Events

Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?

January 12, 2010 // 1:30pm3:00pm

After decades of strict secularism, the reemergence of political Islam in Turkish politics has caused many to believe that Turkey's gaze has shifting eastward. Yet, unlike other Islamist movements that centered solely on the Koran, Gareth Jenkins attributed the rise of political Islam in Turkey to the return of the unique identity, values and traditions of rural Turkey which have penetrated the political mainstream.

Since the early Ottoman Empire, people living in the countryside held a combination of beliefs, which included elements of Orthodox Islam mixed with Christian and pre-Christian faiths. Most historians agree that after the conquest of Istanbul, Islamic scholars began to dominate the political class in urban centers and the Ottoman Empire began to resemble an Orthodox Islamic state. Jenkins challenged the commonly held belief that Orthodox Islam was practiced uniformly throughout the empire. Rather, most of the population was rural and illiterate, and followed a more syncretic form of Islam.
The 19th Century Ottoman elite sought to build a modern state that would be compatible with its western neighbors. However, the onset of World War I forced the Ottomans to fight against foreign occupation by the allied powers Greece, Britain and France. This fight for independence launched a Turkish nationalist movement that, Jenkins argues, was actually a Muslim movement until it was "hijacked" by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk).

After collecting the remnants of the shattered Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal founded the secular Turkish Republic in 1923. He instituted drastic reforms in hope of building a modern state, focusing on education as the primary instrument for promoting modern European values. His top-down approach of modernization, however, did not pervade all of Turkish society, since Ataturk's initiatives in education were largely limited to the urban elite, according to Jenkins.
As migration from the countryside became more prevalent, a traditional conservative bourgeoisie eventually emerged and began to challenge Kemalist secularist ideals. Thus, the return of political Islam, Jenkins notes, "has not come out of nothing" but coincides with the return of rural values.

Although Islamic parties have been politically active since 1969 in Turkey, the most successful Islamic party to date has been the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Rooted in the Islamic movement, AKP centered ideology on traditional "folk" Islam, emphasizing the values, traditions and identity that originate in Turkey's rural regions. By highlighting piety and democracy, AKP gained significant electoral strength and garnered 46 percent of the vote in the 2007 elections.

The party's strong attachment to an Islamic identity, Jenkins asserts, has helped Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's government to establish closer ties to the Muslim world. The frequency of visits, the lifting of visa restrictions and the generally friendly exchanges between Muslim countries suggest that Turkey has begun to revitalize its engagement with the east and the south. Jenkins was careful to note that this shift should not be interpreted as a sign that Turkey is shunning the West. Its strong ties with the European Union in particular make it politically and economically impossible for Turkey to shut out the Western world.

Jenkins explained that the rise of AKP is just another chapter in Turkey's long struggle between rural and urban values. Today, Turkey's internal political struggle continues between political Islamists and militant Kemalists. Given that AKP has enjoyed great electoral success without needing to form a coalition, one could surmise that the AK party is ahead in the struggle, for now.


By Herma Gjinko and Andri Peros
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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