Law as a Tool for Social Engineering: The Islamization of the Turkish State and Society

2015-03-04    |   

Law as a Tool for Social Engineering: The Islamization of the Turkish State and Society

Unlike many other Islamist parties, the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) has managed to remain in power by implementing its politics in a pragmatic way, and in accordance with the domestic balance of power. The AKP did not pursue its conservative Islamist policies in a direct way until 2011, after the traditional struggle between the military establishment and civil authorities ended in favor of the latter.


By 2011, the ruling party had consolidated its control over the various levers of state power. That year, it won a parliamentary majority, with 326 delegates elected out of a total of 550. Subsequently, the party –which has taken every opportunity to affirm its popular legitimacy since it first came to power in 2002– began to manage the state and society with a freer hand. A tendency towards adopting conservative Islamist principles began to emerge in the party’s politics, its official rhetoric, and the laws it has passed.


The intellectual roots of the AKP lie in the thought of the Muslim Brotherhood –albeit influenced by Turkish modernity– which is of Western origin. Other influences include the Sufi heritage and its principles, as well as the legacy of Ottomanism. The party’s political roots lie in the arduous struggle waged by radical Turkish Islamist parties since the end of the 1960s, which have confronted the power of the Turkish military establishment and secular political parties for nearly half a century. Today, secular forces in Turkey have become the weak political opposition, while Islamists rule the country unilaterally. The latter are working through the law to promote the Islamization of the Turkish state and society, despite the fact that Turkey remains, symbolically, a secular state.


Legal Restrictions on Consuming Alcohol


Once the AKP secured its majority in 2011, the laws it passed became increasingly Islamist and concerned with social issues that affect all Turkish citizens. One such issue is the restriction of the consumption of alcohol. Although Turkey is a secular state and it does not embrace a specific religious ideology, its overwhelmingly Islamist majority parliament ratified a law limiting the consumption and sale of alcohol on May 24, 2013.[1]


Law No. 5752 banned the sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am anywhere in Turkey, and forbids all forms of advertising products containing alcohol and festivals dedicated to such products. It also forbids the consumption or sale of alcohol within 100 meters of any religious or educational establishment. The government was also empowered to censor films and television shows with scenes depicting alcohol in a positive light. Moreover, the law placed rigid restrictions on any person wishing to obtain a license to sell alcohol starting from the date the law was passed, and it imposes harsh penalties on those who violate it.[2]


Turkey’s current president and the previous leader of the ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, justified the law’s adoption by stating that its goal is to ensure the good health and development of future generations, as well as “to decrease traffic accidents”.[3] Yet opposition parties, Turkish youth, and Turkish alcohol vendors see the law as a means towards the “Islamization of society”, and “stemming from the mentality of Islamic fascism”.[4]


Secular parties opposed the law, describing it as “harboring the imposition of religious faith…and not a law concerned with combating the harmful effects of alcohol, but rather, concerned with the re-engineering of society according to the principles and lifestyle of the ruling party”.[5] Nevertheless, the law passed easily in Parliament and its implementation was put into effect.


The Turkish government’s adoption of the law also enabled it to enforce such a law at its discretion. The Turkish national airline, for instance, has stopped serving alcohol on the majority of its domestic flights, with the exceptions of flights headed to cities with secular majorities, and to Istanbul (for reasons related to tourism).[6] The government has also changed the legal classification of certain places to enforce the ban on consuming alcohol; should the need arise, a recreational park would be reclassified as a historic landmark, while a cultural center would be qualified as an educational site, which would put the legal restrictions on alcohol consumption into effect in these places with the stroke of a pen from a minister, or with a parliamentary vote.[7]


In short, the law’s passage and implementation is less about the safety of the Turkish people as its authors claim, and more about an Islamist agenda that seeks to impose a certain lifestyle upon Turks; a lifestyle that is similar to that of the Islamist leaders who govern the country. The real danger lies in the government’s ability to wield power at its discretion, and in doing so, to take part in transforming Turkish identity and whose impact is likely to be felt in the future.


