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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Islam in Turkey: Odd one out

By Roger Hardy
BBC Islamic affairs analyst

Turkey's modern history makes it virtually unique in the Muslim world.

When the modern Turkish republic was born in 1923, its founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pushed through what was arguably the most radical programme of secularisation ever attempted in any Muslim society, before or since.

Ataturk believed secular nationalism was an essential hallmark of modernity and progress.

But in Turkey today the tensions between religion and state are all too apparent.


Turks are culturally and historically Muslim. They live in a predominantly Muslim region.

It is as hard to imagine Turkey without Islam as to think of Istanbul without its famous skyline of mosques and minarets.

Secularists see the headscarf as a provocative political symbol

Yet the country is polarised between, on the one hand, pious (and sometimes politically active) Muslims and, on the other, the secular urban elite, which includes the powerful military.

One sign of this polarisation is the periodic controversy over how women should dress.

Muslim women argue that wearing a headscarf is a human right and a religious duty.

Secularists see the headscarf as a provocative political symbol, and have managed to get it banned from universities, state schools and government ministries.

Islamists vs the generals

Since the 1970s there have been a series of Muslim political parties, the latest of which, Justice and Development, came to power with a big majority last year.

The military view the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as an Islamist in disguise.

They have bitter memories of the country's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, whom they forced from power in 1997 after only a year in office.

Attitudes to Islam colour the way the European Union sees Turkey's aspirations for membership
Justice and Development reject the Islamist label. They say they accept the secular state, and claim to be Muslim Democrats rather like Europe's Christian Democrats.

But the issue of religion refuses to go away, and is a visible or invisible factor in both domestic and foreign policy.

Between East and West

Attitudes to Islam colour the way the European Union sees Turkey's aspirations for membership, even though European politicians seldom mention it out loud.

Under the EU's official criteria, the country must meet certain political and economic requirements, such as improving human rights.

But lurking in the background is the cultural question.

Guide: Militant Islamic groups
Profiles of the main Islamic militant groups around the world.

Is the EU, in reality, a Christian club? Or is it conceivable that a Muslim country, already a Nato member, could one day become a member?

In its foreign relations, Turkey tries to face both ways.

Wealthy Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia are important trading partners.

But this does not stop the Turks having an important (if low-key) military partnership with Israel.

Optimists see Turkey as a model for other Muslim societies - a pro-Western state, practising multi-party democracy, which has turned its back on Muslim radicalism.

Others believe the Turks have yet to resolve a deep-seated crisis of identity.

What do you think? Send us your comments using the form at the bottom of the page.

Your comments:

Turkey is a good example of what a Muslim country should be
H.Mufti, Turkey
I am a Muslim and have been living in Turkey for seven years. I find that it is the most moderate and comfortable Muslim country to live in. You can go to the bar or to the mosque, it is your choice. You can wear bikini on the beach or a headscarf in the street, no one will hold a stick to force you to pray or to fast in Ramadan (as in some Muslim countries). It is only when Muslims recognize each other's rights and freedoms that the Islamic world would really prosper and advance. Yes Turkey is a good example of what a Muslim country should be.
H.Mufti, Turkey

I went to Istanbul again this spring, the first time after 9 years. The difference was considerable. Girls in school uniforms, a common thing in 1994, have nearly disappeared from the streets, almost a third of women do now wear a headscarf. While turkey gave the impression of a lively Mediterranean country during my last stay, there was something new and quiet.
Xenia, Austria

Turkey will not have a great future as long it is continues oppressing it's own people as well as Islam. Democracy is absent in Turkey.
Nima, USA

People need to be a little more realistic in their praise of the Turkish Republic
Sina Yousefi, USA
If you are going to praise Turkey, don't do so because it supports the U.S. and Israel. I think Turkey's model of secular democracy has created a more stable, more open society than that which exists in many Islamic nations. But that doesn't mean that the Turkish system is the answer to all of the Middle East's problems. Turkey's government has its own flaws. For example, as many others have pointed out, the Kurds of Turkey don't benefit very much from their nation's noble ideals (interestingly enough, Turkey's ally, Israel, is also a liberal democracy in theory, but that didn't stop it from recently passing a law designed to prevent Arab Israeli citizens from marrying Arabs from the occupied territories). I recognize the fact that the Turks are a lot closer to achieving a truly multifaceted democracy than some of their neighbors, but I think people need to be a little more realistic in their praise of the Turkish Republic.
Sina Yousefi, USA

