression of one’s Muslim identity not only safe and acceptable, but indeed valorized. Erdogan himself personifies the new Turkish man whose singular quality is being both proudly pious and Turkish. And the new Turkish woman, best represented by the wares of upscale fashion houses like Zühre or its down-market cousin, Armine, is quiet, confident, gorgeous, and covered. What is striking about these developments is how unremarkable they are in a political setting where not long ago, the hicab and public expressions of religiosity were indicators of reactionary backwardness.
Of course, drawing conclusions about the direction of society on the extent to which Turkish women are covering their hair in public is bound to be fraught with misunderstanding as well as bad social science, but taken with a range of other developments, the hicab is an important sociological and anthropological factor in the story of Turkey’s religious evolution, which is not as dramatic as one might assume. Observers of Turkish politics and society have long assumed that because Turkey was an officially “secular” republic, the Turkish people had unquestionably accepted the secularizing reforms of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal . This was likely a function of the fact that scholars of an earlier generation and policymakers wanted to see in Turkey what they wanted to see, rather than a complex society that is extending well beyond the municipal boundaries of either cosmopolitan Istanbul or Turkey’s dreary republican capital, Ankara. It was also the result of dominant non-religious—or even irreligious—elites who were the primary interlocutors with the outside world. This group fervently believes in Kemalism, and when it ruled during the first eight decades of the Turkish Republic’s existence, its members enforced secular politics and secular social mores through a variety of non-democratic political, economic, and cultural mechanisms.
As a result of this ingrained secular commitment on the part the Kemalist elite, Ihsanoğlu’s nomination was not without controversy. When leaders of the Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Movement Party announced their surprise challenger to Erdoğan, prominent commentators immediately declared it a cynical gambit intended to siphon religious voters from the AKP that was bound to fail. That seemed like a fair interpretation. Why else would the CHP choose someone like Ihsanoğlu, who violates core secularist principles and who neither looks nor sounds like traditional CHP standard bearers? Predictably, the nomination caused a firestorm within the CHP especially, whose more militant factions reacted with anger and vows not to vote for Ihsanoglu, dooming him from the start. What was shaping up to be a debacle would not be the CHP’s first misstep of the Erdogan era. There was a 2010 sex tape that felled the party’s longtime leader Deniz Baykal and more recently there was the party’s open support for Bashar al Assad in his blood soaked campaign to save his regime.
Baykal’s peccadilloes and the party’s strange position on Syria are a symptom of CHP fecklessness rather than its cause. Over the last decade the party has struggled to expand its constituency beyond its traditional bastions of support in Izmir, Aydin and other cities along Turkey’s western rim. It is the CHP’s electoral weakness that has made it what seems like the perpetual also-ran of Turkish politics, which is why its leaders and those of MHP turned to Ihsanoglu. Ihsanoglu must have seemed like a low risk-high reward gamble. Since neither the CHP nor the MHP had a chance of winning the election and toppling Erdoğan no matter who they nominated, why not join forces in an effort to expand their narrow constituencies and cut into the AKP’s base by running someone with strong religious credentials? As the thinking goes, if the Ihsanoglu experiment fails, then CHP and MHP will have lost no ground since it will be just the latest failure in a string of them dating back to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.
Yet the idea that CHP and MHP can dabble in religion for purely instrumental electoral reasons misinterprets where Turkey stands in 2014 on religious issues. The West’s romantic notion of Turkey as a secular country is a myth. According to the 2012 Pew survey of Muslims worldwide, 97% of Turks believe in God, 67% of Turks say that religion is very important in their lives, 44% of Turks attend mosque at least once a week and 42% pray multiple times a day. Religion is ingrained in a way that elides a meaningful religious-secular distinction. This phenomenon is the natural result when the AKP lifted the drab conformity of Kemalism, allowing Turks to express their Muslim identities in new ways without fear of punishment or discrimination. Even among the ardently secular, religion is an important means of cultural and political expression. A young secular Turkish woman recently declared that among her many problems with Erdogan was that he “did not believe in God.” When challenged, she declared that nobody who believes in the God in whom she believes could ever act the way the prime minister does. Religion is baked into the Turkish cultural pie, which is why it was actually a crucial ingredient for Atatürk, who coopted Islam in his effort to forge the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Justice and Development Party has merely buttressed and extended these social and cultural dispositions with the Islamization of Turkey’s institutions—rules, laws, decrees—that has been underway throughout the AKP era. This is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, the Justice and Development Party has created an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized. It is not just restricting sales of alcohol or lifting the ban on headscarves at publicly funded universities, but also less obvious but more lasting measures like laws allowing graduates of preachers schools to enter the bureaucracy or alterations to the way judges are selected an promoted that will further embed Muslim-ness as a defining feature of Turkish society. In this way, society will transform state institutions rather than the other way around.
This is why Ihsanoğlu’s candidacy does not actually represent a radical departure. It is a logical progression of trends that have been in place for years, and is a harbinger of things to come rather than an outlier. The AKP’s success has been built on many factors besides for an appeal to religion, including nationalism, economic growth, and regional political power. Even if a majority of AKP voters—in the last parliamentary elections AKP voters represented a majority of the country—do not vote for AKP primarily because of its religious appeal, they are nevertheless made comfortable by the religious sensibility that the party conveys. The CHP and MHP have finally bowed to the demands of the electorate and through Ihsanoğlu have communicated that they understand this message. The dividing lines in the presidential race have nothing to do with religion, but rather revolve around the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West, its treatment of minorities, and economic inequalities. Those looking for staunch defenders and guardians of a secular tradition that never really existed to begin with are fated to be eternally disappointed.