The Hijab Returns to Schools, Universities, and Parliament


Owing to the secular identity of the Turkish state, successive governments of the past century have aimed to decrease the use of religious symbols in Turkish state and society through a series of laws and governmental decrees. As a result, the hijab has been the focus of a significant number of such decrees, which banned it from governmental or public institutions, including schools and universities. However, the Justice and Development Party has issued a series of laws and decrees that loosen the ban on wearing hijab, reinforcing its presence as a form of identity for Muslim women and girls. Since the ruling party first came to power in 2002, it has pledged to implement such policies. The process began in 2008, when the Turkish Parliament passed a law permitting hijab to be worn in Turkish universities.[8] The lifting of restrictions on wearing hijab was accelerated in October 2013. At that time, the government issued a series of decrees allowing those who wished to wear a hijab in civil service institutions, government ministries, and directorates (with the exception of military and judicial institutions). While secular parties and feminist organizations have described these changes as “a harsh blow against the principle of the secularism of the republic”, the decrees were issued without delay.[9]

In addition, female members of Parliament were allowed to enter their government offices while wearing hijab: on October 31, 2013, four delegates of the ruling party attended a session of Parliament in their Islamic attire for the first time, an occasion that Erdoğan described as “historic.”[10] The ruling party did not neglect this issue in relation to female students in schools, either. It issued a specific decree in 2014 stating that girls could wear hijab in state schools starting from the age of ten.[11] The decree remains in effect in Turkish schools to this day.

The importance of these laws and decrees lies in the fact that they touch upon one of the most important social, religious, and legal issues in the history of modern Turkey. Granting women in public affairs the right to who wear the hijab by the AKP government has been met with these womens’ approval. Meanwhile, criticism and opposition by secularist parties who wish to halt the appearance of anything symbolizing Islam in the Turkish state and society, have come to naught.


The Presidency of Religious Affairs: A Tool for Islamizing Youth


In the context of attempting to alter Turkey’s identity, and its quest to increase Islamist affiliation and awareness among Turkey’s population, the Turkish government has considerably facilitated the access of youth to mosques. Mosques are among the most effective sites for influencing youth. Given that the popular secular bloc in Turkey is composed primarily of university students, the government has begun, [in an apparent bid to woo them], to build mosques for them on university campuses.


On November 21, 2014, the head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB), Mehmet Görmez, announced his intention to build a mosque at every Turkish university, saying, “there are twenty million young people in Turkey, and we want to reach them all”. He affirmed that his institution, which by law answers to the prime minister, would support the costs of imams [for these mosques] “to help the youth solve their problems”.[12] The guarantee of support for the building of mosques, as well as the employment of imams to run them, suggests that the Turkish government is not facing financial difficulties [but rather has its own priorities]. The budget of DİB was increased to TRL (Turkish Lira) 5.5 billion [US$ 2 billion] for 2015. This amount is equivalent to approximately double the budget of the Ministry of Health, and is roughly equal to the budgets of seven other ministries combined, including the Ministries of Scientific Research and Economy and Development.[13]


Parallel to the large budget allocated to DİB, the past decade has seen a substantial increase in the overall number of mosques in Turkey. According to a report issued by DİB in July 2014, the number of mosques in Turkey rose by an estimated 11% between 2004 [77,151 mosques] and 2014 [85,412 mosques].[14] In addition, DİB signed an agreement with the Ministry of Health at the start of 2015 guaranteeing an additional service to the faithful; placing men of religion in hospitals to raise patient morale.[15] Görmez also announced the founding of a state Islamic university in Istanbul, stating that it would be “of great importance to the Islamic world and to humanity as a whole”.[16]


These policies that the Turkish government is putting into place through the official state’s religious institution, in addition to the statistics released by the latter, suggest that the project of Islamizing Turkey is being implemented diligently and effectively. This project affects not just one, but all segments of society, starting with young people and ending with patients awaiting death on their hospital beds; it extends into both Islamic and ordinary educational structures. The Presidency of Religious Affairs plays a prominent role in promoting religious affiliation among Turkish citizens, and transmitting the faith among Muslims. It appears to be an influential tool of the government in its project of Islamizing Turkish state and society. At the same time, the relative economic prosperity Turkey has enjoyed for the past ten years has facilitated this process by providing the necessary funds for the project.


Islamic Schools to Nurture a “Pious” Generation


In addition to passing the law permitting wearing hijab in schools, the Turkish government has also introduced, to some extent, mandatory enrollment in religious schools. The Turkish Ministry of Education administers exams to all students who wish to complete secondary education. Students who fail this exam are sent to alternate schools to complete their education, the most important of which are Islamic [Imam Khatib] schools.


