Islam and Modernity: Case of Turkey Until 1980s

Islam and Modernity: Case of Turkey Until 1980s

I. Introduction: Concepts of Modernity and Islam

Social change is the key to the modernization process. For developing countries to become modern, the rate, direction, and quality of social change is the deciding factor; in social change, multiple interconnected factors are involved. What is involved in the whole process of development is human creativity, and certainly the exercise of human rationality.

In Islamic societies what appears to have happened in the last several centuries is that the so-called religious leaders, in an environment of autocratic rule, which shunned criticism and open debate and discussion, mistook God’s statements in the Qur’an to the effect that nothing happens in the world unless God wishes it, that He is all powerful and human beings very weak, to mean that humanity had no control over its environment and that things will happen naturally or on their own.[1] The point which emerges from the foregoing is that in Islamic societies the erroneous belief grew, which is present even today, based on partial or faulty understanding of some of the Qur’anic verses, that God will do things for humans. So, there is a lack of enterprise in Islamic societies. In the process, human creativity and rationality have been relegated to an obscure corner. As David Apter states, “reason as applied to human affairs is the foundation of modernity.[2]” For 19th century philosophers, the human species can be improved firstly by new discoveries in the arts and sciences, and consequently in the means of well-being and common prosperity, secondly by progress in the principles of conduct and moral practice and thirdly by the improvement of human faculty. According to William Connolly, “modernity has lost a great sensibility of morality, a rich tradition, environmental spaces and all these vacated places were filled by bureaucracy, hierarchy, totalitarian states, a consumer culture and probably a consumer state.[3]”

Modernization means the transformation of political, social, economic, intellectual, religious, and psychological systems. Transformation does not always mean the destruction of the past. Transformation is more subtle and more difficult than the destruction of the past, and yet it is no less radical. Modernization requires the willingness and ability of the elites to bring about the necessary changes.

II. Transformation of the Societies and Religion vs. Modernity

When we look to the societies (e.g. Turkish society), we can say that in societies where governments encounter strong opposition and often fear the antagonism of religious functionaries or other vested interests that do not tolerate disturbing the status quo, the prime need is not to isolate such groups, but to win their support.[4] Those who benefit handsomely from the existing economic structure usually develop a vested interest in maintaining the system which is neither efficient nor suitable for rapid future growth. To achieve this, they solidify their control of the political system by joining forces with powerful groups in the country like landowners, religious leaders, and senior civil and military officers.

In some societies the separation of religious ideology is not only not likely to occur, but would actually be harmful, were it to occur. The decisive factor in the development process is the ideology or the religion itself. In Turkey, for instance, Atatürk attempted radical secularization but with little success. The secular measures had a very slight impact in the countryside. The more distant the area was from the capital or from the major cities, the less chance there was that its inhabitants were even aware of the change.[5] After Atatürk’s death in 1938, the resistance to secularization became more noticeable in the countryside.

According to Gökalp, in primitive societies all institutions are based on religion, which gives them value and power. In organic societies, however, religion should be confined to institutions which are relatively spiritual. He argued that religion becomes harmful when it is extended to worldly or secular institutions, for it prevents these institutions from adapting themselves to the necessities of life. Gökalp did not underrate religion as a great social force. In fact, he proposed positive measures designed to spread its influence as a character-building element of great value for individual and society. He wanted to bring all religious matters under the authority of the central government. And he felt that a separation of functions would be beneficial to both fields and to religion itself. He was fully aware that people can neither entirely drop the religion they hold sacred, nor can they dispense with the necessities of contemporary civilization.[6] Religious education can be so meshed with secular education that each person is given the opportunity to be well conversant with the fundamentals of religion which means the study of the Qur’an. The downfall of Muslims started when Islam became a habit with them and ceased to be a socioeconomic program of life.

