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State and Religion in Turkiye

  • 04 Kasım 2008
Religion and Society
New Perspectives form Türkiye (Turkey)
Ali Bardakoğlu, President of Religious Affairs – Türkiye

The State and Religion in Modern Türkiye (Turkey)*

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to be with you today. It is a privilege for me to share my thoughts on the state and religion in Modern Turkey. I would like to thank the organizers for creating this opportunity for me. I hope that this talk will shed some light on the issue of the state and religion in modern Turkey and answer some of your questions.

As the title of my talk suggests, I will focus on the relation between the state and religion, including modernization and secularization in Turkey. You may ask why we should talk about Turkey, or what is the significance of the Turkish experience? In my view, Turkey as a secular nation state with a rich historical legacy and dominantly Muslim population needs to be carefully examined. Such an examination will yield many clues regarding how Islam and democracy, religion and modernization can exist in secular nation state. A study of modern Turkey will also provide some answers to the questions that many Muslim nations are facing today.

Now let me justify why Turkey stands out as an important case study in understanding state-religion relations, the establishment of democracy and the emergence of a moderate perception of Islam. The following questions, which I will try to answer in my talk, indicate the importance of the Turkish experience. What makes Turkey different from other Muslim countries? What are the sources of the moderate perception and understanding of Islam in Turkey? Can Islam and democracy coexist? How far can democracy establish freedom for religious diversity?

In order to answer these questions properly we need to place Turkey in its social, political and cultural context. Otherwise, if we are unable to perceive the continuity and change which Turkey has undergone, we will not be able to find the correct answers.

When considered in this context we may understand the Turkish experience better by keeping the following classifications in mind: (i) the Ottoman experience, (ii) the process of modernization and secularization, (iii) the tradition of intra and inter-religious dialogue that also made democracy and secularization stronger, (iv) the function of the Presidency of Religious Affairs regarding modernity and dialogue.

Now let me share my views with you about what makes Turkey special and different from many other countries. First of all, Turkey occupies a unique place among the modern nation states. Turkey lies at the crossroads of eastern and western strategic, political and economic interests, not only from a geopolitical, but also from cultural and religious points of view. On the other hand, Turkey possesses a cultural and religious legacy from many civilizations. It has inherited a great legacy from the past and has re-interpreted it in line with modernity. When we examine the Turkish experience we can see that modernization, democratization and secularization all started before the establishment of modern Turkey. Therefore, it is important to examine the roots of these developments when analyzing the Turkish experience.

Legacy of reform: sources of modernization, democratization and secularization

In the later periods of the Ottoman state and society, modern western ideas were already present. Ottoman statesmen and intellectuals laid the grounds of modernization and westernization. These efforts were widely accepted and expanded on by the early republican elite circles in the formative period of modern Turkey. The Turkish Republic inherited and adopted some of the ideas and practices of the old regime.1 Therefore, it is necessary to look at how modern ideas entered and started to shape Turkish political culture during the Ottoman Empire.2

Starting from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of military and economic decline. This led to the emergence of new ideas on the necessity of reforms in political, economic and military fields, as well as in the area of education.3 Broadly speaking, modernization, westernization and secularization in the Ottoman Empire can be viewed in several periods, caused by significant events. Early modernization efforts and western influences can be traced back to the impact of the French Revolution; by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Ottoman State had started to lose control over the periphery of the empire.4

The Ottoman legal system was based on the Islamic legal system. As an important part of the modernization and westernization process, secular laws were introduced, although the mainframe of Islamic law was protected and codified. The secularization of the law started before the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic. Thus the position of the Sheikh-ul-Islam was removed from the cabinet and the Sharia courts were brought under the control of a secular ministry of justice. Traditional institutions of learning (madrasas) were also brought under the control of the Ministry of Education and a new program was introduced for them.

Religion and secularization in Turkey

Political, social and religious developments in modern Turkey were marked by the ideals of modernism and secularism.5 The separation of religion and politics was seen as an essential step to opening the doors to western values. Therefore, secularism was adopted as one of the foundation stones and central tenets of modernization, as it was thought to be indispensable to its accomplishment.6

There were some significant secularization reforms in the symbolic sphere. The alphabet was changed from Arabic to Latin.7 Western style of clothing was introduced.8 The Gregorian calendar was adopted. Western music was taught in schools. The weekly holiday was changed from Friday to Sunday.9

The first step in institutional secularization was to abolish the Caliphate, to start a transformation from an ummah to a national entity. With the abolition of the Caliphate, the principles of political legitimacy were changed so as to exclude Islam as a source of legitimacy and political loyalty to the state. Despite the abolition of the Caliphate, however, the Constitution of 1924 still preserved Islam as the state religion.10 But later in that year, the office of the Şeyhülislam and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Pious Foundations were abolished.11 However, in the same year the office of the current Presidency of Religious Affairs was established.