The only reason Turkey is seen in a "glowing light" is because of its political alignment with the West. Turkey is still essentially run by the military and has one of the worst human rights records today, its continued oppression of the Kurdish people can be ignored as long it serves its geo-political purpose in the region. I wonder if the same songs of praise will still be heard if this secular state decides to cut-off ties with Israel.
Mustapha, UK

It seems to me that administration in Turkey, thanks to Mustafa Kamal, is more secular than some of the western countries like the US. I guess this is why most of the comments here are confusing as if there is religious oppression in Turkey. It is real secularism at its best. Even West has things to learn from Turkey.
Sinan, Turkey

Islam's social structure is based on equitable distribution of the states resources. Unfortunately, in today's materialistic world, leaders worthy of upholding the banner of true Islam are non-existent. Whilst this holds true in all Muslim countries, it is particularly emphasised in Turkey.
Aslam, South Africa

Secular Turkey is a traitor to the Muslim world
Zayd, US
Secular Turkey is a traitor to the Muslim world and seen to many as enemy. Turkey has chosen wealth and power to religion. The true Turkish power brokers prefer friendship with the West and Israel preventing the foundation of a strong Islamic union. Instead of truly supporting fellow Muslims, they chose those Israel and the US.
Zayd, US

Turkey is a model for the rest of the Islamic world. It is truly amazing what a struggle Turkey has gone through to get a secular, democratic government. But that's progress. The other way is medieval darkness.
Joe, USA

I noticed that most of comments have focused on the headscarf issue. I will be the first to admit that if a person wants to wear it, more power to them. But let us not forget that this is passing trend and in no way should this minor and mishandled situation overshadow the great tolerant nature of the Turkish people.
B.Aslan, USA

How can the author say that Turkey is a role model for secular democracy!? Is the suppression of the religious right of its own people secularism? Does he know that the Kurdish people in Turkey cannot even say that they are Kurdish, is that democracy?
Zeyt, Singapore

Symbolism in any religion is a dangerous thing
Anil Kumar , India
Going by the recent trends in Indian society, Turkey definitely will be a role model not only for Islamic country but for all. Symbolism in any religion is a dangerous thing and an easy tool for exploitation. Today it's headscarf for Muslim women, tomorrow there will be demands to impose it on others and later Sharia law for non Muslims as in Nigeria. We have already witnessed how symbolism could ignite communal riots.
Anil Kumar , India

I worked in Turkey for 8 months in 1993 and I took the effort to learn the language and culture of the Turks as best I could. I see Turks as being Turkish first and then Moslems. In fact I see Turkey as not really different in a way as say, the USA, in that the Turks don't all rush to the Mosque at sunrise to pray or avoid a glass of Raki (similar to Ouzo) because the Koran bans it. I see the rise of Islamic parties in Turkey as being similar to the rise of conservative Christian based parties in Western states: When the economy is bad, people, especially working class and poor, will gravitate towards faith-based parties looking for someone that will lead them and help them in their difficulties.
Theo Stauffer, Switzerland

Turkey is one of the worst examples of a Muslim state
Salman, U.A.E.
Turkey is one of the worst examples of a Muslim state. I knew a lot of Muslim Turks in college in the US and the only link they had with Islam was the fact that they were born Muslims. Apart from that I don't think they even know anything about the religion of their ancestors. As for the whole headscarves issue? I think its an utter disgrace for Turkey as well as the rest of the countries in the world that prohibit its use in School/Universities. What kind of freedom is this? There is no freedom anywhere in the world anymore. We live in a very shameful world today.
Salman, U.A.E

Turkey is one sad example of how the west tries to westernize the Muslim world by using pressure and false promises of economic power. Money being the greatest evil is one way of how the west perpetrates is evil plots to weaken Islam and its divine culture.
Saboor, USA

The identity crisis the author talks about is fuelled by radical elements that receive funding from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Countries who would like the secular and modern ideals set forth by Ataturk and his contemporaries to fail. There is an identity crisis within Islam as it should be a religion of peace and tolerance. Yet from Wahhabism to the Taliban we see many examples of what happens once radicals are allowed to start their fanatic journey. As for the headscarf issue it is a dress code (women in bikinis are also not allowed on campus).. welcome to the 21st century.
M. Inegollu, US-Turkey

If Turkey can maintain a stable country with a majority of its inhabitants as Muslims, then there is hope that the rest of the Islam world can coexist and prosper alongside the predominantly Christian West. It appears that traditional Islam teaching abhors the notion of a separation of Church and State. If Turkey fails the world must brace itself for a cataclysmic showdown.
don zelkind, usa

