Turkey is constitutionally a secular republic. Any display of religion in public is banned since the Constitution was adopted in 1924. In a country with a 98 per cent Muslim population, this sounds improbable yet that is precisely what successive governments have tried to implement with varying degrees of success. In the early years, under Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, this was enforced with a near-missionary zeal. Islamic-style courts and seminaries were shut down, Sufi brotherhoods (tarikat) and dervish lodges (tekke) disbanded, the wearing of fez caps, veils and Eastern-style clothing banned and a Constitution modeled on western lines introduced, giving women equal rights. By 1928, Islam was no longer the state religion, polygamy was abolished, civil rather than religious marriages became the norm, Turkish was written in Roman instead of the Persian alphabet, children were given non-Arabic names and religious education was restricted, for a time even prohibited.
A slew of wide-ranging social, political and religious reforms were initiated — all geared towards pulling Turkey away from not just Ottoman decadence but also from its Islamic past and put on the fast track to westernisation. Every time the government showed signs of slackening, the military stepped in as a secularising force — implementing the Republican agenda of transforming Turkey into a homogenous, modern, secular country.
However, the Islamic juggernaut that swept across much of Central Asia, transforming small countries hidden behind the iron curtain into power-rich proudly Islamic countries rising from the ashes of the erstwhile Soviet Union, could not leave Turkey untouched either. It left in its wake a generation of modern, educated young men and women. These ‘born-again’ Muslims take pride in wearing the headscarf, in defiance of the ban, participate in demonstrations and protests and refuse to see why religion ought to be confined to the domestic or the private. They believe that the Turks are culturally and historically Muslim. Why, then, must they disown their legacy for the sake of westernisation that has caused so much damage in the West?
These young people are largely self-taught about religious practices since they and their parents grew up under the worst excesses of enforced Kemalism, many have learnt to offer the namaz from how-to booklets, others are learning the Arabic script in order to read the Holy Quran in the original instead of accessing through translations.
While this revivalism is more pronounced in the conservative south-east, it doesn’t go unnoticed in cosmopolitan Istanbul either. You can see it in the increasingly large numbers of headscarf-wearing young women, not just in the old quarters on the Asian side but in fashionable upmarket districts of the European side as well. And in the sheer numbers of old mosques that have been brought back into use, the exuberance with which the two Eids, Seker Bayrami and Kurban Bayrami, are celebrated and the festivities that mark iftaar parties during the month of Ramzan.
Interestingly, the Islam you see being practised in cities like Istanbul, is not the Wahhabi Saudi-inspired version of Islam but a far more workaday practical Islam where the daily rhythms of life are perfectly in tune with the demands of religion. Our host, a smartly-dressed young professional in his 30s, would excuse himself at the appointed hour, offer namaz at any one of the many mosques that are found in such abundance throughout Istanbul, and return to our side in a matter of minutes.
While the veneration of saints is still ‘discouraged’, there is an increasing interest in ‘folk Islam’. Some of it is to do with a new-found pride in the country’s centuries-old Islamic past and the many historic mosques and shrines as also its great Sufi legacy best personified by Mevlana Rumi who lies buried at Konya. In Istanbul, the exquisite blue-tiled tomb of Abu Ayoub al-Ansari, standard-bearer to the Prophet, has crowds of visitors. Called Eyup, it is Turkey’s holiest site. Boys dressed as pashas in fake fur trimmed robes wearing a crown and holding a scepter are brought here after their sunnet (circumcision) to offer prayers.
Somewhere, the Islamisation of secular Turkey is linked also with a new lot of political leaders who, by their own example of piety, prayer and political activism, may have triggered an unabashed observance of Islamic rituals. By 1994, slogans promising that a return to Islam would cure the country’s unprecedented economic ills and solve the problems of bureaucratic inefficiencies had enough general appeal to enable avowed religious candidates to win mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara, the country’s two most secularised cities. The 2002 elections brought in a moderately Islamic party to power whose buzzword is ‘liberal Islamist’. All this is making many among Turkey’s pro-west secularists willing to re-examine their secular manifesto.
Now, the very definition of secularism is being questioned. The models before Turkey are India and France. The question: does secularism mean respect for all religions or is it the exclusion of religion from the public domain? The former is a laudable theory, the latter erodes the definition of democracy. It is left to Turkey now to find its destiny; it can go the way of other neo-Islamic nations or it can show the way for Islam and modernity to co-exist.