The separation of religion and state, in the Islamic context, means to neutralize the power and influence of a class which has no legitimate reason, on the basis of the Qur’an, to exist in the first place. The state needs to be very cautious that the existing religious organizations or groups, be they religious educational institutions or religious political parties, do not perceive and interpret the existence of a separate religious body to mean a free hand in religious matters, for it can lead to fanaticism. The religious institution needs to be a separate and clearly defined structure, but a structure which is counterbalanced and checked by the authority of the state. The creation of such an institution presupposes that the people who come to occupy places in such a body have received modern education which included the study of the Qur’an and that they are open to discussion, debate, and criticism.[7]

According to Weber, rationality and bureaucratic organization had made it possible for humans to gain control over nature and effectively organize society; a rational society had to have modern values, social consciousness, and the subjective experience. Capitalism produces a society that is run by machinelike rational procedures without any intrinsic meaning and secularization is the social product of capitalism. Capitalism, with rationalization as its base, produces institutional and cultural differentiation, leading to specialization in different social spheres.[8] In a secular society, religion is confined to interpersonal rather than public relations. And, as a last assumption, industrialization is not possible without a society becoming secular, or it is the secularization of a society which paves the way for industrialization.

According to Islamists, in Islam the spiritual and the temporal are not two distinct and independent domains. The nature of an act, no matter how secular, is determined by the attitude of mind behind the act. Islam is a single indivisible reality. In Islam, it is the state’s responsibility to transform the ideal principles of equality, solidarity, and freedom into space-time forces and to realize them in a definite human organization. Religion is essentially a mode of living and is the only serious way of handling reality.

In Islamic societies, there has been a general failure to understand the underlying unity of the Qur’an; instead, emphasis has been on the isolated words or verses of the Qur’an. Whereas the overwhelming emphasis of the Qur’an is on the establishment of a social order based on socioeconomic justice and ethical values, the major part of Islamic history up to the present time has neglected its importance and urgency. There has always been an understanding of “Minimal Islam” and “Negative/Punitive Islam”.[9] The present-day Muslim societies are faced with massive illiteracy and an unenlightened educational system. Islam is distorted and exploited for party politics and group interests and the result is that Islam becomes a sheer slogan and is reduced to demagoguery. The lack of a proper method of interpretation is another big problem in Muslim societies.

III. Islam and Modern Turkey: State vs. Society?

An ideal Islamic state is a state which Muslims consider to be good. Furthermore, Western democracy cannot be transposed to another society, particularly Islamic, merely through a democratic form of government. The ethical element in an Islamic society or an Islamic democracy must come from Islam.[10] Only then does it become viable, and only then can there be a commitment to it, for it will contain within itself the elements of loyalty and accountability.

But in Turkish society the reforms made by Atatürk were completely against the assumptions written above. We see the results in today’s political life of Turkey. These reforms can be counted as the prohibition of polygamy, making the civil marriage compulsory, giving equal rights to women (suffrage etc.), suppression and closure of religious orders and societies, adoption of an European-based legal code instead of the Islamic Shari’a, official declaration of the Turkish state’s secularism, making illegal the Arabic script, etc.

The overall purpose of such measures was to break the power of the fanaticism of Islamic conservatism which had become the hallmark of Muslim Turkish society. It was the refusal of the ulema to rethink the Shariah law in the preceding Ottoman rule which resulted in the secularism of Atatürk. In this aim for secularism, there was no liquidation of religion. If Islam had lost any of its influence over the people, it was because of the superficiality and incompetence of the religious teachers.

Atatürk said in one of his speeches: “We recognize that it is indispensable in order to secure the revival of the Islamic Faith, to disengage it from the condition of being a political instrument, which it has been for centuries through habit.[11]” In the old Ottoman society, for the mass of the people Islam had come to mean occultism, belief in superstitions, and, at best, preoccupation with prayers and mindless following of traditions.

When we look to the principles of Kemalism and their aim for a new lifestyle in modern Turkey, we can see their deportation from Islam. The keystone of the modern system in terms of the legitimation of political authority was that it was to be based on the will of the people. The new slogan was Sovereignty Belongs to the Nation. That basis of political authority meant a transformation of the ideological foundations of the state, and the old system, in which God is the sovereign and the real authority is God’s, not the people’s will, was eliminated.