Functional secularization was carried out by the secularization of the court system and by the introduction of the Law for the Unification of Instruction (Tevhid-i Tedrisat), under which all educational establishments came under the control of the state.12 Legal secularization was accomplished by the adoption of a new civil code13 based on a Swiss code.

Despite the secularization effort of the public sphere and promotion of secular values, Islam remained as one of the major identity references. And it still continues to be an effective social reality that shapes the fabric of Turkish society.

The religious profile of modern Turkish society and the role of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet)

Approximately 99 percent of the population in Turkey is Muslim. However, Islam is not a monolithic religion. Although the majority of the Muslim population belong to the Sunni interpretation of Islam, the current perception and practice of Islam varies from mystical to folk Islam and from conservative to a more moderate one. In addition to the country’s Sunni Muslims there are also Alawis groups as part of the larger Muslim community. In fact, the Alawi perception of religion cannot be treated as something outside of Islam. There is a great diversity of interpretation in the history of Islam. Alawis, like the Sunni majority, do not possess a monolithic structure either. They have a diversity of interpretations and dozens of competing associations which reflect the varieties of Islam in Turkish society.14

As pointed out earlier, the Republican elite abolished a number of institutions as part of the modernization program. The traditional offices responsible for delivering religious services were also closed down. However, the modern Turkish state claimed the responsibility for the organization and administration of religious affairs. Therefore, the Diyanet was established as a public institution. The Diyanet was made responsible for the administration of religious affairs in the areas of Islamic faith, practices and moral principles. The organization of mosques and the task of informing people about Islam also became primary responsibilities of the Diyanet. When we look at the aims and the organization of the Diyanet, we can see that it did not merely emerge as a bureaucratic institution, but rather as part of a project to establish moral religiosity.

The establishment of the Diyanet can also be seen as a response to the problem of sustaining public stability in the area of religious affairs and as a way to meet the public demand for satisfactory religious services. Here, I would like to underline the fact that the absence of a clergy in Islam does not mean that religious affairs are administered casually or that religious services are provided in a disorganized manner in Muslim societies.

The organizational structure and functions of the Diyanet

1- The Diyanet is a public institution: It is, structurally, part of the state mechanism and the bureaucratic system. The Diyanet’s place in the state organization and whether this contradicts the secular nature of the state has been an ongoing controversial issue among legal experts and scholars in Turkey. This issue is related to how one understands secularism. The position of the Diyanet within the state organization is not in contradiction with secularism, according to the following principles that are upheld in Turkey: (a) Religion should not be a dominant or effective agent in state affairs. (b) The provision of unrestricted freedom for the religious beliefs of individuals and religious liberties are under constitutional protection. (c) The prevention of the misuse and exploitation of religion is essential for the protection of public interest. (d) The state has the authority to ensure the provision of religious rights and freedoms as the protector of public order and rights.

The Diyanet is not a Sunni organization, since it has a public character representing all Muslims with different religious backgrounds and practices. It does not follow a policy towards spreading the Sunni interpretation of Islam either. It embraces a policy to provide Muslims with a true knowledge of Islam, but it allows people to find their own way.

2- The Diyanet is an independent institution: The Diyanet enjoys freedom in scholarly activities, in intellectual discussions of Islamic issues and in the production of religious knowledge. Here, I would like to emphasize that the Diyanet conducts its affairs freely without any restriction when providing religious services.

It plans and executes its policies and practices based on scholarly findings and experience. Utmost care is given in making the best choices and finding the most original solutions among all available interpretations, without external pressure. At this point, I would like to draw your attention to our understanding of secularism in Turkey.

Secularism in Turkey does not mean the exclusion of religion from our lives. It means the separation of the affairs of religion and state. This does not mean the intervention of the state in the interpretation of religion, because such an intervention would contradict the very essence of secularism.

Secularism in Turkey provides freedom for individuals and public institutions in the interpretation of religion and in the production and transmission of religious knowledge. Therefore, the Diyanet exercises scholarly and intellectual freedom in its religious interpretations.

