A Unique Democratic and Secular Islamic Country
The Turkish Republic: A Unique Democratic and Secular Islamic Country
Turkey is one of the few secular and democratic Muslim countries. Ninety-nine percent of the population is said to be Muslim – although the definition of “being Muslim” in Turkey makes it unlikely that all of these Muslims practice orthodox Islam. In most of the other Islamic countries, Sharia, Allah’s Law for Muslims, dominates the constitution and the legal system, so that the state and the religion are united. Separation of the state and religion remains alien and unrealistic to such countries. In contrast with the constitutions in many other Islamic states, the Turkish Constitution forbids the religious laws from dominating government and society and requires that the state and religion be separated (Article 2, Turkish Constitution [revised in 1982]).
The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and a period of revolution and reformation led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who became Turkey’s first president. When the new republic was formed, the government took many precautions to prevent Islam from being as influential in governance as it was during Ottoman times. Among these reforms were replacing the Arabic alphabet with the Roman alphabet, which is more suited to expressing the Turkish language; granting equal rights to women; and reforming education, including the elimination of compulsory religion courses and the introduction of evolution theory as an important part of the biology curriculum. Prayers once recited only in Arabic were translated into Turkish, so that everyone could understand them; religious education based in extremist sectarian centers called Tekkes, Tariqas, and Zaviyes was banned; and a new legal system based on a European model was adopted. In 10 years (1923-1933), a new modern Western country, with a new identity and ideology, was quickly created from an oriental empire. There was a clear-cut shift in the whole state precept, including secularism.
When Atatürk died in 1938, there were still many other reforms of governmental and cultural affairs to be finished, for the improvement of the new country. After 1950, the Enlightenment-based ideals and reforms of the revolution started to decline. Right-wing and conservative cliques and political parties were ready to exploit the weaknesses of the inexperienced government. Some of the social changes and civil rights attained by the revolution in 1923 were lost. Some politicians appealed to the uneducated and illiterate majority of Turks, who were still very religious and strongly influenced by local religious authorities (Sheiks and Mullahs), who promised a return to the good old Ottoman days. This turmoil continued until the military coup in 1960. A new constitution based on a Western legal system was approved in 1961, which banned efforts to support the establishment of a non-secular religious state based on Sharia Law.
Despite this setback, fundamentalist self-assertion continued into the 1970s. Various fundamentalist parties founded and headed by Necmettin Erbakan were able to attract as much as 9% of the vote, while other right-wing parties also continued to appeal to religious sentiments in order to attain power. In 1980 a right-wing junta headed by Kenan Evren took power, warning of the threat of communism. This was a milestone for the fundamentalists and extreme religious groups, which started to gain even more power. Soon Evren was succeeded by Turgut Özal, an active member of a religious order.
Fundamentalist groups organized within the government, in the bureaucracy, in the armed forces, and among the public, while the secularist, leftist opposition was suppressed. During the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of writers, scientists, journalists, and ordinary people suffered years of imprisonment for criticizing Evren’s regime. During this period, no critique of or comment on the possible consequences of the deeds of the government was allowed, since this would be considered a thought crime – the equivalent of being involved in a conspiracy against the Republic, and being a separatist or even a communist. The fundamentalist vote increased to about 20% through the 1990s before declining to 16% in 1999. The main aim of one of these fundamentalist parties (known as the Welfare [Refah] Party), as stated many times by Erbakan and other party members in public talks, was to establish a theocratic and Sharia-based state (as in Iran or Afghanistan) through civil war and to promote Jihad (religious war).
By the late 1990s, things began to change. On February 28, 1997, the National Security Council responded to the fundamentalists and took steps to protect the constitution and the secular-democratic structure of the state by issuing a strong declaration that the Turkish military would protect the constitution and its secular and democratic system by any means necessary. The government toppled, and in 1998, the supreme court revoked Erbakan’s senatorship and disbanded the Welfare Party. A few months later, the fundamentalists re-organized under the name of the Virtue (Fazilet) Party.
The Islamic version of “scientific creationism”, as promoted by BAV, sprang up and gained power under these circumstances in the early 1990s, with the support of the Islamic fundamentalists and radical Islamic sects (tariqas).