Islam and Politics in Modern Turkey


The question of Islam’s relationship to modern politics is one of the greatly debated topics of our time. Is democracy compatible with Islamic Tradition? Can secularism work in societies that are majority Muslim, or must Islam be the official religion of the state in these cases? The Turkish case has often been cited in the context of these debates as an example of Islamic culture co-habiting successfully with modernity. Since its foundation in 1923, the Turkish Republic has been an officially secular state, despite over 99% of its population understood to be Muslim.


In recent decades, forms of political Islam have emerged in Turkey, and since 2002 an Islamist party has been in power. The predominant kind of Islamism we are witnessing in Turkey differs greatly from more radical kinds of Islamism that exist in the wider Middle East region. Nonetheless, it raises questions about the future prospects of the country’s secular tradition, and challenges the legacy of its secularist founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (d. 1938).

This topic explores the tradition of secularism in Turkey, and traces some of the major events in the Turkish Republic’s history that have proven pivotal to the emergence of political Islam. It introduces two major religious groups, the Alevis and the Gülen Movement, and explores the specific ways in which they have engaged with the secularist project – both supporting and subverting it.

Learning Outcomes:

1. To understand the founding principles of the Turkish Republic and its secularist doctrine known as Kemalism.

2. To explore the religious landscape in Turkey and become familiar with its major religious factions and groups.

3. To chart the chronology of Turkish Islamism and recognise the key events that heralded its political ascendance at the end of the 20th century.

Today, Turkey is more divided on religious questions than ever before. Secularists and members of the country’s minority Alevi community are alarmed at the increasingly authoritarian nature of President Erdoğan’s leadership. Supporters of the ruling party, meanwhile, enthusiastically endorse his ‘neo-Ottoman’ agenda to re-shape Turkey in the image of its imperial, religious past. Above all, the Turkish case exemplifies the complexities of negotiating Islam and secular modernity. How is modernity being lived out in Turkey? And if the westernization project that Atatürk initiated is now failing, then what will replace it?

Resource activities

Ataturk and the Kemalist Revolution

At the turn of the 19th/20th century, the 500-year old Ottoman Empire was widely derided as the ‘sick man of Europe’. Who was Atatürk and how did he reform the new nation of Turkey?


The Alevis

The Alevis are the largest non-Sunni religious group in Turkey. Find out about what life was like for the Alevis during Ottoman times and beyond.


The AKP and the Emergence of Political Islam

The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) swept to power in Turkey in a landslide election victory in 2002. How did this change the relationship between religion and politics? 


Fethullah Gülen and his Followers

Fethullah Gülen is a US-based Turkish imam who leads a transnational religious community known in Turkey as Hizmet (lit: ‘service’), but referred to internationally as the Gülen Movement (GM). What facilitated the emergence of GM?


Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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