Erdogan Exploits Islam for Personal and Political Gain
Anyone who follows Turkish President Erdogan’s political career cannot escape the conclusion that he has carefully and systematically crafted policies framed in Islamic clothing. He uses religion to present himself and his political agenda as if it is sanctioned by a higher authority, uses Islamic symbols to indoctrinate the population with religious precepts, and promotes Islamic studies in schools in order to cultivate a new generation of devout Muslims loyal to him.
To consolidate his power, he focused on economic development to build a strong constituency consisting of the poorer and less-educated segments of the Turkish population who support him and follow his model of political Islam. He trumpets democracy to pay lip-service to the secular sector of the population, and to reduce resistance to his attempt to convert Turkey into an Islamic state.
There is nothing wrong in promoting religion in a democracy, provided there is a clear separation between “church” and state. In Turkey, though, Erdogan is making religion part and parcel of the state’s political process. In fact, in 1999, Erdogan went to jail for four months for religious incitement, after he publicly read a nationalist poem including the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
The fact that Turkey has lost any prospect of becoming an EU member state is entirely due to Erdogan’s severe and methodical undermining of the pillars of democracy, including freedom of the press and speech, human rights, a fair and impartial judiciary, secular public education and checks and balances between the three branches of government.
Instead, Erdogan began to systematically issue directives to gradually transform Turkey into a religiously-observant society. He did so without resorting to legislation — in order to avoid public resistance from the larger secular segment of the population.
As early as 2011, Erdogan began to foster an Islamic fashion revolution. He lifted the ban on headscarves in universities, state offices and the military. The once-stigmatized veil has become socially acceptable. There is also a discernible rise in the number of ‘fashionable’ Islamic conservative characters in soap operas and on television.
Moreover, the modern emblem of Turkey today shows the star outside the crescent, which has become the symbol of Islam. During the past 30 years, the number of mosques in Turkey has grown from 60,000 to more than 85,000. The AKP (Erdogan’s party) uses mosques as a physical symbol of the growth of Islamic values of the state, and as a political tool to consolidate its power base.
In addition, alcohol cannot be sold between 10 pm and 6 am, and can no longer be displayed in windows and restaurants that are located near schools or mosques. Alcohol producers also cannot advertise or sponsor social events. Furthermore, the government canceled a festival celebrating the national drink, raki, due to complaints from Islamists.
Erdogan’s plans to promote Islam also include building 80 new mosques in public universities, and converting one university in Istanbul into a center for Islamic studies. Erdogan also supported the introduction of compulsory religious classes for all primary school children, and added an extra hour of Islamic studies for all high school students.
One of the most notable expansions of Islamic studies is the growth of Imam-Hatip religious schools. Batuhan Aydagül, the director of the Education Reform Initiative at Istanbul Sabanci University, maintains that the Ministry of Education is driving the demand for these schools, not responding to it. “The government is limiting the supply of non-religious schools and increasing the supply of religious ones…they are creating a situation where some students will have to go to these schools regardless of their will.”
Parents and teachers are bitterly complaining that Ankara is controlling the appointment of head-teachers, who enjoy substantial influence on the selection of courses. Several thousand public school teachers have been replaced by Imam-Hatip trained teachers. Boys and girls are now in separate classes.
During a recent debate in Turkey’s parliament to amend the constitution, Speaker of the Parliament Ismail Kahraman called for the removal of secularism from the new constitution: “For one thing, the new constitution should not have secularism. It needs to discuss religion… It should not be irreligious, this new constitution, it should be a religious constitution.”
Although Kahraman’s proposals did not pass, it is clear that his statements were approved and authorized by Erdogan. In a visit to Jakarta in July 2016, Erdogan stated that “We have only one concern. It is Islam, Islam and Islam.” And in recent visits to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, he said that the Sunni world must unite and put aside their differences in order to fight for the Muslim world.
Erdogan has relentlessly pushed to amend the constitution to grant himself near-absolute power. As Napoleon succinctly put it, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”
Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive, as long as there is a clear separation between “mosque and state.” Imams have a role to play in promoting the virtues of Islam, but should have no say in the political processes of the state. For Erdogan to claim that Turkey is a democracy is hypocritical at best, not only because he usurped dictatorial powers, but also because he has weaved his religious doctrine into state institutions and civil society.
The country has become increasingly polarized between the secular and the religious, which places Turkey on a dangerous path, and robs it of its potential to become a true Islamic democracy.