What is the History of Secularism in Turkey?

I find world news events extremely interesting To observe and understand what is happening in the world, beyond your own country offers you a fresh perspective on things Comparing with one’s own country and seeing what’s right or wrong compels you to introspect.

This is the superficial headline What’s more interesting is the events that happened before it which ultimately led to this decision What is the story of secularism in Turkey? And what is the story of the Turkish President- Erdogan? Come,

History of Turkey

Turkey is a Muslim majority country. The religion of more than 98% people here is Islam Along with Indonesia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan Turkey is counted as one of the most secular Muslim majority countries in the world I will not go too much into detail about its history but I’d like to tell you a brief summary because it is quite relevant Ottoman Empire reigned in Turkey until World War 1 After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, General Ataturk liberated Turkey in 1923 Ataturk was a dictator but he was one of the few dictators in the world who can be put into the category of “benevolent dictators” Generally, the dictators destroy the entire country for their selfish motives Benevolent dictators are those that actually do good work for the public and take the country on the path of progress and development Ataturk was one of the very few dictators across history, who actually did good work In case you are wondering, there haven’t been many dictators like that he wanted Turkey to be a secular country In 1924, the new Turkish Constitution was adopted And in 1928, Islam was removed as a state religion from Turkey Right from the start, Ataturk did not want interference of religion in politics He wanted to keep religion completely separate from the government and politics Several steps were taken in the subsequent years to achieve this For example, the Ministry of Sharia was disbanded, Islamic schools were banned and the mosques were brought under government control Polygamy was banned. Men and women were given equal rights By 1930s,

the women were given voting rights Covering of the face was banned for the government employees, especially for the women and the rest were discouraged from doing so Talking of primary education, co-education schools were started where boys and girls studied together Compulsory education was introduced The principles of Ataturk were inspired from the French secularism In French secularism, the state and religion are kept so separate from one another that people cannot even show off their religion in public spaces, For example, wearing a burkha is not allowed Religious symbols cannot be shown off in a public space or if you are a government employee.

This is quite different from the secularism that is practiced in India and America That was about France. In India and America, it is acceptable to show off one’s religion Wearing of religious clothing and religious symbols is not prohibited in India All of this is allowed in India and is freely practiced The Indian and the US secularism allows the “show off” of religion but it is not allowed in the secularism of France and Turkey After the passing away of Ataturk, democracy finally came to Turkey in 1950 and free and fair elections began to be conducted for the first time But despite the secular movement that went on for years, the results of the elections made one thing clear that majority of the Turkish public was not convinced with secularism They wanted to display their religion publicly and they kept voting for the Islamist right-wing candidates repeatedly in the elections But the responsibility of maintaining a secular constitution of Turkey was assigned by Ataturk to the Turkish Army/Turkish military It is written in the Constitution that it is the Turkish Military that is responsible “for guarding and defending the Turkish republic as defined by the Constitution”

Rise of Erdogan

Talking about the present day President of Turkey, Erdogan, he started his career by becoming the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s As the mayor, he did a lot of good work like tackling the pollution problem, solving the issue of traffic congestion and tackling the problem of water shortages So he had a positive image because he had done a lot of work for the welfare of the public In 2001, he founded his party- Justice and Development Party Its abbreviation in Turkish is AKP The leaders of this party reiterated that this was not an Islamist party They believed in the noninterference of religion in politics and keeping both separate Erdogan’s image was seen as a “modern Muslim” The public saw him as a leader who respected religion and wanted progress and development. He did not involve religion in politics unnecessarily The public wanted to practice the Indian/USA version of secularism in Turkey and not the French version of secularism They wanted to be able to show their religion and religious traditions in the public life.

