The state of Islamisation in Turkey  

Atheism is on the rise in Turkey, according to a recent survey. Yet other studies say Turkey is becoming an Islamist society.

So, how do we read such contradictory observations?

A great deal of the confusion on Islamisation in Turkey has its origin in the ignorance of a simple fact: Islamisation is not a homogenous phenomenon; it requires a multi-level analysis.

To overcome the confusion, Islamisation should be analysed on three levels.

The first level involves the daily practices of individuals. The second level refers to the incorporation of Islamic rules into the penal and civil codes. The third level of Islamisation can be observed in the actions and policies of public officials.

Islamisation should therefore be analysed independently at each level, since different and even opposite trends might prevail in the same society. For example, while political leaders or bureaucrats push for Islamist policies, large sectors of society might be unhappy about their impact on their lives.

On the first level, there is no doubt that Islam is more visible in Turkey. However, daily life particularly in Anatolia has historically been centred around Islam. Thus, what we observe as Islamisation concerns more areas such as the public spheres of cities, university campuses and TV channels. They all had a secular appearance in the Kemalist period. But, now, they are more in line with an Islamic format.

Beyond such symbolic areas, it is hardly possible to argue that Turkish society’s traditional relationship with Islam has dramatically changed. Turks are still religious, as they have been throughout history.

The only difference is the rise of a different lifestyle among younger Turks. For example, in conservative Muslim families, for young people to have a boyfriend or girlfriend was taboo 20 years ago, but is almost normal today.

In the past 20 years, a radical change among Turkey’s devout is that they have developed spaces, social codes and even discourse legitimising romantic friendship between boys and girls.

Right now, Turkey is going through a sexual revolution reminiscent of the 1960s in Europe.

But it is not clear how such changes among young people, including Islamic boys and girls, affects the fate of Islam and Islamisation in Turkey. Most of these young people, who now enjoy such a lifestyle, might return to traditional conservatism when they get older.

Thus, it is not easy to argue that there is a revolutionary change in Turkish society’s approach to Islam. More or less, the traditional codes of religiosity still prevail.

Islam is still very strong in Anatolia, particularly in towns and villages, while urban public spheres allow alternative forms, including moderate religiosity or secular lifestyles.

On the second level, there is no Islamisation in Turkey. So far, no strictly Islamic norm or law has been incorporated into the legal system.

However, when it comes to the third level, we face a quite complex situation: Islamist politicians, including public office holders, have done a great deal to promote Islam and Islamic tendencies.

For example, the Radio Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) frequently intervenes with TV channels to demand an Islamic code of morality. Though it never refers to Islam, it is clear that such interventions outline an Islamic approach.

Similarly, many public office holders are pushing for a de facto Islamisation. For instance, Turkey has seen an explosion in the number of Islam-oriented imam hatip schools in recent years, while many teachers work to transform the environment in their schools into an Islamist format. Such practices happen mostly in the form of reinterpreting the existing frameworks according to Islam.

Indeed, Islamisation with the hand of state power transforms Islam into an authoritarian agenda.

So it can be concluded that Islamisation is mostly felt at the administrative level in Turkey, but we are not observing a radical change at the sociological and legal levels.

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