From Turkish Islam to Turkish Salafism

Until the late 1990s, “Turkish Islam” was a term frequently used to describe what was seen as the comparatively moderate religion practiced by Turks. It also differentiated religion in Turkey from the other two major great cultural paradigms in the Middle East; Arab Islam and Persian Islam.

But since the Islamic movement consolidated its position after coming to power in Turkey in 2002, the term Turkish Islam has all but disappeared. 

While Turkish Islam may have been moderate, the DNA of the Turkish Islamic movement was Salafist and more conservative than the average Islamic lifestyle in Turkey. 

The Salafist character of Islamic movement was hidden under the ultra-secular Kemalism of the Turkish establishment before the Islamists came to power. At first, many people hoped President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and followers of the U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen would renew the Islamic tradition.

But unleashed from the boundaries dictated by the Kemalists, both the AKP and the Gülen movement ended up with a more Salafi interpretation of religion.

The eastern Anatolian origin of Turkish Islamic groups played key role in this transformation. Many groups were started by charismatic figures in the late 19th or early 20th centuries who hailed from eastern of Anatolia, where Islam was interpreted in a strictly traditional way, not only in daily life, but also in the madrasas. Many of the founding fathers of Turkish Islamic movements were linked to the madrasas.

Despite coming to Istanbul, almost none of the founding fathers of the Turkish Islamic movement was sociologically or intellectually linked to cosmopolitan Ottoman Islam and urban high culture.

Instead, charismatic figures like Said Nursi, who died in 1960, brought the highly conservative and fatalist theology of Ash‘arism, which dominates Islamic thought in the madrasas of eastern Turkey, to the west of the country. 

Many young and educated people in the Western urban centres acquired that conservative Islamic perspective while reading writers like Nursi. Islamic movements thus supplanted the moderate Hanafi Islam of western Turkey with the more conservative Ash’ari school of the east. Turkish Islamists also took on elements of Arab culture, giving their children Arab names, while wearing Arab clothes was seen as a mark of piety. 

The Islamic movement in Turkey is now in deep crisis and has resorted to a more Salafist narrative for political purposes.  Islamic groups in Turkey, including both the AKP and the Gülen movement, are more Salafist today than they were 10 years ago.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.