In June 2018, Turkey’s President Erdogan claimed victory in presidential and parliamentary elections, securing five more years in office. Despite concerns about the economy and a plunging Lira, Erdogan won 53% of the vote with over 90% of ballot boxes opened.
His victory triggered a change to a powerful presidential system that places unprecedented powers in his hands. These powers include complete control of the cabinet and the power to appoint senior judges and officials, including unelected vice-presidents.
To the outside world, the election was the latest step in Erdogan’s systematic consolidation of power and his bid to transform the once-staunchly secular republic in his more religiously minded image.
But while many commentators in the West resent Erdogan for his Islamist leanings, the real ideology that underpins his rule is not religion, but secular nationalism.
Turkey was regarded as an outpost of Western-type secularism during much of the 20th century. But Islam and Turkish nationalism were always present in the country, even if not as strongly displayed as they have been in recent years.
Erdogan’s nationalism is unlike the more secular nationalism seen under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency and earlier governments. Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of the Republic, initiated a radical policy of separating religion from politics.
He created institutions and laws that were modelled after European counterparts, and severed ties with the country’s Islamic past, making Turkey the model country for successful westernization in the eyes of many observers.
After replacing Islamic law with European civil codes, he installed the principles of secularism into the Constitution, banned the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic and pushed for the social integration of genders. These reforms would radically alter the fabric of the Muslim-majority country which only years earlier was the capital of the Ottoman Caliphate.
But the reach and penetration of these policies beyond the country’s urban centres was limited. For more than 80 percent of the population who lived in rural areas, these reforms meant little. For them, Islam continued to be the most immediate way in which they identified themselves.
And Erdogan’s politics are precisely aimed at this conservative audience who wish to see a reverse of the staunch Ataturk style secularism of the 20th century. His new nationalism is assertively aimed at Muslims; fiercely independent his political rhetoric; distrusting of outsiders; and skeptical of other nations and global elites, which it perceives to hold Turkey back.
This strategy has worked for Erdogan. He skilfully satisfies his party’s supporters who are Turkey’s conservative, religious lower and middle classes as well as much of the commercial class. By fusing nationalism with a dose of religion Erdogan’s vision for the country echoes especially well among the pious, conservative people from the Anatolian heartland.
A common theme in Erdogan’s recent election speeches and rallies has been the dark period between the 1920s and early 2000s, when the secular elite ruled the country while so-called “pious” citizens were marginalised.
One Istanbul based MP in the AK Party said “Since the AK Party came to power [practising] Muslims can enjoy the same rights as others Turkish citizens”
But despite Islamic speeches, over the 16 years that the AKP has been in power, it has been mostly pragmatic on the issue of religion and insists the country will remain secular, even as the country switches to an executive presidency.
“Turkey may appear more Islamic now than it was a few decades ago, but when we look at the fabric of Turkish society, the country’s politics are still inherently secular,” says liberal Islamic theologian Ihsan Eliacik.
An Ankara-based analyst Selim Koru wrote in the Atlantic that “Erdogan himself is by all indications a genuine Muslim and Islamist, yet he doesn’t seem to govern as one,”
Although a considerable number of Turks believe Islam has a central role in their national identity, there’s also wide support for Turkey to remain secular. A report found that there is a component within the ruling party AKP, of about 35 percent, who put Islamic messages at the core whilst the rest of the party are OK with this religious rhetoric, but they also believe that Turkey is a secular state.
Turkey is deeply polarised on the issue of secularism which was a key battleground in the election. But Erdogan’s victory may potentially keep him in power for another 10 years if he wins the next election.
Erdogan has spoken of wanting to raise a “pious generation,” implementing an Islamic curriculum in schools around the country. He has led calls to end the ban on headscarves in public institutions and has a giant mosque under construction overlooking Istanbul, a pet project of Erdogan’s. Just as Ataturk shaped the country in his image, Erdogan has worked to shape it in his own. One that looks to the glory days of Turkey and brings the nostalgia of Islamic Ottoman history to the forefront of Turkish politics.
To Turkey’s conservative Muslims, Ottoman history offers the vision of glory, power, and victory —an identity that confers respect, self-esteem and dispels the feelings of inferiority and marginalization. It validates Turkey’s place in global politics.
Now, with the powers secured, Turks can expect the Islamic Ottoman history to occupy a greater position in public discourse as Erdogan will undoubtedly continue his winning strategy of nationalistic politics with a dose of Islam.