Religion has always been a sensitive topic in Turkey. Even though the country’s population is supposedly 99.8% Muslim, Islam has long been looked at with a certain degree of suspicion, at least by the state. This is changing now though. “Until the Democrat Party came to power in the 1950s, the Turkish state decided what forms of Islam were acceptable and what forms were not. This is rather different today,” professor Erik Jan Zürcher says. Zürcher was one of the speakers at a roundtable discussion organized yesterday by the Dutch Turkije Instituut and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) at Felix Meritis in Amsterdam. The debate brought together Dutch and Turkish experts to talk about the changing role of religion in Turkey, and the potential influence of this change on politics, society and democracy.
Looking at the Turkish media and public debate, there seems to be a growing fear of a kind of Islamist or at least conservative takeover in Turkey, especially among the Kemalist elites, who are afraid that their modern lifestyles may be restricted by the AKP government. Is this fear grounded?
According to Leiden University professor Erik Jan Zürcher, Turkey is actually not becoming more religious. Instead, he believes that we are witnessing a very different development. “People who were religious to begin with now have the power in Turkey. That is the main difference”, Zürcher states.
How did this power shift come about? The well known Turkish-Armenian journalist Etyen Mahçupyan explains how religious groups were able to become Turkey´s new leaders. “Globalization and the postmodern critique of modernism have created a new mindset among Islamic people. I believe that Islamism is actually decreasing, but the Muslim community is changing rapidly.”
Mahçupyan points at the rise of a new Muslim middle class in Turkey, which is at peace with capitalism and aspires modern lifestyles, but at the same time shows an outspoken cultural conservatism. “The Muslim community has become more self conscious, historically, economically and psychologically, and the AKP is the result of this development. They embody this new Muslim middle class that is confident enough to express itself and its beliefs,” Mahçupyan believes.
Is this something that we should worry about though? That appears to be the main question on many people’s minds. Is it troubling that Turkey is now being ruled by a party with clearly Islamic – or at least culturally conservative – points of view. Could this lead to the formation of some sort of Islamic state, as some fear.
Erik Jan Zürcher and Boğaziçi University professor Selim Deringil don’t think such fears are necessary, because they don’t see any Islamist state on the Turkish horizon. There is only one thing that Zürcher worries about, and that has much more to do with the position of the AKP. “The power monopoly of the AKP may lead to problems. In its first term, the party was able to further Turkey’s democratization process, but now, this is not really happening anymore,” he says.
Mahçupyan is more optimistic though: “The AKP is not democratic, but it is a democratic and normalizing force which brings about a healthier society. They are cultural conservatives, but within the boundaries of secularism, and combined with political reformism,” he says. A party like CHP, Mahçupyan believes, would just show the opposite: a sense of cultural progressiveness combined with political conservatism. “So who is more conservative then?”