Turkey Pulse

Erdogan, not religion, divides Turkey

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Article Summary
Turkey’s political scene is not divided on ideology anymore, but between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps.

In the last decade, many observers of Turkey underlined the division between secular and religious Turks as the main fault line in politics. Accordingly, the more secular, Westernized Turks were represented by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) represented the more religious, conservative folks. Some bones of contention between the two sides, such as the longtime ban on the Islamic headscarf in state institutions, were also reflective of this “culture war.”

However, if you look at Turkey now, you can see that politics is not divided between pro-religion and pro-secularism lines anymore. It's divided between the pro-Erdogan and anti-Erdogan ones, with both religious and secular voices on each side.

It's true that Erdogan still has the support of the majority of Turkey’s traditional pious Muslims — those who frequent mosques, avoid alcohol and wear headscarves. Many of the Islamic communities with charismatic leaders (such as Sufi orders) also openly support Erdogan. However, there are important Islamic actors in the anti-Erdogan camp as well. The most notable one is the Fethullah Gulen community, whose members are estimated to constitute a few million people, and who has a global network of media, schools and nongovernmental organizations. Once Erdogan’s best ally, the Gulen community turned into his archenemy since the corruption investigations of last December, which has been condemned by the Erdogan camp as a veiled “coup attempt” cooked up by the Gulen followers within the police and the judiciary.

Yet, the Gulen movement is not the only Islamic actor who is against, or at least critical, of Erdogan. There is also the Yeni Asya community, which is one of the long-established factions in Turkey’s Nur movement, inspired by the works of Islamic scholar Said Nursi (1878-1960). Yeni Asya is also the name of the newspaper of the same community, and it has been a voice of criticism toward Erdogan’s authoritarian policies.

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However, there are other prominent names within the same Nur movement that have emerged as strong supporters of Erdogan in his clash with the Gulen movement. One of them, Mehmet Firinci, spoke to the pro-Erdogan daily Sabah on the eve of the presidential elections and declared, “Nur followers will vote for Erdogan.” However, “Nur followers” seem only divided on whether they should oppose or support Erdogan.

There are also some prominent Islamic public intellectuals who have become critical of Erdogan such as Ali Bulac, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu and Ihsan Eliacik. Eliacik is also the thinker who inspired “Anti-Capitalist Muslims,” a small group of young activists who have joined the Gezi Park protests to condemn what they see as Erdogan’s crony capitalism. More recently, some pro-Erdogan activists initiated a “boycott” on the writings of some of these Erdogan-critical Islamic intellectuals for their stance on Syria — that they were not anti-Assad enough.

Meanwhile, public supporters of Erdogan include some secular figures besides the usual Islamic ones. Pro-Erdogan newspapers such as Sabah, Yeni Safak, Star, Aksam and Turkiye have secular columnists as well, who praise Erdogan for his “peace process” with Kurdish separatists and who support his battle against the “parallel state,” i.e., the Gulen movement presence in state bureaucracy. In fact, on the latter issue, some of the most fierce defenders of Erdogan are secular commentators who turned pro-Erdogan only in the past three or four years, as noted by journalist Rusen Cakir.

It might be also interesting to note that two prominent Turkish-Armenian public intellectuals, Eyten Mahcupyan and Markar Esayan, are in the pro-Erdogan camp. Meanwhile, another Turkish-Armenian intellectual and activist, Hayko Bagdat, is on the opposite side.

But what should we make of all this?

First, all this means that the persona and project of Erdogan has become such a dominant issue in Turkey that it has trivialized all other political affiliations. It has become the wedge that suppressed all other wedges. Of course, this obsession is unhealthy for Turkey, for it kills the ground for nuanced, rational political debate. As Bekir Agirdir, the director of a polling company and a political commentator, noted, it has become impossible to reasonably discuss even Istanbul’s water problem, because Erdogan supporters will deny it, whereas Erdogan opponents will exaggerate it.

Second, religiosity as a political category began to fade, and that might be good news in the long run. Right now, both sides having religious themes lead to mutual accusations of not being “real Muslim.” (The Gulen movement blames the Erdogan camp for being corrupt and hypocritical, whereas the Erdogan camp blames the Gulenists as the fifth column of Zionists.) But, in the long run, Turks might gradually understand that being religious does not explain much in itself when it comes to political matters. And this might open the way for the appreciation of political secularism.

One of the insightful observers of the Erdogan-Gulen war, Mucahit Bilici, who teaches sociology at City University of New York and writes a column in the Turkish daily Taraf, underlined this prospect in a recent interview. He said that soon Turkey would be “saturated” with religiosity, and “new principles will be needed for managing the conflicts among the religious people.” This, he added “will make us truly secular for the first time.”

Turkey would be lucky if the prediction of Bilici — himself a pious Muslim and a Nur follower — turns out to be true. For now, what is certain is that Turkey’s political landscape can change very rapidly, turning yesterday’s friends into enemies, and enemies into friends.

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Found in: turkey, secularists, religion in turkish politics, recep tayyip erdogan, political conflict, islam, gulen movement, fethullah gulen

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for LibertyAkyol is currently a visting senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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