Is Turkey a secular country?

On Jan. 18, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement that drew criticism from many of Turkey citizens.

The statement described Islam as ‘our religion’, a phrase that drew attention because Turkey’s constitution is quite clear that the Turkish state is a secular one.

The concept of secularism, or laïcité (laiklik in Turkish) has been present in the second article of the Turkish constitution since February 5, 1937. The first two articles of the constitution state:

Article 1: Form of the State

c1. The Turkish state is a Republic.

Article 2: Characteristics of the Republic

c1. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law; bearing in mind the concepts of public peace, national solidarity and justice; respecting human rights; loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, and based on the fundamental tenets set forth in the Preamble.

The current Constitution of 1982 does not recognise any official religion.

“As far as we know, the Turkish Republic has no religion. The state is secular,” wrote international relations scholar İhsan Dağı in a tweet. “The phrase 'Turkey's state religion is Islam' was removed (from the constitution) in 1928. Is it possible for Turkish Foreign Affairs not to know this?”

“If Islam is categorized as ‘Our Religion’, what does that make Turkish citizens of other faiths or non-believers?” asked one Twitter user.

Certainly there is ample evidence that Turkish citizens who are not Sunni Muslims have suffered discrimination for a long time, even during the height of Atatürk’s secular republic.

Until recently, Turkish identity cards prominently displayed the religious affiliation of their holders. Currently, the category remains in a state database but the information isn’t explicitly visible on the physical card itself. 

Academic Axel Çorlu, who comes from a Levantine family in Izmir, recounted a childhood memory where being Christian in Turkey shaped his outlook for life:

“Night curfew after ‘80 (1980 military coup). I am 7-8 years old, we are going home late one night. (The police) stop the car. They talk to my dad for a while, okay, they will let us through. Then the officer turns over the identity card in his hand and pauses. His face changes.”

“He says to another officer, "This guy is Christian." They were going to let us go, but the air changes in an instant. They take my father away. Mum and I are kept waiting for a while, I am half asleep. Then a police car takes us home, and dad stays behind. I'm looking out the window in the backseat of a Renault 12.

I think to myself that I should never show the back of my identity card to anyone, and the idea of "how to hide the back of the ID" remains in the corner of my mind throughout my childhood. When I hear those who haven’t experienced such things come to me years later and say, "we grew up together,” that “there was no discrimination," the blood still rises to my head.”

Turkey has long had an unofficial Jim Crow-like policy under which non-Muslim groups are recorded and prevented from obtaining many government jobs. According to Orhan Kemal Cengiz, the Turkish state has been employing ‘ancestry codes’ since the founding of the Republic in 1923 to track which ethnic group people belong to: 1 for Greek, 2 Armenian, 3 Jewish, 4 Syriacs, and 5 for other non-Muslim groups.

Cengiz wrote in 2013 that “What has been exposed is a practice that some suspected of existing, but could not prove. For instance, there is not a single non-Muslim in the Turkish military or security services today. Turkey has not had a Jewish colonel, a police chief of Greek origin, or a judge of Armenian extraction. It appears that the confidential coding of ancestry has been used to ensure that should non-Muslims change their identities, they still can be excluded from public service.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 report notes that “the government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a ruling by the Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of (Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate - Diyanet) said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.”

The State Department also noted that the Turkish government “continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country.”

Dr. Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, told Ahval that Turkey “has always had an imperfect understanding of secularism,” but that since the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power, “sectarian discrimination has been institutionalised further.” This can be seen in the way different sites of worship are treated, she believes. 

“Sites belonging to religious minorities, including Alevis, Christians, and Jews, receive different treatment from government agencies. For example, in the shrine of Hacı Bektaş Veli, which has been functioning as a state-run museum since 1964, visitors need to purchase a ticket to visit the shrine of this Alevi saint, but not to access the mosque of the complex for their daily prayers. The sectarian logic behind such discriminatory practices is also reflected in government rhetoric.

Tanyeri Erdemir criticised what she called the discriminatory mindset of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who “bragged about restoring the Armenian Church in Van ‘with our own funds.’ Erdoğan's reference to the state budget used for the restoration of the Holy Cross Cathedral on Akhtamar Island as "our own funds," reflecting an exclusionary attitude toward Turkey's Christian citizens, denies not only their equal status but also their tax contributions.”

It might be asked whether Turkey was ever really a secular country, despite the promises of its constitutions. At least, in the case of identity cards it has been possible to leave blank the ‘religion’ section since 2016. Yet, whatever the law says, the state often acts in ways that do not appear very secular.

It’s no secret that Erdoğan wants to create a “pious generation” of Turks, and has massively expanded religious education, making it often a default educational path for many Turkish students. According to official figures, over 99% of Turks are Muslims. However, in unofficial polls, the proportion of people who declare themselves atheists has risen from 1% to 3% between 2008-2018, while the Ministry of Education published a report in 2018 titled “The Youth is Sliding to Deism,” which suggested that many young Turks were abandoning organised religion while still retaining a belief in a deity.

So the overall picture here is a confusing one. As the percentage of atheists increased in society, the state itself has become more religious, using Turkey’s Islamic heritage and identity in its foreign policy and its control of the Diyanet to promote its conservative political ideology. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, more people in younger generations may actually be becoming more secular. Turkey’s population has had legal secularism imposed on it from the top-down by the young Kemalist republic, a move which arguably failed to create a secular social culture among the masses. Now, as the state becomes more religious and is attempting to reform the nation in a more religious image, cultural secularism is being adopted by more people in revolt at the government’s actions.

Secularism is not just a set of laws, obviously, but a social and political attitude that cannot be forced on people. Attempting to force citizens into a particular cultural mould seems likely to backfire, and secularism is a set of ideas whose meaning needs to be worked out in a culturally contingent space. French secularism is different to British secularism, for example, and while Britain is very culturally secular, legally it is not, since the Queen is the head of state as well as the literal leader of the state religion, Anglicanism. There are even members of the House of Lords who hold political office solely because they are Anglican bishops. 

Despite the Ottoman sultans also being the Caliph of Islam for hundreds of years, Turkey is not culturally fertile ground for a fanatically orthodox version of Sunni Islam, and it seems to me that even quite observant Turkish Muslims are rarely totally inflexible in their religious attitudes. 

Secularism is an important force in Turkey, especially among its more educated, more Westernised and politically Kemalist citizens. But Turkish secularism needs to put down deeper social roots if it is going to be more than just a set of laws. I think there is reason to be optimistic that the increasing uptake of a deistic worldview among young Turks means that the future of secularism in Turkey is a bright one, despite the government’s attempt to create a production line for pious citizens who all think like them.