Nationalism directed the focus of the loyalty to the new nation-state, populism emphasized the importance of the people as opposed to the elite, revolutionism supported the willingness to accept constant transformation, and statism (étatism) defined the role of the government in the economy. Secularism spoke directly of the religion, and the Kemalist program was explicitly secularist. The secularism of the Turkish republic aimed at bringing an end to all of the old institutions of the faith, and it excluded formally religious considerations from the political arena and rejected social distinctions based on religion. However, the program did not reject or oppose religion in general; rather, it aimed at making adherence to Islam a personal, individual matter in an environment where a person was not obliged to follow some externally established set of rules and doctrines. It was a secularist rather than an atheistic program of modernizing reform.

As a nationalist program, Kemalism worked to nationalize Islam by making it more Turkish in order that all Turks could understand their faith without having to resort to professional interpreters. The language of the faith was an important key. The call to prayer and mosque ceremonies came to be given in Turkish.

The problem that occurred was the vacuum left in Turkish society in all the areas of life by the decline of Islam. The biggest failure of the Kemalist elite was that they acted under the illusion that cultural change could be imposed from above through the force of law. The reformers did not probe deeper to discover what was wrong with the prevalent Islamic religious ideas that had so decayed the Turkish society, and how to correct the situation. The Kemalists’ aspiration to westernize Turkey, a Turkey where men and women had equal rights, wore modern dress, danced and dined in the Western way, and were versed in Western philosophy and art, had little meaning in the value structure of the countryside.[12] The state, through its secular policies and programs of westernization, had threatened the value system of a traditional Islamic society without providing a new ideological framework which could have mass appeal. We should not forget that, in Islamic societies especially, if you can persuade the masses that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action.

The issue of religion came to the surface in secular Turkey when the single-party rule of the Kemalists gave way to a multiparty system. Religion now entered politics again. The new political environment provided an opportunity to air religious grievances through political parties. With the 1950 elections and the governing of the main opposition party (Democrat Party- Demokrat Parti (DP)), things started to change in the Turkish Republic. In this process, again, Islam played some rule. The narrow restrictions placed upon religion had not been fully accepted by many Turks, especially in the rural areas. Part of the DP program, which was later implemented, was to expand the programs of religious instruction and to end the use of Turkish translations of the call to prayer and the Qur’an. Those features were factors in the DP’s electoral popularity.

The major challenge to the Kemalist political system came from the developing policies of the DP itself. It promised the peasants not only religious freedom, but also better economic and living conditions, and facilities. During the rise of the DP, after its establishment in 1946, the ruling Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) tried to change its perception for the masses by trying to loosen its highly strict secularist policies. In the Seventh General Congress of the party in 1947, delegates criticized the CHP governments for neglecting the religious training of clerics as well as for not providing religious education to the youth. The government’s secularization policies were blamed for the alleged lack of public morality.

But this didn’t help the CHP to win the 1950 elections as mentioned above. The new Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, indicated that secularism had been unsuccessful in Turkey and, therefore, could be changed. The government permitted the broadcasting of Qur’anic readings over the state radio. The state ruled that all primary school students were required to attend classes on religion unless their parents specifically asked for an exemption. The state also established Prayer Leader and Preacher Schools in seven cities in 1951, and their number was increased to 16 in 1954-55. In the same year, the state increased the budget of the Presidency of the Religious Affairs from 3 million to 8 million Turkish liras. An unprecedented increase occurred in the following: publication of religious books and pamphlets, pilgrimage to Mecca, wearing of religious garb in public, mosque attendance and construction of new mosques or the repair of old ones. Religious education fell into private hands more completely. Thus, no change took place in the content and method of religious education. By politicizing religion, the government was seeking to divert public attention from economic problems and extensive violations of civil liberties.

The Islamists invested most of their efforts during the 1960s in three domains: education, publishing, and organization. In addition to pressuring the authorities for increasing allocations to Islamic classes at school, Islamists promoted an ever-growing number of Qur’an courses for adults in the villages. A great effort was invested in the publication and sale of low-cost Islamic literature: works on Islam, the life of its Prophet and other leaders, Islamic history and mysticism, commentaries on the Qur’an, works explaining the dogmas and rites of Islam, collections of Friday ceremonies, as well as school textbooks and translation of Islamic classics into Turkish.[13] These were supplemented by many Islamic-minded dailies, weeklies and monthlies, whose circulation rose parallel to the increase in literacy. Organizational activities were carried out on two levels: via Islamic philanthropic associations, whose number grew annually, and via underground activities of various Islamic groups which were not officially allowed to associate legally. All these served as recruitment centers of support for the first Islamic political party in the history of the republic.