3- The Diyanet is a civil institution: The Diyanet emerged as a response to the religious needs of Muslim believers. Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population and the people need to learn about their religion freely in the light of authentic scholarship. The Diyanet was established to meet such needs in society; it, therefore, has a democratic and civil basis. In that sense, it does not have a policy of imposing a particular model of religiosity on people. It does not support an essentialist idea of Islam.

The Diyanet takes religious demands and traditional forms into account when delivering its services. However, if there is a departure from the shared and sustained perception, then authentic knowledge is promoted; the Diyanet tries to educate people about their religious beliefs and practices in the light of sound knowledge and scholarship.

These three (public, independent and civil) aspects of the Diyanet explain its current structure and function. They also indicate that the Diyanet faces numerous challenges as an institution.

Today, Turkey emerge sas a country that supports a moderate, tolerant and inclusive perception of Islam. The widespread perception of Islam in Turkey is not radical, fundamental or exclusivist. One of the reasons for such a moderate understanding of Islam in Turkish society is the fact that democratic culture has existed in Turkey for a long time. Since its establishment, Turkey has improved its democracy and now it acts as a good example among other Muslim countries. What we see in Turkey is that democratic culture promotes tolerance, participation, a civil society and moderation. It is clear that other Muslim countries and societies also need democracy today more than at any other period in history.


If we have a moderate perception of Islam in Turkey today, it is thanks to the establishment of democratic culture, which has played a great role in this achievement. I suppose democracy in return owes the moderate perception of Islam its ability to gain ground in Turkey. I would like to point out that the moderate perception of Islam in Turkey is also rooted in the fact that different trends, ideas and views of Islam can be expressed freely. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the Turkish population is Muslim. But Islam does not have a monolithic nature in Turkey. The interpretation of Islam may differ from group to group. There is room for all views and interpretations.

As I stated at the beginning of my talk, Turkey offers an excellent example of a case study for those who are trying to find answers to the following questions: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? How far can religion and secularism be reconciled? To what extent can religious liberty be extended in a secular state? As the answers to these questions will show, the Turkish experience deserves a closer examination.


* This paper was presented at a conference held by the University of Chicago, The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, USA, on 13 April 2005

1 Ergun Özbudun, “The Continuing Ottoman Legacy and the State Tradition in the Middle East”, in Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East, (ed) L. Carl Brown, 1996, p. 133.

2 Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1993, p.15; for a detailed examination of the imperial legacy on the Turkish Republic see Michael Meeker, A Nation of Empire: the Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, pp. 3-85.

3 Niyazi Berkes, The Development of Secularism in Modern Turkey, London: Hurst and Company, 1998, pp. 24-27.

4 For authoritative discussions on this issue see Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey: reform, revolution and republic, the rise of modern Turkey, 1808-1975, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1977; Roderic H. Davison, Reform in the Ottoman Empire : 1856-1876, Princeton: Princeton University, 1963; Selçuk Akşin Somel, The Modernization of Public Education in the Ottoman Empire: 1839-1908 Islamization, autocracy and discipline, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001.

5 Kemal Karpat, Modern Turkey, in The Cambridge History of Islam, P. M. Holt, et al (eds.), 1970, vol I, p. 528; Yael Navaro-Yashin, Faces of the State: Secularism and Public life in Turkey, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

6 Walter F. Weiker, The Modernization of Turkey, New York: Holmes Meier, 1981, p. 105; S. M. Akural, “Kemalist Views on Social Change”, in Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey, (ed.) Jacob M. Landau, 1984, p. 126.

7 B. Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 398; G. L. Lewis, “Ataturk’s language Reform as an Aspect of Modernization in the Republic of Turkey”, in Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey, (ed.) Jacob M. Landau, 1984, p. 195; Karpat, op cit, p. 535.

8 Andrew Davison, Secularism and Revivalism in Turkey, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 150.

9 Akural, op cit, p. 45.

10 Karpat, op cit, p. 533-4.

11 Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel K. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey: Reform, Revolution and Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, vol 2, p. 384

12 M. Winter, “The Modernization of Education in Modern Turkey”, in Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey, Jacob M. Landau(ed.), 1984, p. 186, Berkes, op. cit., p. 4

13 Shaw and Shaw, op. cit., vol 2, p. 385.

14 See İlyas Üzüm, Günümüz Aleviliği, (Contemporary Alawism), Istanbul: TDV İsam publications, 1997; İlyas Üzüm, Kültürel Kaynaklarına Göre Alevilik , Istanbul: Horasan Yayınları, 2002; David Shankland, The Alevis in Turkey, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.


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