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  • A Religious Party Takes Hold:Turkey
  • Svante Cornell (bio)

Turkey has a unique position in the Muslim world as a country that held the Caliphate for several hundred years but then turned into a secular republic. Over the past ninety years, Islam has coexisted uneasily with the Turkish state, which has tried both to co-opt and suppress a powerful political Islamic movement that began gathering force in the 1960s. Turkey is unique in the fact that a movement rooted in political Islam managed not only to come to power in democratic elections, but proved able to stay in power and continue to win elections for over a decade.

Whereas this aspect of the Turkish experience is widely lauded by Western observers, there is nevertheless another side to the coin. As the power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) grew, they also turned increasingly authoritarian and Islamist. Turkey's experience is indicative of the broader nature of "moderate" political Islam, and its relationship with democracy; it suggests that "moderate Islamism" has embraced the mechanics of electoral democracy but not its fundamental values.

The Scene: Turkey's Political System

Since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1950, Turkey has with brief exceptions been ruled by center-right parties that tried to court religious voters while maintaining a commitment to the secular character of the Turkish state. Importantly, this took place in a Cold War context where the main existential concern was perceived to be the threat from the left. To counter that threat, Turkish governments began to actively support nationalist and Islamic sentiments that were believed to constitute a counter-balance to leftist ideologies. The U.S. government saw little problem with this strategy which would come to consume its creators.

In this context, the 1980 military coup was a decisive event in both a political and ideological sense. Politically, the coup dealt a severe blow to Turkish politics, banning all active political parties. Since the coup was a reaction to the growth of the urban left in Turkey, it hit the Turkish left hard, destroying the foundation of what could have been a social democratic movement in the country. It also created divisions within the center-left and center-right political [End Page S-21] camps that would contribute to the decade of weak coalition governments in the 1990s—in turn creating the opening in which the AKP would emerge. The 1982 Constitution returned power to civilian rule, but decidedly placed the interests of the state ahead of those of the citizens.

The coup and its aftermath were also of tremendous importance in an intellectual sense. The military junta viewed the left and the Kurdish nationalists, both supported by the Soviet Union, as the main threats to Turkey. In search of an antidote, the military regime supported the rise of what came to be termed the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. This was essentially an attempt to wed right-wing nationalism and Islam in order to build a dominant ideology that would withstand and roll back leftist ideas.

The coup leader and subsequent president, General Kenan Evren, delivered public speeches with the Koran in one hand. The new constitution made education in the tenets of Sunni Islam compulsory in elementary schools (it was already compulsory at the high school level). The expansion of the imam hatip schools (government-financed and operated clerical training schools), which began in the 1970s, accelerated. The government oversaw a frenzy of mosquebuilding; with 85,000 state-operated mosques, nominally secular Turkey has more mosques than any other country. While the imam hatip schools were created to educate prayer leaders in mosques, enrollment rapidly came to vastly exceed the need for prayer leaders. For example, girls, who are barred by the rules of Islam from serving as prayer leaders, make up the majority of students in these schools, as religious conservative families prefer to send their daughters to them. As a result of the surplus of graduates from religious schools, a new Islamic intelligentsia was born, which gradually came to occupy positions of power within the bureaucracy, academic world, and media. As the left disappeared, Islamism—understood here as "a form...


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