“Secular” Turkey

by Uzay Bulut


  • A deeper look into the history of Turkey reveals that, unfortunately, Turkey has never been either truly secular or democratic. In Turkey, freedom of conscience and religion is respected — but only if you are a practicing Sunni Muslim.

  • The problem is that “modern” Turkey claims to be a “secular” republic; a secular republic is supposed to treat all people — Muslims and non-Muslims — equally. The objective of the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs), on the other hand, is to keep religion (Islam) under the control of the state, and to keep the people under the control of the state by means of religion.
  • “Those who are not genuine Turks can have only one right in the Turkish fatherland, and that is to be a servant, to be a slave. We are in the most free country of the world. They call this Turkey.” — Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Turkey’s first Minister of Justice, 1930.

secular turkey

In this photo from September 1955, a government-instigated mob of Muslim Turks in Istanbul is destroying stores owned by Greek Christians.

When many Western analysts discuss the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, they rightfully criticize it for its religious intolerance, authoritarianism and lack of respect for secular principles and minorities. They also tend to compare the AKP to former Kemalist governments, and draw a distinction between the Islamist AKP and former non-Islamist governments.

They claim that Turkey was “secular” and somewhat “democratic,” until the AKP came to power.

A deeper look into the history of Turkey, however, reveals that, unfortunately, Turkey has never been either truly secular or democratic.

The modern Turkish state, since its founding in 1923, has never kept its hands off religion. It has engaged in religious matters on almost all levels — by institutionalizing Sunni Islam and by persecuting (or annihilating) other faiths.

Intolerance, even hatred, for non-Muslims was openly promoted — even by the heads of the state — from day one.

Diyanet: The Presidency of Religious Affairs

The root of secularism is the separation of religion and state; in Turkey, such a split has never existed. One of its most important institutions is the Presidency of Religious Affairs, referred to in Turkish simply as the Diyanet.

The Diyanet was not, however, established by the Islamist AKP government. It was established in 1924, after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, by the then-ruling Kemalist government as a successor to Sheikh ul-Islam (the authority that governed religious affairs of the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire).

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