The prehistory of the current secular republican regime goes back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire began to set out the limits of state authority and the rights of citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim. The still ongoing tension between state and religion originated at the same period

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Amid ongoing socio-political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, and the troubling global financial crisis with its particular shock waves in neighbouring Mediterranean Europe, Turkey has been the subject of global focus because of its relatively sound economy and its decade-long political stability under the single-party government of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, which has been a source of inspiration for the restructuring of politics through social religiosity in various parts of the Arab world. This sounds even more surprising since back in the 1980s, Leonard Binder, identified the Turkish system with bureaucratic centralization and bureaucratic authoritarianism, questioning its viability. The generally tense interrelation of the state and religion constitutes the traditional bedrock of the Turkish system of modern times which has been undergoing a self-balancing under the rule of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its single-party governments over the last decade along a fluctuating line of liberalism.

Before the Republic

The political ideology that encodes the secular regime of Turkey predates the emergence of the Republican regime which amounted to a formal embodiment of the ingrained secularist ideology that developed in the context of nation-building in the late-Ottoman era. The reform movement which marked an initial break with the past is known to have come through the Sened-i I.ttifak (The Document of Consensus), a constitutional document adopted by the Ottoman Empire in 1808 which potentially defined the authority of the state and the rule of law in relation to the governor and the governed. Thus, the power of the Sultan was partially balanced by the local notables who were the traditional representatives of the subjects of the Empire. In 1839, half a century after the French Revolution, the famous reform package of the Tanzimat Fermanı (the reorganization decree) was adopted. This was followed by the adaptation of the Islahat Fermanı (the reformation decree) in 1856. Both decrees involved substantive rules to safeguard the rights and responsibilities of Ottoman subjects and stressed the authority of the state. The Islahat Fermanı emphasised the rights of non-Muslim subjects in particular.

In the 1860s the concept of citizenship was adopted. Subsequent reforms aimed at the achievement of the equality and unity of Ottoman subjects through a common status of citizenship, regardless of their diversity at the level of religious affiliations. In 1876, this idea of a civic union was substantiated by the introduction of the Mecelle, ‘The Ottoman Civil Code’. This code excluded family law and thus avoided diversities that stemmed from the religious differences of Ottoman subjects. The gap caused by the exclusion of family law was filled by the Aile Hukuku Kararnamesi (the Decree on Family law), adopted in 1917, which comprised, in separate chapters, rulings of Islam, Judaism and Christianity with regard to family law. At that time Ottoman citizenship was, de facto, in abeyance: the Ottoman Empire was in a process of collapse as a result of its defeat in the First World War which was formally brought to an end by the Mondros Armistice Agreement on 30 October 1918. Eventually, a national liberation war under the command of Mustafa Kemal (later named Atatürk) took place which resulted in the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 24 July 1923, leading to the declaration of the Republic of Turkey on 29 October 1923.

Formally, a new regime was in the making but would it prove a total break with the past? Would it deliver the equality that the Ottoman system had striven for through its nineteenth-century legal and political reforms? Bernard Lewis in a comparative analysis of the transition from the Ottoman to the Republican regimes of Turkey, states:

In the Turkish Republic, the constitution and the law accorded complete equality to all citizens. Yet even on the official side, in the structure and the policies of the state, there were signs that, despite secularism and nationalism, the older idea that Muslim equals Turk and non-Muslim equals non-Turk persisted. The cosmopolitan Islamic Empire had assigned a definite place and a function to non-Muslim minorities; the nationalist Republic could offer little to those who either would not or could not join the dominating group. While on the one hand Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Anatolia were classed as Greeks and sent to Greece, the children of Muslim Bosniaks or Albanians, Kurds or Arabs settled in Istanbul were accepted as Turks. Significantly, religion still appeared on identity cards and other official documents, and the designation Turk was in common usage restricted to Muslims; the rest were known as Turkish citizens, but never Turks.

