Turkey at the Centennial – Part I: A Product of Dyadic Interaction

Read Part II of this series here.

Photo Credit: sulox32

By Shawn Rostker
Editor in Chief

The year 2023 will mark the centennial anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. The nation has seen staggering growth, transformation, and absorption into the international community over the past century, as well as expanded influence over both regional and global affairs. Turkey has changed markedly from the Western-leaning and largely secular state that it was in its earliest days and has experienced several transformations spanning its political, social, economic, and religious dimensions. The battle between secularism and politicized religion has defined its social and political development, and the recent acceptance of a Muslim distinction within the concept of Turkishness has fueled an ongoing identity contest. Though still maintaining linkages to the Western world, Turkey has gradually cultivated relationships with Eastern powers such as Russia and China. These bidirectional ties have begun to manifest in ways that challenge both its domestic and foreign policies. It has experienced multiple coups d’état and has struggled to reconcile its outward democratic aspirations with its internal authoritarian shifts. Part I of this two-part series will explore Turkey’s foundational ideological dyad: Kemalism and Islamism, and probe how this relationship influenced Turkey’s political, social, and religious development over the course of the 20th Century in the face of economic turbulence and internal strife to produce the state that it is today.

Born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, sought to divorce his vision of an independent and secular state from Islam’s regional entrenchment. Islamism is broadly defined as an ideology based on the reconstitution of the whole-of-society around foundational Islamic practices and principles. Kemalism, the founding ideology of the new state, envisioned something precisely opposite. It set out to institute a vast reform agenda encompassing political, social, religious, economic, and cultural dimensions that would separate it from its Ottoman predecessor and align the state with a model of Western social and political order. Upon the founding of the Republican People’s Party (RPP) in 1923, Ataturk immediately undertook a comprehensive program of modernization and secularization across Turkish society. 

The ensuing separation between religion and state permeated all facets of life, including educational and legal systems, and was representative of the holistic independence of institutions and thought from the dominance of religion. Contrary to misconception, the secularism underpinning Kemalism did not advocate for atheism but rather for a rationalist and strictly anti-clerical secularism. A driving force throughout the Muslim world in the 19th Century, Islamism was antithetically intertwined with the forces of modernization, with the resulting outgrowths of Islamism varying across the region depending on the particular conditions present that made the social soil more or less fertile and favorable to Islamist control. As such, Kemalism was not inherently against an enlightened Islam but against an Islam that was opposed to modernization.

Image: A crowded street in Istanbul. Despite secularism’s entrenchment, religious influence proved resilient, and over the course of the 20th Century the public’s desire for greater religious space would feed a growing political tolerance. 
Photo Credit: Samueles

As Kemalism saw it, traditional Islam was one of the principal obstacles to realizing the modernization of Turkey into a European-inspired secularist model and needed to be molded and disciplined into compatibility with this vision so as to act as a conduit for rather than an impediment to the process of modernization. Key to achieving this was the state’s authority to divide and define the boundaries between society and the sacred. However, despite the intensity of the secularist program instituted under Kemalism, religion’s influence, particularly within rural and provincial areas, remained strong at the societal level. Although they largely accommodated themselves to the absence of religion in public life, people yearned for greater religious space. The RPP, which limited religion’s public presence, effectively governed the country as a single-party state until the 1950s, when the political system was opened up to multiparty politics. It was at this point that the emergence of the opposition Democrat Party provided the populace with the religious space they sought. Propelled by a religious-seeking base, the Democrat Party defeated the RPP and ruled the nation until 1960, at which time the Turkish military—perennially the defender of the Kemalist legacy—removed the Democrat Party from power in what was Turkey’s first military coup

If only ever lurking just beneath the surface of political life, Islamist leanings proved markedly resilient within the ideologically rigid state, and religious influence over Turkey’s provincial middle classes, intelligentsia, and urban populations gave rise to political movements that promised greater upward mobility and social capital. Early 20th Century Turkey’s Islamic movement was thus composed of disparate political projects that only began to form a discernable movement in the late 1960s with the emergence of the National Outlook Movement. This novel group would later come to form the National Salvation Party (NSP). The NSP and other parties of the time were also partly the product of rapid economic change, as well as the decline in morality associated with the modernization and industrialization of Turkish society and the perceived threats to Turkish independence by its expanding global ties. Such sentiments would linger and foment infighting between opposition parties for decades to come, but the country would channel itself squarely in the direction of globalization and integration within the larger international community.

Image: Protect Your Republic Protest at Anıtkabir in Ankara, 2007. Republic Protests such as these date back to the 1990s, when the re-emergence of Islam in Turkish politics aroused societal divisions over the protection of state secularism. 
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the 1990s, the culmination of growing religiosity, the expansion of the military’s political influence, as well as the effects of lethargic economic liberalization reforms had created an environment primed for Islamist discourse. Turkey elected its first Islamic Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1996. However, his tenure was short-lived, as a resurgent military—resentful over Erbakan’s foreign policy priorities—forced his resignation in what has been referred to as Turkey’s “Soft Coup” amid accusations that he was attempting to undermine Turkey’s secular constitution. Further splintering among Islamist factions would increase political friction. Some groups sought a realignment of Turkey’s foreign policy to align with those of other leading Muslim countries, while still others pushed for more progressive policies. The resulting disequilibrium between the state and societal levels disturbed the Kemalist establishment, and paranoia over politicized religion and its growing potential to further disrupt Turkey’ secular foundations led the state to reprioritize political Islam as the nation’s number one security threat. Over the course of the next decade, the military and the judiciary would subjugate the Islamist movement and facilitate the factionalization of the primary Islamist party, the Virtue Party (VP). A reformist wing of the VP broke with the party’s principal allegiances in 2001 to form the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Only one year later the AKP would win a surprising landslide victory in the national elections, gaining two-thirds of all parliamentary seats and over 34% of the popular vote—nearly fifteen percentage points more than the pioneering Kemalist RPP.

The AKP’s victory represented the reconception of Turkish politics around a moderate social order. It shifted Turkey’s political center of gravity by promising to foster a space within Turkish society for the recognition and expression of Muslim values and identity. Its success over the past two decades has vindicated a Muslim identity as an element of Turkishness, which in turn has challenged the prevailing hegemonic grip that Kemalism maintained for much of the 20th Century. As a result, there has been an ongoing identity contestation within Turkish society that extends beyond the traditional contest between secularism and Islamism. At the same time, the AKP pledged to remain loyal to the secular principles of the constitution and prevent an Islamist agenda from influencing Turkey’s direction—a promise which has proven hollow. Its multi-decadal success can be attributed in part to its ability to reconcile economic liberalism with the traditional values held by provincial populations. Furthermore, it has produced a new iteration of the rural and urban classes, historically excluded both culturally and economically by the Kemalist elite.

Over the past century, the contest between Turkey’s foundational ideological dyad has produced remarkable growth and transformation spanning various dimensions. This perennial battle has at times both amplified democratic development by conditioning an acceptance of religious presence in both public and political life, thereby promoting multiparty politics and multicultural acceptance, and actively challenged the democratic trajectory of the state by revitalizing politicized religion and empowering the political fringes. This phenomenon has weathered and persisted through economic and social unrest, as well as violent seizures of power and their resulting vacuums. It has given rise to a political party that has consolidated power, and through various domestic and foreign policies, driven a wedge between Turkey and the West towards a more autocratic model that complicates its future. Part II will explore these dynamics and assess what challenges may lie ahead for Turkey as it enters its second centennial.

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