Even Ataturk's own mother wore a headscarf
Murat Ucer, Turkey
I see from all the remarks that most of the contributors don't know the real life in Turkey. People tend to believe that the headscarf is forbidden and picture Ataturk as anti-Islamic and Turkey as oppressive for Islam. None of these are true since everyone is free to wear the headscarf - even Ataturk's own mother wore a headscarf. And Turkey is the most tolerant Muslim country towards religions only in Istanbul you can see a Church, a Mosque and a Synagogue next to each on the same square. However there are law regulations in Turkey that prescribe a code of dressing for civil servants that include schools too, which in my opinion are needed to keep empathise and emphasise the secularity, since democracy without secularity is not possible.
Murat Ucer, Turkey

Divides in modern Turkish society are massively apparent, if you have the opportunity to live in a typical Istanbul community. With ultra-European turks criticizing the headscarf wearing Islamists, choosing to call them "backward thinking", "dangerous" or "extremist". This tension within communities is not apparent on the surface, but has been instilled by Turkeys own political/historical leaders. It is a tightly coiled spring needing only the slightest push causing it to violently uncoil in the face of the Europe. Good luck Turkey.
A Kainth, UK

I think Turkey's secularism makes it the model country for all other Muslim countries.
K Petros, New Zealand

I think the Turkish establishment and Military are a disgrace to Islam. Head scarves for women are not even banned in western countries like the UK and America. For a country which calls itself a democracy, where is the freedom of choice?
M Khan, England

I don't see how Turkey can be the model for other Muslim countries
Jittaun Batiste, USA
I don't see how Turkey can be the model for other Muslim countries when their brand of democracy doesn't allow an arena for people to practice their personal and religious choices freely. In Turkey if you wear a headscarf at university you get asked to leave the school, and if you refuse to the police physically drag you out. I don't think it is right to make anyone wear the headscarf if they don't want to but I also don't think it' is right to say that they can't either. Before they are allowed into the EU, I hope that someone challenges them on this human right violation
Jittaun Batiste, USA

According to latest surveys, more than 60% of households in Turkey have someone who uses headscarf. It is surprising to see nobody in Europe mentions this fact and the ban that affects the majority in Turkey. If oppression comes from radical Islamists on women it makes the headlines, but if it comes from the secular side it is presented as a sociological issue rather than a human rights one As a human rights consultant, this really disappoints me. Also Mr. Hardy, why do you quote only what the military thinks about the elected government? I think it is more important to know what the public think about its own government.
Rabia R, UK

Turkey, it seems, is many cultures and countries within a single country
My girlfriend is a Turkish atheist and speaks of exactly the sort of "crisis of identity" in Turkey that your correspondent mentions. As a native of the region that borders Greece, where the culture is more "Greek" than Islamic, she speaks of other regions of Turkey as places she would simply never choose to visit because their culture is as alien to her as it would be to many Europeans. Turkey, it seems, is many cultures and countries within a single country, existing in a worrying state of tension and with very different aspirations, some looking to the West and others to the East.

Mustafa Kemal's understanding of secularism meant, in effect, an attack on Islam, the persecution of practising Muslims and a programme of extreme 'westernisation' down to what kind of head gear a man could wear - the fez was banned! Turkey, although useful during the Cold War with its massive armed forces and border with the former Soviet Union, has been reduced to begging for entry into the EU. Giscard d'Estaing's recent comments about the 'Greco-Judaeo-Christian nature' of Europe, coupled with Turkey's incompatibility with it, must have had Ataturk turning in his grave!
Abu Aziz, UK

Turkey both oppresses and uses Islam
Jack Kalpakian, USA
The last sentence was worth more than the rest of the text. The author needed to examine the constitutional basis of Turkish identity. It defines the population of the country in a peculiar way, for an avowedly secular state, because it essentially states that all of Turkey's Muslims are Turks and that only a Turk can be president or Prime Minister. In essence, Turkey both oppresses and uses Islam - the truth is more complicated than the author sees.
Jack Kalpakian, USA

I do not think that the lack of freedom to practise one's own religion is worth categorizing as secular. There could be two scenarios. One: Turkey is a time bomb for religious strife; history is witness to the fact that religious suppression only leads to people turning towards it. Two: Turkey more than asserting itself as a Muslim state is likely to revert to its imperialistic past. They have a clear history of imposing themselves on other Muslims.
Parveen, USA

In order to properly interact with others, one needs to understand and accept oneself. Turkey has still not done the latter and its yearning for Europe will continue to be unrequited.
Mushtaq, UK

Secular Turkey has been knocking on the doors of the EU for decades. It will be interesting to see how they react when their patience runs out. Realignment with the Muslim East? After all they have always been welcome there - despite the institutional opposition to Islam
M Asghar

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