Erdogan and his party reflected the wishes of the people and due to his previous track record of good work, based on that, he won the election in 2002 in which he secured an absolute majority in the Parliament and Erdogan became the Turkish Prime Minister Right after becoming the Prime Minister, Erdogan passed pro-democratic reforms, For example, making the judiciary stronger, reducing the role of the military supporting and further strengthening human rights due to which the country witnessed great economic growth Infrastructure development soared across the country, foreign investment began to flow in and Turkey saw great economic growth, For example, Turkey was witnessing an average of 6-7% GDP growth rate in the period between 2002-07 The deficit of Turkey was 15% in 2002. It fell to 3.5% by 2010 Public debt was 77% in 2001 By 2013, it had fallen to a mere 40% Not just economically, Erdogan did a lot for the welfare of the people as well for example, increasing the spending on healthcare and education In 2000, the healthcare spending was around 5.4% of GDP In 2011, it increased to become 6.7% of the GDP Poverty almost came down to half in the period between 2002-15 Not just that, even the minorities within Turkey – for example, the Kurds who are an ethnic group in Turkey which comprise about 20% of the population They had been long demanding to be educated in their own language and Erdogan fulfilled that wish Along with that, the other minorities in Turkey- the Christian and Jewish minorities were also hugely supported by Erdogan in his initial years Erdogan won the election again in 2007 on the basis of his good work He became the Prime Minister again He won the election and became the Prime Minister for the third time in 2011 But by 2014, avarice took over him.

The problem was that according to the Party rules, a person could serve as Prime Minister for a maximum of 3 terms He was not allowed to serve as PM for more than 3 terms But Erdogan did not want to give up his seat of power Staying in power for so long had led him to become so proud that he was ready to do anything to retain his seat of power Due to this reason, he contested the election for the President in 2014 and he won the Presidential election The Turkish President, at that time, did not wield much power- just like the Indian President does not hold much power either- The post is largely ceremonial But Erdogan decided to assign more powers to the President (of Turkey) He wanted the power that he had as Prime Minister even when he was the President and so he got Constitutional reforms passed through his party to assign more powers to the President.

Fall of Erdogan

As mentioned earlier, Ataturk had assigned to the Turkish military the responsibility of protecting the constitution of the country, under any circumstances So, this was a time when Erdogan was busy with reforming the Constitution to secure power So, the Turkish military did what they had already done four times earlier: They attempted a military coup They attempted to strip Erdogan off his powers and overturn the government But this time, the military coup failed During the coup, Erdogan broadcasted a video message and asked all the party supporters in the country to come out of their homes and to stop the military from carrying out the coup It was the age of social media and this message traveled very fast All the supporters of AKP came out and stopped the military coup and Erdogan saved his seat of power There is a very famous quote,

which you might have heard: Power tends to corrupt. But absolute power corrupts absolutely And this quote is very valid in this case After the failed military coup of 2016, Erdogan was determined in 2017 to go to any extent to save his seat of power Erdogan passed Constitutional reforms in April 2017 to transfer all the powers of the Prime Minister to the President and the post of the Prime minister would be abolished and completely done away with So, only the President would remain the executive head of the government Erdogan conducted a referendum among the Turkish public to get these Constitutional reforms passed and he won the referendum by a very narrow majority But there are suspicions that this election was not free and fair And that he committed a fraud in the elections due to which he won the referendum and assigned all the powers of the Prime Minister to himself and he became a President with absolute power When the presidential elections were conducted again in 2018, Erdogan won the election again There are allegations of voter frauds and election frauds in this election as well due to which Erdogan was able to win this election But the lust for power made Erdogan forget the job of the politician- The welfare of the people and the development of the country Erdogan was so busy securing power, that he forgot to do the basic job After 2016-17, the Turkish economy began to slump Unemployment began to soar and debt crisis began to loom The debt of the country began to widen.

Economic Downfall of Turkey

The currency of Turkey- the Turkish lira, lost 30% of its value in comparison to the US dollar Inflation crossed 10% and the GDP growth rate stayed in the range of 0-1% in the past few years in Turkey What do you think will happen in such a case? The public would get upset. The journalists would begin to criticize Erdogan that he had destroyed the country in a bid to secure his power Unemployment is soaring, Inflation is rising, the economy is crashing but Erdogan is more interested in his seat of power and is busy doing politics to secure it What do you think Erdogan will do in this case? Erdogan did exactly what every dictator would do in such a case He put all the journalists behind bars In fact, not just the journalists, anyone from the public who spoke up against him was jailed be it teachers, doctors, lawyers- they were all either fired from their jobs or were put behind bars Everyone who criticized him was put in jail This was carried out in Turkey to such an extent in the past few years that it was given a specific name- “Purges of Erdogan” So many people were fired from their jobs in the army, education systems, and the government jobs that it began to be referred as “purges”

