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Erdogan exploits Islam for personal and political gain

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 3 March 2017

This is the third in a series of articles based in part on eyewitness accounts about the rapidly deteriorating socio-political conditions in Turkey and what the future may hold for the country. The first and second articles are available here: first, second.

Anyone who follows Turkish President Erdogan's political career cannot escape the conclusion that he has carefully and systematically crafted policies framed in Islamic clothing. He uses religion to present himself and his political agenda as if it is being sanctioned by a higher authority, surreptitiously uses Islamic symbols to indoctrinate the population with religious precepts, and promotes Islamic studies in schools in order to cultivate a new generation of devout Muslims loyal to him.

To consolidate his powers, he focused on economic development to build a strong constituency consisting of the poorer and less-educated segments of the Turkish population who support him and follow his model of political Islam. He trumpets democracy to pay lip-service to the secular sector of the population to reduce resistance to his attempt to convert Turkey into an Islamic state.


There is nothing wrong in promoting any religion in a democracy, provided there is a clear separation between 'church' and state. In Turkey, though, Erdogan is making religion part and parcel of the state's political process. In fact, as early as 1999 Erdogan went to jail for 4 months for religious incitement after he publicly read a nationalist poem including the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." Erdogan's notion that Turkey provides a model of Islamic democracy is an empty slogan, as it no longer resonates domestically or among any Arab or Muslim state.

The fact that Turkey has lost any prospect of becoming an EU member was entirely due to Erdogan's severe and methodical undermining of the pillars on which democracy rests, including free press and speech, human rights, a fair and impartial judiciary, secular public education, and checks and balances between the three branches of government.

To promote his social-cultural Islamic agenda, Erdogan began to systematically issue directives to gradually transform Turkey into a religiously-observant society. He did so without resorting to legislation in order to avoid public resistance from the larger secular segment of the population. To that end, he began to introduce Islamic teaching and images into the public consciousness, as well as build religious institutions, to indoctrinate the population with religious precepts.

As early as 2011, Erdogan began to foster an Islamic fashion revolution. He lifted the ban on headscarves in universities, and women who work in state offices and policewomen are now able to wear headscarves, along with women who serve in the military. The once-stigmatized veil has become socially acceptable. There is a discernible rise in the number of 'fashionable' Islamic conservative characters in soap operas, and the portrayal of women as housewives is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Moreover, the modern emblem of Turkey today shows the star outside the crescent which has become the symbol of Islam like the cross is to Christianity. The fast-growing number of mosques offers another vivid symbol of where the country is heading. During the past 30 years, the number of mosques in Turkey has grown from 60,000 to more than 85,000. The AKP uses mosques as a physical symbol of the growth of Islamic values of the state and as a political tool to consolidate its power base.

Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this is the newest, largest mosque in Turkey with six minarets, built on Çamlica Hill in Istanbul, which is the city's highest point reaching about 1,000 feet above sea level. The site overlooks the Bosphorus in clear view of the entire city.


In addition, alcohol cannot be sold between 10pm and 6am, and can no longer be displayed in windows and restaurants that are located near schools or mosques. Alcohol producers cannot advertise or sponsor social events. Furthermore, the government canceled a festival celebrating the national drink, raki, due to complaints from Islamists, which Erdogan more than welcomed.

In recent years, the Turkish government under Erdogan's leadership took many new initiatives to push Islam deeper into the country's secular education to cultivate a new Islamic generation. The plan included the building of 80 new mosques in public universities, and converting one university in Istanbul into a center for Islamic studies. Erdogan further supported the introduction of compulsory religious classes for all primary school children, and added an extra hour of Islamic studies for all high school students.

One of the most notable expansions of Islamic studies is found in the growth of Imam-Hatip religious schools, where since 2010 the number of schools increased by 90%, from 493 to 936, and the number of students enrolled grew from 65,000 in 2002 to nearly a million by 2016.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Alon Ben-Meir

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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