Turkish society is demonstrably distancing itself from religion in what some scholars see as quiet resistance to its power and privilege under the Islamist ruling party.
The number of Turks who describe themselves as atheists has risen over the past decade, while those who consider themselves religious have decreased, though they are still in the majority. One survey’s findings have rekindled heated debates over political Islam and religiosity in a country that is officially secular but ruled by an Islamist-leaning party since 2002.
The survey, released last week by the KONDA company, is based on a comparison of opinion polls conducted in 2008 and 2018, and explores social changes in Turkey over the past decade. Canvassing nearly 5,800 people in 36 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, the 2018 poll found that 51% of respondents described themselves as “religious,” down from 55% in 2008. Those who described themselves as “strictly religious” accounted for 10%, down from 13% a decade ago.
Those who called themselves “atheists” increased to 3% from 1% in 2008, and those who identify as “non-believers” rose to 2% from 1%.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ascended to power in November 2002, debates often included the question, “Will Turkey become Malaysia?” Some spoke of “Malaysianization” to describe what they believed could be in store for Turkey. Essentially, the question was whether a party of an Islamic character will inevitably embark on molding society according to its Islamic worldview after clinching power. How one answered the question determined one’s side in Turkey’s political clashes in the ensuing years.
The two main camps were represented by Kemalists, who saw the AKP as an Islamist party aiming to create an Islamic state, and Islamic conservatives, who maintained that Turkey’s population was predominantly Muslim and hence the state had to be compatible with Islamic norms. There were also smaller liberal and leftist-socialist groups in varying proximity to the two big opposing blocs.
After 16 momentous years of AKP rule, this configuration remains more or less the same. One important difference, however, is that Islamist-conservative quarters, driven by the self-confidence of being part of the ruling class, have come to assume that they are building a new society. This assumption has fueled in-house debates among Islamists.
A good deal of Islamic thinkers, meanwhile, believe that phenomena such as sexual abuse at hostels run by Islamic groups or Quranic schools and the zeal with which Islamic communities vie for favors from the state have tarnished the image of religion in society.
Mehmet Ali Buyukkara, a theologian at Istanbul’s Sehir University, said he was hardly surprised by the findings of the KONDA survey. He tweeted, “Those who are pious in terms of language, appearance and perhaps worship have failed the class in terms of morals, probity, sincerity and attentiveness to haram.” According to the scholar, public display of piety have become freer. But the change has not led to greater attraction to religion but to “alienation to a certain extent.”
Ihsan Eliacik, a theologian whose works have laid the theoretical ground for an Islamic group called the “anti-capitalist Muslims,” is also unsurprised by KONDA’s findings.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Eliacik opined that contrary to popular belief, Muslim societies ruled by religiously conservative governments tend to disincline from Islam. “According to recent research of mine, similar outcomes are currently seen in three countries in the Islamic world — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey,” he said. “They are all ruled by religious governments, but in all three countries atheism and deism are spreading, while religiosity is declining [and] suspicion toward religion is growing. Because of those governments, people begin to think that Islam is in fact a lie and they have been deceived.”
According to Eliacik, the same three trends can be observed among young people in the three countries. “The first group is sliding to deism and atheism. The second group is drifting away to radical fundamentalist groups, and the third group is shifting to a Muslim-leftist thought,” he said.
In Turkey’s case, Eliacik sees government policies as a direct cause of vacillation among Muslim youth. He singled out corruption as the first reason, recalling a memorable proclamation by a pro-government theologian and columnist that corruption does not amount to stealing. “People saw in their neighborhoods that those who got close to the government prospered. They are now asking, ‘Is this compatible with Islam?’ The government’s economic policy has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, or, as I describe it, has performed ablution on capitalism,” Eliacik said.
The government’s suppression of dissent, its attitude on the Kurdish question and relations with Israel are also closely watched in religious quarters, he added.
The scholar stressed that young people reaching out to him asked the same questions. “‘What is real Islam?’ they ask. Is there a real Islam? Where is real Islam — in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Turkey? Are the deeds of the Islamic State real Islam? Does Islam sanction murder, stealing and female slaves?’ Their minds are full of questions. Those who fail to work it out shift to deism. And those who get convinced by my views shift to a Muslim-leftist stance,” Eliacik explained.
The deism trend first made headlines in April 2018 after a report about students in public religious schools shifting to deism was presented at an Education Ministry event. Subsequently, the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) launched a “war on deism,” arguing that “information pollution on the internet” was largely responsible for “wrong approaches” among young people. Al-Monitor contacted the Diyanet for comment, but did not get a reply.
For Eliacik, the problem is out of the grasp of both the Diyanet and Islamic communities. “What is needed is religious enlightenment, reform and renaissance movements, as in Europe,” he said. “This is not something one can achieve through top-down Diyanet or government policies. Instead, thought promoting civil, independent and reformist religious enlightenment should be spread. If they are suppressed, we could sink further into darkness.”
Yet free discussion of these issues appears a distant prospect in Turkey today. Eliacik himself got a six-year sentence last year for “terrorist propaganda” over remarks he made at a conference. He is now forbidden from leaving Istanbul until the appeal process is completed, receives death threats and, in his own words, is subjected to character assassination.
While Islamism enjoys all the means and privileges of power in Turkey today, the social transformation it seeks is met with resistance. This resistance is not boiling over in the streets, but, as the KONDA survey suggests, is taking the form of quiet non-acquiescence and even inward disconnection from faith.