If Muslim Means Turk

Hence, Islam was given a pivotal role in defining the Turkish identity during the transitory period to the Republican regime. The ‘cosmopolitan Empire’ had fallen, but its spirit of political centralism through Islam as the bedrock of the Turkish establishment continued in the Republican regime. The intent of the Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century was to search for a system to surpass the dividing differences derived from religious law and politics and to implement a political principle that centralized the identity of the citizens in conformity with the self-centralization of the state authority. The Republican regime seized the opportunity to realize this underlying spirit of the Ottoman political reforms in a threefold plan:

  • firstly, by utilizing religion in forming the national identity as illustrated in the above quoted statements of Lewis;
  • secondly, by adopting an Islam without the sharia;
  • and, thirdly, by utilizing the Turkish language as the standard to characterize national identity.

Thus, Islam would glue the citizens together as a single unity, the secular legal system would treat all citizens as equal, and the official language of Turkish would govern the state and society in a developing national context. In fact, the role of religion in uniting all citizens remained effective and its political outcome was utilized by the national identity. On the other hand, the politico-legal embodiment of religion through public law and political authority had already been nullified. The caliphate was abolished in 1924 by the Turkish Grand National Assembly. This move was, ironically, defended by Seyyid Bey, who was a member of parliament but also an Islamic law professor, with references to shûrà or consultation as an Islamic principle of government opposing the caliphate. The abolition of the caliphate through the logic of Seyyid Bey’s argument diminished the idealized image of the caliphate as representing the entire Muslim community in the world, since parliament, in replacing the caliphate, was definitely national and represented the nation-state rather than the umma.

On 3 March 1924 the Directorate of Religious Affairs was established by law number 429 which entrusted this Directorate with the executive task of managing religious affairs as regards faith and worship, as well as the administration of religious institutions. The authority and mission of the Directorate was without legislative power, which was to be exclusively held by parliament. In fact, this was not only a clear and official mark of the separation of religion from the state: it was also an indelible demarcation of the legal zone for the reforms that followed. On 3 March 1924, by law number 430, known as the Tevhid-i Tedrisat Kanunu (the Law for the Unification of Education), all educational institutions, including religious ones, were united under the Ministry of National Education, and thus religious education, in a way, was deprived of its autonomy. More reforms in the fields of civil law, criminal law, etc. followed in the late-1920s and the 1930s.

The Islamic and Ottoman legal legacy was replaced by contemporary European laws and eventually the Constitution was amended in 1937 to indicate expressly that laïcité was one of the most basic characteristics of the state. In a way, this marked the most official end of sharia-based legal authority in relation to the government of the state. On the other hand, an Islam without sharia law had already started to play a considerable role in fostering the national identity. Meanwhile, the alphabet was changed from Arabic-based Ottoman to Latin-based Turkish in 1928. The Turkish language was gradually given a role in uniting the citizens around the same identity. Earlier, the designation ‘Turk’ meant a Muslim citizen of Turkey but now the citizens would unite through the Turkish language which had no tension with the principle of laïcité, differently from Islam in its supranational political capacity. At some stage, religious services, too, were meant to be performed in Turkish and the call to prayers was shifted from its original Arabic to Turkish in 1932. This lasted until 1950 when the original Arabic was again permitted under the single-party strong rule of the Democratic Party.

In fact, Turkey had at that time recently started moving toward a multi-party election system. The first such election was held in 1946 and this led to a bi-partisan parliament with a small Democratic Party in opposition. However, in 1950, the second election of the multi-party system period ¬produced a crushing victory for the Democratic Party which applied relatively liberal policies in the field of long suppressed popular aspirations to religious freedom.

