[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Mainstream Turkish media loves to be alarmist about the creeping Islamization of Turkey. Especially since the conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, fear mongering about the shariah imposers has become the main theme of the secularist press. Some fear that we will soon become another Iran. Others worry that we will turn into another Malaysia (which doesn’t sound too bad, actually). Even the non-delusional secularists, which make up a tiny minority, are deeply concerned about the rise of Islam.
I beg to differ completely. No, Turkey is not getting more religious. It is actually getting more secular. And from a devout perspective, that is in fact a reason for concern.
Conservative But Relaxed
I am speaking here out of, not my sixth sense, but objective social research. Almost every survey about Turkish society finds that religious observance is becoming more visible but also less dense. The most recent study carried out by the US-based Pew Research Center came to the same conclusion. As also reported by the Turkish Daily News with a sum-it-up-all headline, Conservative But Relaxed About It, the survey found out that the conservativization of Turkey was only in appearance. Indeed, with rising levels of education and income, the country has become more flexible and less conservative. And, the number of people not fasting and not praying or who have a positive attitude toward dating has increased.
This, as I noted, is the exact opposite of what most urban secularist Turks believe. And their misconception of the reality might well be related to the fact that they have faced it just recently. Before the AKP’s ascendance, they were not just clueless but also uninterested about the role of religion in society. And when they took a look at it, they were shocked.
A conversation I recently had with a secularist colleague of mine told me much. If you go to the little towns of Central Anatolia, he was anxiously telling me, you feel as if you are in the Middle East. In return, I asked him whether those same places felt like Amsterdam or Southern California before the AKP came to power. He didn’t have much to say.
An overlooked element in the ongoing secularization of Turkey is the loss of the true meaning of religion. Nilüfer Narlı of the Bahçeşehir University, as again reported by the TDN, notes: religion loses its significance as a practice while it gets stronger in terms of belonging, as an identity. If you are a believer in Muslim nationalism, as I call that approach, you can think that this is fine. But if you are a believer in the Muslim faith, which focuses on not your social label but your relationship with God, then you should be concerned.
I think one bad outcome of this identity-based religiosity is the uncivilized reactions we sometimes see against those who go against its norms. The cases of harassment against people who consume or sell alcohol during the Ramadan are a good example. Please note that nobody is harassed in this country for not going to the mosque when the daily prayer time comes. But those who are considered disrespectful by profaning the holy month can receive an insult or, unfortunately, even a fist.
Then perhaps it is not an accident that the perpetrators of such Ramadan attacks in Turkey are often the ülkücüs, i.e., the militant nationalists that favor the Nationalist Action Party (the MHP), rather than the mosque-going traditional conservatives who would sympathize with the AKP. In the past some ülkücüs have also attacked young guys with long hair, earrings, or tattooed chests. That kind of outfit, they believe, is not just a degeneration of, but also an insult to, Turkishness. (So, I would suggest you to be careful about the distinction between ülkücüs and devout Muslims. The Ramadan vigilantes come very often from the former camp.)
Class Struggle Revisited
The secularization of society is evident in the loss of not just of the meaning of religion, but also religiosity itself. To see how this takes place, you should note that religion is very much linked to class in this country. The mosque community is often made up of people with rural backgrounds and low level-incomes. As you move up the social ladder, observance and even faith becomes less and less present. In the very posh districts of Istanbul, you will find more followers of New Age cults or simple hedonism than Islam.
Those upscale secular Turks fear that conservatives will dominate the country and forcibly convert them. But actually the reverse is happening. As society gets richer, the culture of the upper class spreads to the lower classes, too. If this trend continues, as it happened in Europe, Turkish society might become quite areligious in a few decades.
The only remedy to this secularization process can be the modernization of the form of religion. If devout Muslims can reframe their faith in a structure that will appeal to the urban middle class, as Americans Protestants have been able to do, then things will de different. Then Turkey might not just avoid extreme secularization, but also become the crucible of the modern interpretation of Islam.