The fact that Turkey’s constitutions insulated politics from religion did not prevent the foundation of an Islamist party in 1970. The time seemed ripe for the Islamists to get out of the political wilderness and attempt to rejoin the mainstream. The Party for National Order (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP)was established on January 26, 1970. This success was due to the party’s tactics, such as having religious functionaries praise it in the mosques (thus flaunting the laws), and by presenting in its propaganda an effective mixture of Islamic treatise and socio-economic preaching, making up a compact message delivered in simple terms, directed both at believers and at the unsophisticated, needy, or disgruntled. To the faithful, it intimated that it would be sinful not to vote for the only party which really cared about Islam and the restoration of its standing in public life, in education, and, at least by implication, in politics. To the needy and disgruntled, it promised change, introducing itself as the sole political group opposing large capital and championing the little man by advocating an overhaul of the political and economic system. As a result, the main electoral support for the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP) in 1973 came from the deeply religious and needy population in Central and Eastern Anatolia. This lesson was not lost on the party in subsequent years.

The ideology of the National Salvation Party was embodied in a thinly veiled program to restore Islam in state and society and turn it into the major factor in Turkey. Fearing legal proceedings which might close down the party (as had happened to the Party for National Order in 1971), its spokesmen campaigned for moral progress, postulating a virtuous society, proud of its glorious heritage and ancient traditions. The party considered the entire country as a school, in which religious instruction should be the core of all education. The goal of moral progress was tied up with material progress, geared to improving the financial lot of the have-nots – a combination characteristic of the propaganda of Islamic groups in other Muslim countries at that time, such as Egypt.

Early in 1974, as the third largest group in the National Assembly, the National Salvation Party was in a tactically convenient position to form a government coalition with either the Republican People’s Party or its rival, the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi – AP). The former was moderately left of center, the latter moderately right of center. Since the National Salvation Party was the champion of Islam, first and foremost, it could coalesce with either – and it did, first with the former, then with the latter. In both cases, Erbakan became Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues received economic portfolios, which they put to good use to bolster their popular support.

The Islamic-related activities and attitudes of the party’s cabinet ministers are of special interest, as they are characteristic of the previous and subsequent stand of the protagonists of Islamism and their antagonism to the secularization of Turkey. Examples include unsuccessful bills in parliament to change the official weekend holiday from Sunday to Friday, or to make everyone offending God in behavior or speech guilty of a serious misdemeanor. The number of religious functionaries was increased, as was the amount of time allocated for religious broadcasts on the state radio. A much-publicized drive was started against both gambling and drinking and selling of alcohol, as was an anti-obscenity drive in all publications: books, newspapers, photographs, films, records and tapes. The widest interpretation was given to obscenity, which was applied also to art as a ban on nude statues.
While such measures increased the party’s popularity with certain circles, it may have caused some antagonism in others. In the 1977 elections, its vote declined and its group in the National Assembly fell to 24. Even so, the party’s activities were viewed with suspicion by secularist groups, chiefly by the armed forces, who considered themselves as the preservers of Kemalism. In September 1980, the military intervened again, just after Erbakan had addressed a huge rally in Konya, openly calling for Islamism. They closed down all political parties and ruled alone for three years, after which they returned the government to the civilians via new parliamentary elections in 1983 in which the old parties were not permitted to participate.

Before the coup, Turkish society was shattered by ideological polarization and strife-ridden communal violence. Parliament was unable to elect a president, and the government was inept in providing law and order. The generals who came to power on September 12, 1980, instead of showing secular disregard for Islam, took several steps to strengthen it by opening new Qur’anic schools, making religious courses compulsory, and employing new preachers.

IV. Conclusion: Paving the Way for Populist Islam

What Antonio Gramsci argued in the case of Italy is applicable to Turkey: “The particular form in which the hegemonic ethico-political element presents itself in the life of the state and the country is ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’, which is ‘popular religion’, that is to say it is the link by means of which the unity of leaders and led is effected.[14]” The leaders of the military coup used all available means, especially religion, to secure consent to their dominance.

