The Hagia Sophia is a permanent symbol of Turkey’s mixture of faith and history converging. : Niek Verlaan/Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/hagia-sophia-turkey-istanbul-church-216471/ CC BY 2.0
As the Turkish Republic turns 100, the nation built from the ashes of the Ottoman empire continues to wield the religious power of its history.
For a nation that can trace its roots back thousands of years, 2023 will stand out as truly significant in Turkish history. In February earthquakes killed upwards of 50,000 people across Turkey and over the Syrian border as the historic cities of the south-east, once the centre of ancient life, were decimated.
With a nation in mourning, in May bitterly fought elections saw the increasingly autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan return to power, even while the national economy spiralled out of control and obliterated the once-growing middle class.
As this confluence of crises dragged on the national psyche, one calendar date was rapidly approaching: 29 October will mark the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, established under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk among the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Between two men, Ataturk and Erdoğan, these two eras define Turkey’s internal battle with secularism and balancing its religious history.
A nation renowned for being sandwiched between continents has forever had to juggle the differing ways of living that exist to its east and west.
When Erdoğan was reelected as the president of Turkey in May, his key rival was the head of the main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has an Alevi background.
The Alevi people are the largest religious minority in the dominant Sunni Muslim Turkey. Despite sharing the Islamic faith, Alevis have been persecuted in Turkey for their beliefs, and politically marginalised as a result. This recognition of his faith cast the election partly along religious lines.
Erdoğan’s victory was hugely significant. He is now officially the longest-serving political leader of the country, who has clearly defined himself as a devoted Sunni Muslim.
Erdoğan has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 30 years — first as mayor of Istanbul and then as Turkish prime minister and finally president.
As Erdoğan’s stock has risen, so too has that of Turkey.
Turkey has gained huge visibility and impact in foreign policy, but at the same time the country has became a highly polarised one divided along multiple socio-political issues, and among them religion is key.
The true management of religion in Turkey in its more modern form did not start under the rule of Erdoğan and his religious-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Instead, it has a long historical tradition.
Religion and its clashes with modernity are nothing new. The use of religion to project power is also far from new.
The shimmering example of that is the Great Hagia Sophia. Standing as Christian Church for more than a millennium, it was the biggest in the world for centuries, adorned in golden mosaics.
It became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium in 1453 until it became a museum under Ataturk in 1931, before being changed back to a mosque by the Erdoğan government in 2020.
The night before the 2023 election, Erdoğan led prayers at the Hagia Sophia in the same fashion that Ottoman sultans had done centuries before as their troops headed off to battle.
The echoes of the Ottoman empire continue to ring. Turkey has always been striving for modernity and its record can be read in tandem with the global narrative.
In the 18th century, there were plans to reform the intersection of education, administration, and social relations.
Nothing significant changed in these areas until the establishment of modern Turkey under Ataturk.
Under Ataturk, unique state-society-religion relations developed: a Turkish type of secularism, or in Turkish, laiklik.
In creating the Turkish republic, Ataturk abolished the caliphate, the Islamic merger of the political and religious that had existed since the 1500s.
In what many in the West believe ended state contact with religion in the newly secular republic of Turkey of the 1920s Ataturk found an organisation known as Diyanet.
Diyanet is Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs. Modern in its title, it is still a body that closely resembles the semi-bureaucratic, semi-political institutions that controlled religion in Byzantine and Ottoman times.
Diyanet has been accused of holding incredible influence, funding and control in Turkey, and of shaping international views of Turkey through its overseas works.
However, fundamentally all it is performing is a very Turkish act of using both religion and politics in unison.
Turkish secularism has never been a complete separation of religion and politics, but more a political practice of controlling religion and aligning its sphere with its own wishes.
The intricate relationship of managing religion among politics and wider society in Turkey did not begin with the Republican period but continued a longer legacy aligned with global politics.
In the Justice and Development Party era and under the leadership of Erdoğan, the two-way relationship has re-emerged between religion and political power.
The ruling party has become much more repressive, has begun to monopolise religion and gets its legitimacy from the religious discourse within the majority of the Sunni Islamic structures.
In those, the Diyanet is critical as one of the visible faces of political power.
The Justice and Development Party period is primarily distinguished by the establishment of hegemony over religion in the aftermath of the traumatic struggle with the Gülen Movement and the transformation of the state identity after the 2016 coup attempt.
Fetullah Gülen, a cleric the Turkish government claims was behind the failed coup attempt, spent decades as a close ally of Erdoğan along his road to supremacy. When their objectives differed, Gülen’s organisation and followers were imprisoned or fled the country.
Erdoğan is now set to continue to shape Turkey through his narrow lens of religion being leveraged for politics.
This transformation and the clash with Gülen are just another reflection of the instrumentalization of Islam as a tool by Erdoğan’s party, whose leading supporters are largely religious.
Repression of all opposition groups through he monopolised religion is easy for the ruling party in Muslim-majority Turkey where it brings a low political cost.
Some might argue that the Kemalists of the early republican years controlled public religious manifestation through restrictive measures while the Justice Action Party is regulating the public space by infusing religious elements.
The state control over religion remains unchanged, but in its uses has become much more comprehensive.
Dr. Ahmet Erdi Öztürk is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at London Metropolitan University, currently working as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at Coventry University in the UK and GIGA in Germany.