The proclamation of the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923 was the founding act of modern Turkey, breaking with the Ottoman era. In addition to Mustapha Kemal’s desire to westernise his country by establishing a republican and democratic regime, secularism was the fundamental principle of this change in society, which had previously been Islamic. The Turkish principle of secularism is enshrined in the constitution and is unique to Turkey. This secular conception has enabled Turkey to ensure its transition without making a complete break with its origins. On the eve of the presidential elections and the centenary of the Turkish Republic, secular principles are being called into question. This situation has been carefully brought about by President Erdoğan since he came to power.

The Turkish secular concept.

Secularism in modern Turkey is not based on a separation of clergy and state that would establish the autonomy of religion. On the contrary, the foundation of the Turkish republic is precisely based on the total control of the Muslim religion while laying down secular principles in its functioning.

Unlike France, which instituted the separation of church and state in 1905, the Turkish state is involved in religious affairs. For example, the state control of religion is manifested in the struggle against the thousand-year-old traditions of Anatolian popular Islam.

The control of religious affairs is ensured by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), created in 1924.
Erdogan and the Directorate for Religious Affairs in the Presidential Complex in June 2022.

The control of religious affairs is ensured by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Dyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), created in 1924. This public institution is attached to the Prime Minister. A Sunni religious dignitary is placed at its head. he appoints and dismisses all religious personnel. It issues fatwas and centralises the drafting of sermons, which are read in each mosque by civil servant imams. Given the secular principles, the practice of religion is not imposed. Religious symbols were banned in 1925 in public spheres such as schools, the army, the police, the Grand Assembly, etc. The Western calendar was also introduced. The practice of family names was imposed in 1934. Sunday became an official day of rest in 1935.

A turning point in Turkey’s secular principles.

In 1998, Recep Tayip Erdogan, mayor of Istanbul, lost his mandate when he was sent to prison after reciting a verse from a poem by Ziya Gökalp in public: ”The minarets will be our bayonets, the bowls our helmets, the mosques will be our barracks and the believers our soldiers.” This event marks a turning point in terms of respect for the secular values of the Turkish Republic. Recep Tayip Erdogan distanced himself from Necmettin Erbakan (Necmettin Erbakan, founder of the Islamic movement Mili Görüs.). He returned to the political stage in 2002 when he won the elections with the party he founded, the AKP (Justice and Development Party).

Although the AKP is an Islamic conservative party, it reaffirms its respect for secular principles. However, in the name of religious freedom, the party promotes the building of mosques, religious education and the wearing of headscarves. Back in 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted the ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses. In September 2013, as Prime Minister at the time, he announced that his government would lift the provision prohibiting Turkish civil servants from wearing an Islamic headscarf at work. In October 2013, four MPs from the Islamic conservative AKP party appeared in parliament veiled. However, the ban will still apply to police and military personnel as well as prosecutors and judges.

Towards a constitutional reform

In Turkey, the issue of the veil crystallises the cleavage between secularists and supporters of political Islam who invoke freedom of worship. This issue has once again come up between Recep Tayip Erdogan and Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, leader of the CHP opposition party, in a pre-electoral context. One accused the other of questioning the rules concerning the wearing of the Islamic veil. Seizing the opportunity of this debate opened by his opponent, Recep Tayip Erdogan decided to submit the question to the population by referendum and to modify the constitution accordingly. RTE has nothing to lose on this issue. Either the results are favourable to the wearing of the headscarf and this reinforces his Islamo-conservative policy, or the population is unfavourable, knowing that the rules concerning the wearing of the headscarf were undermined in 2010.

The transformation of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque: symbol of Edogan’s political Islam

The contrast with the situation in Iran is striking. Iranian women are vehemently rejecting the religious veil following the death of Mahsa Amini. Already since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a section of women have been opposed to the compulsory wearing of the veil. This struggle, which began as soon as the mullahs were installed, has never ceased and has become more public with the advent of social networks. While some countries, such as Iran, seek to emancipate themselves by regaining rights, others, such as Turkey, are subjecting their population to new constraints. Turkey is gradually moving towards such a model of society, as over time the population agrees to these obligations.

The consultation of the population by referendum is an instrumentalisation of democracy by the Erdogan government : “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off. ” (Sentence pronounced by Recp Tayip Erdogan, Mayor of Istanbul in 1996)

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