Today, the number 1 country where the most number of journalists are behind bars Can you guess which country is that? It is Turkey The number of journalists jailed in Turkey surpasses any other country in the world- even China This is the extent to which freedom of speech is being stifled under Erdogan Now, in this case, let us think from Erdogan’s perspective A person who lusts for power- not in a position to save the economy and in the absence of freedom of speech- what can he do to gain the support of the public? Make a guess! A populace that is already gullible in terms of religion What could be done to gain their support? Get them further distracted by matters of faith Distract and incite them in the name of religion to distract them from issues of economy and unemployment and so that they vote for you in the name of religion.

Religion and Politics

This is what Erdogan did! 2017-18 saw the reopening of Islamic schools- The Imam Hatib schools They were given double the funding, as compared to normal schools Erdogan started the construction of more mosques In May 2019, he inaugurated the largest mosque in Istanbul This largest mosque can hold 63,000 worshipers There is an art gallery of 3,500 square meters and a parking lot of 3,500 vehicles So much money was spent in constructing the largest mosque of Istanbul while the country’s economy was plummeting and the people were roaming unemployed Despite that, money was diverted here.

Why? Because it is very easy to sway people by religious propaganda Similarly, the next technique was to assign the blame for one’s own faults to the country’s minorities The remaining minorities in the country- the Christians and the Jews were used as a scapegoat The AKP party leaders began to give hate speeches against the minorities and violent attacks against them began to take place Attacks on churches, formulating anti minority conspiracy theories and making them viral on social media And now, Assigning the Hagia Sophia museum the status of a mosque Another move solely to appease the majority and distract the public from the economy Infact, there is a ray of hope because the people are not that stupid after all A latest survey, as reported by the Arab news say that 55% of the public that this decision of conversion to a mosque has been taken because Erdogan wants to distract the public from the economic issues The story of the Hagia Sophia monument is quite extensive It was built as a church in the 6th Century AD At it remained a church for the next thousand years until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire came and the church was converted into a mosque It remained a mosque until 1934 In 1934, Ataturk, whom we have talked about in detail- converted the mosque into a museum in order to signify that Turkey was now a secular country where all religions were respected equally So, you can say that it was a symbol of secularism in Turkey, ever since Turkey became independent So it was a museum since then until now And now Erdogan has decided to turn it back into a mosque After this decision, Erdogan has had to face international criticism from USA, Pope, UNESCO, United Nations- all have criticized this move Not only is this a political move to distract the public, it also raises a question on the secular credentials of Turkey Will Turkey continue to be a secular country in the coming times or not? In my opinion, we get to learn a clear cut lesson from this Look at how easy it is to distract and incite people in the name of religion! The same happens in India as well If you consider the historical buildings, So many buildings have been demolished and new ones have been constructed throughout human history How many of those are you going to keep a count of? So many temples have been demolished to construct mosques. So many mosques have been demolished to make churches So many churches have been demolished to make mosques How many of those are you going to replace? The easiest way, in my opinion, is to let them be in the modern time as they were in history.

There is no need to demolish something to build something new because we should accept history as it was So many kings have fought each other So much was destroyed and so much was newly constructed Let things remain as they turned out Otherwise, this is an endless discussion The Ram Mandir issue was raised due to similar reasons Someone wanted political power and so the people were incited in the name of religion They were told that they wanted the mandir that existed there again A similar thing is being done in the case of this mosque If we are debating on these issues today, on whether there should be a temple or a mosque or a church at a place, then understand that the politicians have already won It is a huge advantage for them if people debate and discuss on these things and get influenced by them The people would vote for them on the basis of this even if the economy is destroyed or even if no welfare of the public is thought about The people would still vote for such politicians This is very important to understand.

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