Turkey under Erdogan: Caught between secular and Islamic identities

Although Turkey’s constitution defines the country as a secular state, it is caught between its secular and Islamic identities. The current government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for the country, conflating religious and national identities, by combining the religious nationalism propagated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) with the secular Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP)’s ideology of ‘ultra-nationalism,’ which is defined as “extreme nationalism that promotes the interests of one state or people above all others.”  

The promotion of religious ultra-nationalism in Turkey has contributed to a rise in discrimination, and in hate speech that incites violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.

Such incitement is visible in a variety of areas ranging from education and employment, to religious practices and day-to-day administrative procedures. There has also been a surge in the expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media.

Consequently, Turkish religious minorities are increasingly vulnerable to restrictive government legislation and growing social hostilities.

The state has used a variety of means to propagate the view among wider society that to be Turkish is to be Sunni Muslim. The implicit suggestion is that religious minorities, or the non-religious, are not truly Turkish.

A breeding ground for extremism

Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, known as the Diyanet, is charged with exercising its duties “in accordance with secularism, removed from all political views and ideas;” however, this does not happen in practice. Since coming to power, the AKP has made significant changes to both the staff and the theological positions of the Diyanet to reflect a more decidedly Sunni Islamist position.

One minority representative described the Diyanet to CSW as a “Sunni-Hanafi missionary organisation.” In a speech on 25 April 2015 defending the Diyanet and criticising calls for its closure from opposition parties, President Erdogan said, “The religion of this nation is clear…this nation will not let you shut down the Diyanet. We are going to protect the Diyanet and all other moral values of this nation.”

When the AKP came to power in November 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not allowed to hold a government office, due to a 1998 conviction for inciting hatred for which he was sentenced to ten months imprisonment. Erdogan had recited an ultra-nationalistic Islamist poem at a public rally in support of the Welfare Party, an Islamist party banned in 1998. The poem said: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” He was released after four months.

In 2018, Erdogan was re-elected as president with 53% of the vote. Many analysts believe that an alliance between the MHP and the AKP helped Erdogan to win. The MHP party slogan perfectly illustrates the relationship between ultra-nationalism and Islamism in Turkey: “Our bodies are Turkish, our souls Islamic. A body without a soul is a corpse.”

Experts predict that this alliance has far-reaching consequences for Turkish politics. Burak Kadercan, Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College, foresees it having a negative national impact on attempts at “solving Turkey’s longstanding problems relating to its ethnic Kurdish minority, with whom nationalists have always been unwilling to compromise.” He also predicts an international impact, both in Syria and in Turkey’s relations with the United States, which has lent support to Kurdish-dominated Syrian groups that control large swathes of territory near the Turkish border, and are viewed by the Turkish government extensions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, or PKK), a militant far-left organisation.

One of the most dangerous consequences is the creation of an environment in which national and religious extremism can breed. It provides an ideal tool for extremists, who can justify violence and intimidation against those who disagree with them in the name of ‘God’ or ‘the nation.’

When a hardline nationalist government declares itself religious, any legitimate criticism or opposition could automatically be labelled not only as ‘treacherous,’ but also as ‘blasphemous.’

A dangerous cocktail

Narratives of ultra-nationalism are divisive, and when combined with religious bigotry they become rather dangerous. This is best demonstrated in the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent more than two years in detention on fabricated espionage and terrorism charges. Pastor Brunson was arrested in October 2016 and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The charges included supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party as well as the Gulen Movement, which Turkey accuses of orchestrating the coup attempt in 2016.

On 12 October 2018, Pastor Brunson was released after four witnesses changed their testimonies unexpectedly, denying any knowledge of Pastor Brunson’s links to the PKK or Gulen Movement. According to Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament, one of the witnesses claimed they had read the allegations in the news; another said that he was misunderstood by the judge, and two claimed that they first heard of the allegations from one another. Mr Erdemir called the case “a travesty of justice,” arguing that Pastor Brunson was framed as part of a well-orchestrated plot involving false testimonies in order to be used as a bargaining chip as part of President Erdogan’s  ‘Hostage Diplomacy.’

Inciting hostility

Middle East Concern reported an increase in provocative and offensive articles in pro-government media following Pastor Brunson’s case, in which Christians were accused of a variety of malpractices, including working against the Turkish state and receiving funds from foreign countries. Accusations have been made against Turkish Christian converts and expatriate Christians resident in Turkey, with the clear intention of inciting broader societal hostility towards Christians. In some instances, false allegations have explicitly attempted to associate Christians with Andrew Brunson. A lawyer representing one group of Christians appealed to the public prosecutor to order the removal of offensive articles from online media, but no action was taken.

Protestant churches have been particularly targeted by the press, perceived as anti-Turkish and pro-US. Many local newspapers have published hostile articles, leading to physical attacks on Christians and threats against churches on social media. In September 2018 Adnan Cavusoglu published an article attacking the website christianpersecution.com, claiming that it is part of a U.S. directed misinformation campaign against Turkey, and that criticisms of Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities are merely a pretext for the U.S. to impose sanctions.

In order to fulfil the promise of democracy and stability made to the Turkish people after the 2015 elections, the ruling party must take concrete steps to uphold the stipulations of the secular constitution and to address the increasing social polarisation and erosion of democratic principles and fundamental freedoms.

In particular, the authorities must make strenuous efforts to strengthen pluralism by countering and containing sectarian and ultra-nationalist narratives that are destroying the social fabric of the country. They should also ensure that cases involving freedom of religion or belief are addressed without prejudice in order to send a clear message that the targeting of religious minorities will no longer be tolerated.

By CSW’s Middle East Advocacy Officer