Turkey provides a unique example of the interaction between religion and politics. Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the Turkish Presidential election run-off recently with his strong-man appeal to Islamic piety. Kemal Kilicdargoglu with his promise of modern social democracy, won only 44.9% of the vote in the first round, so stood little chance of overtaking Erdogan with 49.5%.
Two highly charged mindsets define Turkey’s national identity. Kemal Atatürk, a revolutionary nationalist who, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, founded the modern Turkish secular state in 1923. He was influenced by French laicite, an ideological commitment to keep religion out of the public domain and achieve its complete separation from the state. For many, this is expressed as a passionate rejection of Islam in favour of Turkey’s 1928 secular constitution, traditionally supported by the military. For others there is a no less passionate religious commitment but to a moderate, pious Islamic conservatism.
The US Brookings Institution wrote glowingly in 2002 that the AKP, Erdogan’s Justice & Development Party which had just swept to power, “heralds democracy”. It seemed like a “new model” for the Islamic world. A year later, Erdogan became Prime Minister. His development of a modern transport system, political flair, and skillful negotiation of deep nationalist tensions, while maintaining his espousal of Islamic values in the AKP, has enabled him to increase his power ever since.
Erdogan’s religious appeal owed much to the phenomenal success of the Gulen Islamic revival movement that provided him with the cultural and religious credentials of Turkish Islamic piety and helped to attract pious voters. Inspired by Fethullah Gulen, a scholar and preacher, the movement prioritized modern education, an understanding of science, and a commitment to interfaith dialogue as well as a traditional Islamic practice.