Ergun Özbudun* - Religion, society and politics in a changing Turkey (Today’s Zaman – 09.04.2007)

Ergun Özbudun* - Religion, society and politics in a changing Turkey (Today’s Zaman – 09.04.2007)

YAYIN TARİHİ: 09.04.2007

Ergun Özbudun* - Religion, society and politics in a changing Turkey (Today’s Zaman – 09.04.2007)


The headline above came from a research report conducted by two sociologists, Ali Çarkoğlu and Binnaz Toprak, along with support from the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and published in November 2006.

The same researchers conducted a similar study in February 1999, and TESEV published it in 2000 under the title “Religion, society and politics in Turkey.” A comparison between the two studies is interesting because they both show changes that have occurred over the past six years in regards to some of the values of Turkish society, and reveal differences between reality and what is popularly perceived, in regards to politics and religion.

One of the important findings that we got from these two studies, based on opinion polls conducted nationwide, is that over the past six years individual piety in Turkey has become a significant phenomenon. The studies reveal that the number of people who describe themselves as “very religiously observant” rose to 12.8 percent from 6 percent; the number of people who describe themselves to be “fairly religiously observant” rose to 46.5 percent from 25 percent; the number of people who describe themselves as “not religious at all” fell to 3.6 percent from 9.4 percent. The number of people who put their “Muslim” identity before other identities, rose to 44.6 percent from 35.7 percent, while the number of people who think of themselves as “Turkish” above all else, fell to 29.9 percent from 34.1 percent. The percentage of those believing that there should not be religiously based political parties fell to 53.6 from 60.6, while those who want religious views present in the political sphere rose to 41.4 percent from 24.6 percent.

Although an initial look at these figures might tell us that the secular state organization in Turkey is under serious threat, other findings from the researches tell us that such a worry is not logical. Secularism is not opposed by personal piety but rather by the desire to have a theocracy. The study has shown that the number of people arguing for a theocratic rule based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, akin to the Iranian “regime of the mullahs,” fell to 8.9 percent in 2006 from 21 percent in 1999, while the number of people opposed to theocratic rule rose to 76.2 percent from 67.9 percent. This finding is confirmed by findings from a 2002 poll, conducted by the Turkish Foundation for Social, Economic and Political Research Foundation (TÜSES), another respectable Turkish think tank. The TÜSES study indicated that the support for a theocratic state based on Islamic law was at 26.7 percent in 1996, it has since fallen to 19.8 percent in 1998, and 9.9 percent in 2002. What is more, there is reason to doubt that the advocates of theocratic rule desire that Islamic laws should be enforced completely, including the legal punishments. While a population of 10 percent is not to be ignored, it would be an exaggeration to argue that this poses a serious threat to the secular republic. The more important finding is that there is a downward and not upward trend in the figures. This could be thought to stem largely from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) embracing secularism, in comparison with the Islamist rhetoric of the parties that were its’ political predecessors. One other finding which points to a discrepancy between the reality and what is popular opinion is that only 12 percent of the AK Party supporters - in contrast to 49.1 percent of the supporters for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) - think that secularism faces serious threat.

That Turkish society is divided over religion and politics is highlighted in opinion polls conducted about several aspects of AK Party. Over half of the subjects (53.7 percent) see the AK Party as democratic, 50.8 percent regard the AK Party as the political entity with the strongest support for basic rights and liberties, 53.3 percent see it as a political party which best protects the rights of those people who practice Islam, 50.3 percent see it as a political party which is determined to make the Islamic way of life prevalent, 45.2 percent as a political party which is pursuing full access to the European Union because it seeks to legalize a religiously-based political system, 43.8 percent as a political entity, and 36.7 percent see the AK Party as a political party which is reversing the republican progress towards granting women more rights. These findings point to a serious polarization between secularism and Islamism.

Despite such indications of the divide in Turkish society over secularism in politics, other findings from the poll suggest that polarization between Islamism and secularism has actually been lessening over recent years. For instance, the number of people who responded “no” when asked whether people could practice Islam freely or not, was 30.9 percent in 1999, this number fell to 14.3 percent in 2006. Similarly, the response to the question “Are religiously observant people in Turkey under pressure” was answered “yes” by 42.4 percent in 1999, the same question received a “yes” answer by only 17 percent in 2006. Half of those questioned, who were asked to compare the AK Party government with the earlier three-party coalition administration, thought that there had been a change in the way which people are practicing their religion, and 61.7 percent of them thought that it was a positive change. These findings can be looked at as demonstrating that there has been significant progress in the direction towards social integration. Given that the conflict between secularism and Islamism is a major hindrance to the strengthening of Turkish democracy, there is no doubt it is beneficial to have a lesser degree of polarization between secularism and Islamism.

There are also findings in the Çarkoğlu and Toprak analysis that concern democratic values, respect for differences, tolerance and veiling. I hope to deal with these in another paper.

*Professor at Bilkent University