Reconciling History: Secularism, Faith and Allegiance after Turkey’s June 24th Elections

Nicholas Norberg

The divide between secular and religious voters is an oft-repeated explanation of Turkey’s divisive political scene that fails to capture the complexity of voters’ converging interests. The votes won solely on the issue of secularism versus religious freedoms are few, but the context of the controversies spawned by Turkey’s secularist inheritance are valuable for understanding those who laud Erdoğan for his religious credentials, especially in the wake of his victory in the June 24th elections. It also sheds light on the logic of the political alliances that emerged in these elections. The decision to support or reject the opposition in its appeals to AKP voters is bound up with its identity as the representative of official secularism, a reputation that has proved difficult to shake.Religiosity and secularism were present issues in the early days of the Republic, but were debated in the context of modernization and state construction. Mustafa Kemal and his partisans sought to identify characteristics common to all residents of the new country of Turkey, in an effort to build a cohesive national identity in contrast to the cosmopolitan arrangement of the Ottoman social order. Sunni heritage became one of those criteria, as did the newly standardized Turkish language. Secularism took on immense significance in the early Republican years, but religious identity retained its importance as a shared set of values thought common to the new Republic’s citizens. Curating national identity in this way paradoxically intensifies minority affiliations by galvanizing non-conformists to rally around the beliefs they hold dearest, yet articulating a national manifesto in this way was considered an essential step to constructing a new state. Top-down policies, characteristic of the early Republic, sought to preserve secularism as a marker of both progressivism and Turkishness.

Debates over the acceptability of public religiosity acquired a harsh edge in the turbulent years of the 1970s. After the military coup of 1960, the governing junta sought to correct what it saw as the executive overreach of the Adnan Menderes government, which pursued a populist platform built on revitalizing infrastructure, accrued massive amounts of public debt, and limited his opponents’ free access to media in an attempt to undercut their electoral viability. Menderes was brutally executed after a show trial by his military custodians, who deposed him for violating democratic principles – an ironic end for a man whose election heralded the end of single-party rule and was arguably the inaugural moment of true democracy in Turkey. Erdoğan has much in common with Menderes, and says so himself.

The intervention of 1960 failed to achieve its desired result of ensuring continuing stability and reinstating the primacy of secularism. The liberal constitution adopted in 1961 allowed a high degree of political freedom, and supported the emergence of a vocal conservative religious political movement. Small parties like Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (MSP), advocating a greater role for religion in state affairs, leveraged polarization to gain influence as participants in coalition governments. The party’s religious credentials actually made it an attractive partner for centrists, who viewed parties with conservative religious credentials as an alternative to far-left parties in the context of the Cold War. Participating in coalition governance during the 1970s gave Erbakan and his followers valuable experience, which they leveraged in their return to prominence in the 1990s. Temel Karamollaoğlu, another competitor in the June 24th elections, was an Erbakan protégé and led the similarly religiously affected Felicity Party. These two figures represented the main streams of popular, conservative religious thought in Turkey through the 1990s.

The proliferation of religious movements in the 1990s, along with their growing appeal and influence, contextualizes the knee-jerk response of the secular elite. After again overthrowing the civilian government in 1980, the military imposed a particularly harsh ban on the headscarf in 1982 in the midst of its effort to remove all outward displays of any ideology from public life – alongside the removal of far-left and far-right movements from national discourse. The overbearing prohibition on religious dress, historically only enforced unevenly, was applied with renewed vigor that excluded women from the public sphere, barring their access to government jobs and to universities. The fear of rising sectarianism moved the military to adopt extraordinary measures that it hoped would reaffirm the essential tenets of Turkish identity and curb political violence. Instead, it catalyzed the growing religious revival movement and, over time, its legacy would become a key point in Mr. Erdoğan’s appeal to conservative voters.

The successful repeal of the headscarf ban in 2013 was a major victory for the AKP, and it was rightly praised as a step towards true religious freedom. Fulfilling that campaign promise secured Erdoğan’s reputation as a representative of conservative religious Turks. Delivering the repeal of the headscarf ban was, however, more than a symbolic gesture. Such radical action proved Erdoğan’s willingness to re-examine fundamental pillars of the Turkish state for the sake of his constituents. The significance of the repeal is not limited to the issue of the headscarf prohibition itself, and its importance to AKP voters extends far beyond a preoccupation with women’s dress codes. When voters cite Erdoğan’s religious credentials as evidence of his political savvy, they implicitly point to his proven ability to cross lines no other politician could. Like the proliferation of infrastructure projects and surviving the attempted coup, Erdoğan’s religiously grounded legislation is less a proof of his conservatism than it is evidence of his ability to implement his policy agenda in the face of resistance from the traditional political elite.

The result of the June 24th election was a shock to most observers, but it reflects the inheritance of modern Turkey’s political conflicts. The memory of the divisive 1970s and the terror-filled aftermath of the 1980 coup remains a deeply impactful force conditioning voter behavior. An understanding of these traumatizing years, which left few segments of society untouched, contextualizes the steep odds against which the opposition was forced to contend. They also support an appreciation for the depth of Erdoğan’s appeal to his base, which rests on the foundation of delivered promises, direct financial incentives, and a knack for speaking to the most sensitive memories of the recent past. Erdoğan’s appeal is not so mysterious. Finding an alternative appeal will require the opposition to adopt extraordinary measures, and this election showed them capable of doing so. But it will also require Erdoğan’s loyalists to lose faith in his commitment to their livelihood. Observers should bear in mind the resonance Erdoğan’s words have with his voters, as well as the actions they perceive to realize his promises, in the context of Turkey’s contemporary upheaval.   

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