In the mid-twentieth century, Turkey was touted as a model of secularism in Muslim society, which could only be achieved, it was argued, top-down through state imposition. By the end of the century, however, when postmodern multiculturalism prevailed, Turkey began to be seen as an example of authoritarian secularism, intolerant of religious expression.
After 9/11, Turkey was flaunted again, this time as a model of “moderate Islam,” an alternative to the presumably dangerous “radical” version, although the designation has been rejected by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), initially self-described as “conservative democratic” and in continuous power since 2002.
Erdoğan’s rejection of the designation and his unconcealed intention to institute an Islamic regime throw in doubt the existence of a difference between the goals of the so-called “moderate” and “radical” Islamisms, except perhaps in terms of political method. On 28 November 2019, during the closing session of a meeting of the Religious Council of Turkey, Erdoğan clearly stated his priorities as President:
“According to our faith, religion is not restricted to certain spaces and times. Islam is a set of rules and prohibitions that embrace all aspects of our lives. … We have been commanded to live as Muslims … No one can deny these tenets, because a Muslim is obligated to adapt his life to the essence of his religion and not the religion to his conditions of existence. … Even if it may be hard for us, we will place the rules of our religion at the center of our lives and not the requirements of our time.”
I have elsewhere questioned the accuracy of the received wisdom about Turkey’s tradition of “secularism.” Here, however, I want to question the wisdom of mixing religion and politics, as pursued by the AKP government.
Its dire consequences may be observed in nearly all areas of social and political life, even if we leave aside those problems that, one may argue, are not exclusively associated with Islamism and may appear in other regimes as well. These problems would include, for example, the widely reported issue of crony capitalism, corruption and economic mismanagement, or the authoritarian practice of prosecuting academics, students and journalists critical of the government’s policies, or the rapid decline in the status of women, including an explosion in the cases of murderous violence against them, although the link between these issues and the attempted authoritarian imposition of an Islamist regime may well be established.
More to the point, in foreign affairs, the government pursues a “neo-Ottomanist” policy, building on Muslim Brotherhood networks, losing allies and tending to resort to military hard power in the region instead of diplomatic soft power. Domestically, intervention in people’s life-styles, primarily in the form of restricting the consumption of alcohol through exorbitant taxation and a policy of limiting times and zones of alcohol sale and consumption, does not only violate citizens’ freedom of choice, but has also indirectly caused loss of lives owing to the illegal production and sale of fake drinks to evade the restrictions. Blatant discrimination on the basis of religious identity or degree of religiosity, including in public employment, has been rampant. One could go on, but rather than offering a complete litany, here I aim to focus on the critical issue of education.