A Price to Pay However

This policy had a price to pay for religion: its exposure to political manipulation. The Democratic Party and its later offshoots adopting right-wing conservative politics were considered religion-friendly parties while the left-wing political parties were ideologically opposed to religion or conservative values. Thus, religion through its conservative lineage would have the function in politics of combating ideologies that were revolutionary in modern terms. The Cold War era offered an invaluable context for the interaction of religion and politics in the broader context of the struggle between right- and the left-wing ideologies. Traditional political discourses proved that the right-wing could follow a pragmatic path in its approach to religion through the politics of engagement, while the left opted for a radical disengagement policy to ensure that religion remained in an individual context in line with the laïcité of the political regime of Republican Turkey. In the late-1970s, in particular, violence and anarchy based on rivalry in political ideologies among students at high schools and universities escalated and eventually provided a pretext for the military coup of 12 September 1980, establishing a dictatorship which ruled the country until the general elections of 1983.

Meanwhile, a new Constitution was drafted and then adopted by a referendum in 1982. This Constitution, which has remained in force, made religious education compulsory in high schools, through its article 24 on religious freedom and conscience. Given that the violence and the upheavals of the 1970s were still vivid in the public mind, religious instruction was presumably seen as a way of promoting peace and harmony amongst young people. Meanwhile, this was tantamount to an official substantiation of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis to achieve a new interpretation of official ideology. A Turkish Islam was ever more in the making. The 1924 educational reforms had long ago outlawed the traditional madrasas (colleges) and led to the disappearance of the classic ‘ulamâ’ (scholars). They were replaced by academics and scientists with modern educational standards. The supreme public authority for evaluating religious knowledge was solely entrusted to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet I.s¸leri Bas¸kanlıg˘ı). Needless to say, the very existence of the Directorate of Religious Affairs demonstrated how peculiar Turkish laïcité was since the state is secular by its Constitution, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs is a government institution funded by state resources.

Despite the extensive de facto interaction between the state and religion, the rise of political Islam reflected the potential conflict and tension between the secular nature of the state and the political aspirations of religion in laying claim to the public domain. The wearing of headscarves by female students inside university buildings has, until recently, been a point of severe tension. The wearing of a headscarf in universities was perceived as a political challenge by religion in violation of the secular nature of the state. Ironically, political activists taking part in demonstrations in support of wearing a headscarf in universities on the basis that it was commanded by God did not engage in demonstrations for the return of an Islamic legal system as a whole. Hence, it was presumably the politics of identity that caused tensions through symbolism in dress, rather than a substantial confrontation between the state and religion. Whatever the case, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the closure of pro-Islamist political parties on the charge that they were covertly aiming at changing the secular nature of the state to achieve a political Islamic regime. The ban on headscarves at universities was on the other end a response to a perceived a challenge to the laïcité of the Turkish establishment.

In November 2002 the Justice and Development Party, which was founded in 2001 mainly by a progressive current of traditionally pro-Islamic politicians, won a landslide victory at the general election and formed a strong single-party government. It has since been in power continuously. This long-lasting, and then repeated electoral victory, with a booming economy in Turkey, a strong ruling elite, and a relatively efficient role in partnership with the West through NATO and the EU in global conflict resolution and crisis management, marginalized traditional fears that religious symbolism represented an incipient political Islam in violation of the secular nature of the state. Indeed, the Justice and Development Party’s theoreticians have time and again emphasized that their party is ‘conservative democrat’ rather than political Islamist.

Meanwhile, women wearing headscarves amidst political tension with the state’s secular bureaucracy de-emphasized this practice, stressing that it was an individual preference and not a political call for a change of regime. Thus, the political Islam of the 1980s and 1990s has been replaced by a cultural conservatism, with its aspirations to affluent living standards and individual freedom for religiosity in social contexts. Despite this relative and natural normalization of relations between the state and religion, Turkey still has serious tasks ahead of it: its enduring Kurdish question remains unresolved; its Alawite issue remains to be addressed in relation of religion and the state; and its democratic reform process needs to be accelerated in line with the prospects for EU membership.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Osman Taştan, “The Ottoman Roots of Turkish Secularity”, Oasis, year VIII, n. 15, June 2012, pp. 46-50.

Online version:
Osman Taştan, “The Ottoman Roots of Turkish Secularity”, Oasis [online], published on 1st June 2012, URL: