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Religious Interests

Turkey officially has been a secular state since 1924. Atatürk viewed attachment to religion as an impediment to modernization and imposed rigorous restrictions on the practice of Islam (see Secularist Reforms, ch. 2). Until the late 1940s, the separation of mosque and state was rigidly enforced by the authoritarian, one-party government. However, secularism remained an elite ideology, whereas Islam, the nominal religion of 98 percent of the population, continued to be a strong influence on most of the people, especially in rural areas and lower-class urban neighborhoods. The advent of competitive politics in 1950 enabled religion to reacquire a respected public status. Initially the Democrat Party, then most other parties, found it politically expedient to appeal to religious sentiments in election campaigns. As the government gradually became more tolerant of religious expression, both public observance of religious festivals and mosque construction increased. In addition, there was a resurgence of voluntary religious associations, including the tarikatlar ( sing., tarikat --see Glossary). Prior to 1970, however, religion was not a political issue.

The formation of the MSP in 1972 as Turkey's first republican party to espouse openly Islamic principles inaugurated the politicization of the religious issue (see Retreat from Secularism, ch. 2). The MSP attracted a following by providing an Islamic defense of traditional values that were eroding as a consequence of the economic and social changes the country had begun to experience in the late 1960s. In effect, religion became a vehicle for expressing popular discontent. The inability of the major political parties to agree on policies to counteract this discontent tended to enhance the influence of minor parties such as the MSP. Indeed, in 1974 the main exponent of Kemalist secularism, the CHP, invited the MSP, by then the third largest party in parliament, to join it in a coalition government. Its participation in the government provided the MSP, and the Islamic movement more broadly, with an aura of political legitimacy. Subsequently, the MSP sponsored an Islamist youth movement that during the late 1970s engaged other militant youth groups--both socialists on the left and secular nationalists on the right--in armed street battles. In the mosques, numerous voluntary associations were formed to undertake religious studies, devotional prayers, charitable projects, social services, and the publication of journals. Even the minority Shia (see Glossary) Muslims organized their own separate groups (see The Alevi, ch. 2).

The 1980 coup only temporarily interrupted the trend toward increased religious observance. Initially, the military regime arrested Erbakan and other MSP leaders and put them on trial for politically exploiting religion in violation of Turkish law. However, the senior officers, although committed to secularism, wanted to use religion as a counter to socialist and Marxist ideologies and thus refrained from interfering with the tarikatlar and other voluntary religious associations. Furthermore, the generals approved an article in the 1982 constitution mandating compulsory religious instruction in all schools. When political parties were allowed to form in 1983, Özal's Motherland Party welcomed a large group of former MSP members, who probably were attracted to the party because Özal and some of his relatives had belonged to the MSP in the 1970s. One of Özal's brothers, Korkut Özal, held an important position in the Naksibendi tarikat , the oldest and largest organized religious order in Turkey.

The military regime was preoccupied with eliminating the threat from "communists," a term freely applied to anyone with socialist ideas. Thousands of persons lost jobs in state offices, schools, and enterprises because they were perceived as "leftists," and leftist organizations virtually disappeared. Religiously motivated persons assumed many of the vacated positions, especially in education, and Islamic groups filled the political vacuum created by the state's successful assault on the left. At the same time, the policies of neither the military regime nor its civilian successors effectively addressed the economic and social problems that continued to fuel popular discontent.

Without competition from the left, the religious orders and the religiously oriented Welfare Party enjoyed almost a monopoly on the mobilization of discontent. One tarikat , the boldly political Fethullahçi, actually tried to recruit cadets in the military academies. By 1986 the increasingly vociferous and militant activities of religious groups had forced on the defensive the concept of secularism itself--a bedrock of Kemalist principles for sixty years.

In 1987 the military had become persuaded that what it called "Islamic fundamentalism" was a potentially serious threat to its vision of Kemalism. In January 1987, President Evren publicly denounced Islamic fundamentalism as being as dangerous as communism. Initially, the secular political elite, with the exception of the SHP, was not persuaded by his arguments. Özal, then prime minister, seemed to support the Islamic wing of his party, which was pushing for the repeal of the remaining laws restricting religious practices. The True Path Party characterized the trend toward religious observance as a healthy development and stressed freedom of practice. However, as clandestine religious groups began to carry out attacks on noted secularists in the late 1980s, True Path Party leaders became concerned, and then alarmed, by the influence of Islamism (sometimes seen as fundamentalism).

The Welfare Party disassociated itself from violent attacks by both organized and unorganized religious fanatics, but such attacks increased in both frequency and severity in the 1990s. The most sensational attack occurred in July 1993, when a mob leaving Friday congregational prayers in the central Anatolian city of Sivas firebombed a hotel where Turkey's internationally renowned author, self-proclaimed atheist Aziz Nesin, and dozens of other writers were staying while attending a cultural festival. Although Nesin escaped harm, thirty-seven persons were killed and 100 injured in that incident. Several weeks before the attack, Nesin's newspaper, Aydinlik , had published translated excerpts of British author Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses , which many Muslim religious leaders had condemned as blasphemous. Following publication of the excerpts, the newspaper's offices in Istanbul and other cities were attacked by groups of Islamic militants.

Turkey's religious revival has foreign policy implications because the tarikatlar tend to link with religious groups in other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been an important source of the extensive financial support that has enabled the tarikatlar to proselytize and to operate charitable programs that enhance their political influence. Turkish political leaders also fear the influence of neighboring Iran, where an Islamic government replaced the secular regime in 1979, and since 1987 have tended to blame incidents of religious violence on Iranian agents. However, Turkey's religious activists are Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims who tend to display suspicion and prejudice toward Shia Muslims--who make up more than 90 percent of the Iranian population--and there has been scant evidence to support the existence of significant ties between the Turkish Sunni and Iran.

Data as of January 1995

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