Turkey’s urbanisation slows Erdoğan’s Islamisation plan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to create a pious generation have failed largely because of the country’s rapid and continuing urbanisation, said an analysis in The Economist. 

Since Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Turkey’s government has worked to elevate the role of Islam in a supposedly secular republic by building thousands of new mosques and Islamic schools, exponentially increasing the budget of the religious affairs directorate and cultivating relations with Islamic movements, known as brotherhoods in Turkey. 

“But curiously these policies do not seem to have had the desired result,” Piotr Zalewski wrote for The Economist, citing research from Konda showing a slight decline in religiosity in Turkey since 2008. “Turks do not appear to be any more devout than they were a decade ago, scores of Islamic schools remain empty, and the brotherhoods seem increasingly out of step with a rapidly changing society.”

Bekir Ağırdır, the head of Konda, said the steady migration from rural areas to the city - Turkey is now 75 percent urban, according to the World Bank - is to blame, as many new city-dwellers develop a more à la carte approach to religion.

 “Urbanisation has created its own value system, as well as a big number of grey areas,” Ağırdır told the Economist, adding that young people in religious families often seek out their own version of Islam compatible with modern urban life.  

Just living in a city exposes people to modern lifestyles. In his 2015 PhD dissertation, Sinan Yılmaz of Marmara University’s Faculty of Theology found that 87 percent of Turkish families said that interest in religion had fallen in the newer generation, thanks to the influence of Western values. 

In an interview with Hurriyet Daily News, Yılmaz pointed to AKP regulations against the purchase of alcohol, denunciations of co-ed student housing and efforts to raise a pious generation. 

“All these are about the relation between the state and religion,” he said. “Society is not becoming more pious, the political arena is; the two are separate things ... If other scientific developments, capitalism and urbanisation are taking place in a society, then it is very difficult for that society to be altered from above.”

Meanwhile, in the last few years, being part of an Islamic movement in Turkey has become problematic. “All brotherhoods were cast under a shadow when members of the best-known one, led by the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, participated in a violent coup in July 2016. Tens of thousands of alleged and actual Gülen supporters, most of whom played no role in the coup, have been thrown into jail,” said Zalewski. 

Etyen Mahçupyan, a Turkish journalist who served as senior adviser to Ahmet Davutoğlu when he was prime minister, sees the line between conservative and secular lifestyles becoming blurred. 

“Twenty years ago, a youngster who wanted to be religious would have looked for a guide and tried to do what he was told,” he told Zalewski. “But now that youngster wants to redefine Islam for himself, and no guide can do that.”