Islam’s return to Turkey after a long absence
Amal Al-Sibai: Turkey is a beautiful country that boasts breathtaking seashores, mountain top views, delicious food, warm hospitable people, and rich history.
Its history is intriguing. Turkey is home to some of the most ornamented churches, mosques, palaces, and gardens in the world. Islam had a strong and long presence in Turkey, followed by a sudden absence, and in recent years a slow return.
Some people are apprehensive about the revival of Islam in Turkey, but is it really a positive or negative change? Firas Al-Khateeb, in his writings, Lost Islamic History, explores the history of Islam in Turkey.
Until the 1920s, Turkey had been the center of the Muslim world; one of many Islamic nations under one rule; governed by the Ottoman Caliphate. In the early1900s, The Ottoman Empire was crumbling, with Italy taking over major parts of Libya in 1912. Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece wanted the Ottomans out of Europe, and the First Balkan Wars ensued. World War I caused a further disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. After the war, Turkey was invaded by the British, Greek, and French.
An Ottoman army officer, Mustafa Kemal, displayed great leadership in battle and he managed to turn back a British invasion aimed at the capital, Istanbul. He brought the Ottoman army under his command to fight in the Turkish War of Independence in the early 1920s. His army expelled the occupying forces of the Greeks, British, and French who had encroached on Turkish land.
Mustafa Kemal emerged as a national hero for the Turks and by 1922 he had freed the Turks of foreign occupation. For this he became very popular and was adored by the Turks. He established the modern Republic of Turkey led by the Grand National Assembly. The new Turkish government needed a head of state, a president. The natural choice was of course, the hero, Mustafa Kemal, who was given the title, Ataturk, meaning ‘Father of the Turks.’
However, Mustafa Kemal had a hidden agenda. His goal was to foster a sense of nationalism to unify the Turkish people, and to keep religion out of the state, and if possible, out of the lives of the Turkish people. He held the view that religion was not compatible with modern science; secularism was imperative for modernity.
Ataturk wanted to reform Turkey; he went to great lengths to extricate religion from Turkish society. The education system was completely transformed, and Islamic education was banned in public schools. All religious schools were closed. Ataturk replaced the Shariah or Islamic law with adapted legal codes imported from Europe. All judges of Islamic law in the country were immediately fired, as all Shariah courts were closed.
In 1924, the Ottoman Caliphate, which had existed since 1299, was abolished and all members of the Ottoman family were sent into exile. By 1928, the Grand National Assembly deleted the clause in the constitution that declared Islam as the official religion. Islam was not only removed from the government and politics, but secularist ideologies began to interfere with the lives and religious freedoms of the Turkish people.
The calendar was officially changed from the traditional lunar or Islamic calendar, to the Gregorian calendar. The new government replaced the Arabic script, which had previously been used to write the Turkish language, with the Latin alphabet. If the Turks lost the Arabic language and could no longer read Arabic, it would become very difficult for them to read and understand the Holy Qur’an.
In 1932, even the adhan, the call to prayer, was outlawed in Arabic and mosques were ordered to rewrite and announce the call to prayer in the Turkish language. This preposterous move deeply disturbed the faithful Muslims and caused widespread resentment, so it was shortly repealed. Also, the call to prayer could not be sounded outside the mosques. Imams were to be appointed and regulated by the government; and the sermons preached in mosques were to be under tight government control.
Friday, which for the entire Islamic history had been the day to rest for Muslims, was no longer considered part of the weekend. Now, Turkey, like Europe, designated Saturday and Sunday as the official off-work days.
The presence of Islam was no longer visible when walking down the streets. The government officials dictated that religious dress should not be worn. The fez (traditional Turkish turban) was banned for men and the veil and hijab (headscarf) was discouraged and restricted. The hijab was ridiculed and prohibited in public buildings.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in 1938, but the secularist ideologies and legal codes persisted after his death.
In the 1980s, a new generation of educated, articulate, and religiously motivated leaders emerged to challenge the existing system. By their example of piety, prayer, and political activism, they have helped to spark a revival of Islam in Turkey.
Current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is one example of an educated, energetic, and charismatic leader, with an Islamic upbringing.
A graduate of an Imam and preacher-training school, Erdogan had risen through a wing of the implicitly pro-Islamist and marginal movement. In a historic moment in 1994, he was elected as the mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.
A CNN report by Yavuz Yigit stated that Erdogan was so successful because he leads with actions, not words.
“Before Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, there were frequent water cuts, garbage piled through the streets, and air pollution. He solved the problems in just three years,” said Yigit.
Other commentators said that Erdogan dealt effectively with environmental problems and made the city greener.
Erdogan then co-established his own party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and ran in the general elections. In 2002, he was voted as prime minister.
Although some had doubts regarding the new ‘Islamist’ leader, Erdogan ushered in great improvements to Turkey. The economy has tripled in size since the Erdogan administration came to power in 2002. The country’s infrastructure has improved, and living standards have risen significantly.
Inflation which had been at three-digit levels came down to single digits. The country is now attracting investors and tourists alike. Visitor numbers have soared, from 16 million in 2003 to 35 million in 2013, according to Yigit.
The economic boom helped Turkey fund schools, hospitals, highways, a new railway system, airways, and universities.
Erdogan has also lifted the headscarf ban in universities and public buildings, liberating religious women.
Turkey is undergoing profound improvements, but some secular Turks are complaining of Erdogan’s stand on certain issues. Erdogan has criticized the content of some TV shows, has made statements opposing alcoholism, and has spoken out against public display of affection. He has placed recent restrictions on alcohol; shops entitled to sell the drinks must close by 10pm. The new law forbids advertising alcoholic products, and prohibits alcohol licenses for businesses within 100 meters of places of worship or education.
The restrictions on the sale of alcohol has offended some, but it is a move in the right direction for the health and safety of all individuals, Muslim or not, secular or not.