Through Islamization of the society, the coup leaders sought to engineer a new form of depoliticized Turkish-Islamic culture that would reunify the society. In order to attain this goal, the national culture report was issued.[15]  The report was based on the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, whose bedrock was the family, the mosque, and the military barracks. These three institutional pillars were expected to produce a disciplined, unified, and well-ordered organic society and a powerful, unified, and harmonious state. The military government obviously preferred to employ religious sentiment and traditional allegiances, rather than the principles of participatory democracy, to achieve political stability and national unity. It aimed, through the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, to identify the state and nation as one jamaat (community) modeled after the concept of ummah (religious community).

Although the 1982 constitution allowed the state to intervene in every aspect of social life, social groups responded with liberal agendas demanding free space and the deregulation of the economy and education. Although this liberal reaction unleashed a new debate about the boundaries between the state and society and between the individual and society, the post-1980 political and economic setting clearly favored the activities of Islamic groups and sufi networks. Turgut Özal, the prime minister during this period, pursued a policy of Islamizing the educational system and prepared a new curriculum of national history and geography that constantly used the term Milli (national) in the religious sense.

The expansion of higher education, print media, and mass communication played a critical role in the public emergence of an Islamic identity in the late 1980s. Democratization and economic liberalization in Turkey opened new public spaces for marginalized Islamic groups to find their voices. The process of democratization carried political Islamic views and sensitivities from the periphery to the center of the political forum.

After the coup, when the state decided that Muslims had to be taken into the system to pursue the goals of economic development and eliminate the threat of the left, it could carry out its decision only on the basis of “soft Islam”. Subsequently, Islamists poured into the system through an expansion of educational opportunities, economic activity, and party politics. The educational means of involving the Islamic masses included more Imam-Hatip schools, Qur’anic teaching seminaries, and new Islamic private colleges and high schools. These schools helped establish new foundations and associations for carrying out social activities. The economic sphere was opened by new companies owned by Islamist entrepreneurs and by the establishment of an interest-free Islamic banking system. Meanwhile, conservative groups found the soft ideology of Islam promoted by the coup leaders to be fertile ground for the development of political parties (Welfare Party). As the Muslim masses began to take part in the system and to shape the educational, political, and economic spheres with their own norms, the state became legitimate in their eyes.

Assistant Professor Evren Altınkaş, Political Science and Public Administration Department, Girne American University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Altınkaş E. (September, 2014), “Islam and Modernity: Case of Turkey Until 1980s”, Vol. III, Issue 9, pp.6-14, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


[1]Javaid, Saeed. Islam and Modernization. (A Comparative Analysis of Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey). 1994, New York, p. 12.

[2] Michael Meeker. The New Muslim Intellectuals In The Republic of Turkey in Religion, Politics and Literature in Turkey, Richard Topper, London, 1991, p. 190.

[3] William Conolly. Political Theory and Modernity. Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 4

[4] Nilüfer Göle. İslamın Yeni Kamusal Yüzleri. Istanbul, 1999, p. 27.

[5] Mehmet Haki Okutucu. İstikamet Şeriat: Refah Partisi. Istanbul, 1996, p.42.

[6] Ziya Gökalp. Modernleşme ve Medeniyet. Istanbul, 1922, p.56.

[7] In Turkish case, this idea was not fulfilled and the modern education of Qur’an was not achieved as a general purpose. This has led to one of the basic dilemmas of Turkish society today, which is the clash of secularism and Islamism. And, the perception of Islamists about the secularizing and progressing Turkish policies had become a misunderstood perception that the state tries to undermine the Islam and the traditions of the Turkish society.

[8] Saead, op.cit., note 1, p.56.

[9] Şerif Mardin. Türkiye’de Din ve Siyaset. Istanbul, 199, p. 217.

[10]John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, op.cit., note 19, p.189

[11] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Speech, Ankara, p. 134.

[12] Göle, op.cit., note 10, p. 98.

[13] Jacob M. Landau. Turkey Between Secularism and Islamism. Jerusalem Letter, February 1997, p. 45

[14] C. Mouffe. Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci. Culture, Ideology, and Social Process. London, 1981, p.232.

[15] M. Hakan Yavuz, op.cit., note 31, p.78.



Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.