Instruction in these schools revolves primarily around the Quran and Islamic studies. A portion of state schools has been transformed into these Islamic schools by a government decree in recent years, causing a 73% increase in their number.[17] In the 2013-2014 academic year, for example, close to 1.1 million students took entrance exams for secular secondary schools; only 360,000 were accepted.[18] The remaining students had no choice but to complete their education in Islamic schools or enter trades, especially in certain remote areas where no other kind of school exists.


Education unions are critical of these policies, and the opposition secularist party is of the opinion “that the government seeks to transform state schools into religious schools with doctrinal aims”, yet there is nothing to prevent the AKP from carrying out its Islamist policies. The Minister of Education, Nabi Avcı, has justified them on the basis that “most families prefer to send their children to religious schools”, turning a blind eye to the fact that this deprives over half a million Turkish students of their right to learn in secular schools.[19]


Meanwhile, although Erdoğan frequently justifies his Islamist educational policies based on his desire to “nurture a pious generation”, many Turkish Alevis often organize protests and petitions opposing these new educational policies.[20] The most recent of these policies was this year’s adoption of a number of mandatory religious educational materials for use in state primary and secondary schools. This is despite the fact that Article 12 of Law No. 1739 which regulates national education, stipulates that “secularism is an essential part of education in Turkey”. It is worth noting that the mandatory materials added to the educational curriculum promote only Sunni Islam.[21]




Turkey is witnessing a shift into an increased Islamization of the state and society. Islamist policies in Turkey appear to be on the rise both in terms of the number of people affected by these laws and decrees, and the numbers of institutions they reach, which now comprise every public and educational institution in the country. The secular identity of the state has been brought into question, as the leaders of Turkey are striving to make religious signs and symbols more visible in all sectors – and no effective secular political or popular force is able to deter them. The Justice and Development Party is working to promote Islamist elements within the Turkish state and society, and with no end in sight. The means being used to realize this goal affect all segments of Turkish society and every aspect of social life. The latter includes the educational sector at the university and secondary levels, health provision, and crossing over to all aspects of social life, including women’s clothing, alcohol consumption, and mosque construction.  


The Justice and Development Party also controls institutions that facilitate the implementation of its policies, including the Presidency of Religious Affairs and various ministries, as well as a parliamentary majority that provides them with the means to pass the laws it wishes when the need arises. It is doing so within a legal framework: issuing legal decrees and laws through legitimate institutions, it then presents these to the people as a response to their demands, and provides religious and moral justifications. The relatively stable economic situation has contributed to this reality, with overall prosperity leading to increased government spending on measures that contribute to the Islamization of society. The secular opposition remains weak and ineffective when it comes to changing government policies or stopping Islamist policies in the first place. All these factors have made it possible for the ruling party to implement laws and decrees at its own discretion.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: “Turkey parliament passes anti-alcohol bill”, Al Jazeera, May 24, 2013.

[2] See: “Turkish Parliament adopts alcohol restrictions, bans sale between 10pm and 6am”, Hürriyet Daily News, May 24, 2013.

[3] See: “Erdoğan defends alcohol law: not imposition, protecting youth”, Today’s Zaman, May 28, 2013.

[4] See: Justin Vela’s, “Turkey to restrict sale and advertising of alcohol”, The Telegraph, May 24, 2013.

[5] See note 2 above, idem.

[6] See: Kadri Gursel’s, “Turkey's Creeping Alcohol Ban Reaches New Heights”, Al-Monitor, February 19, 2013.

[7] See: Bülent Sarıoğlu’s, “Turkish Parliament mulls alcohol ban in Gallipoli”, Hürriyet Daily News, May 29, 2014.

[8] See: “Turkish president approves the bill easing the headscarf ban on universities”, Hürriyet Daily News, February 22, 2008.

[9] See: “Turkey lifts decades-old ban on headscarves”, Al Jazeera, October 8, 2013.

[10] See: “Four Turkey MPs wear headscarves in parliament”, BBC News, October 31, 2013.

[11] See: “Turkey lifts headscarf ban in schools for girls as young as 10”, RT (Russia Today), September 23, 2014.

[12] See: “Turkey to open mosques ‘in every university’”, Al Arabiya, November 21, 2014.

[13] See: Yousef al-Sharif’s, “Turkish Religious Affairs Budget Equivalent to Expenditures of Seven Ministries”, al-Hayat, January 13, 2015.

[14] See: “Study: Number of Mosques in Turkey Rises”, Zaman Arabic, July 8, 2014.

[15] See note 13 above, idem.

[16] See: Yana Shafiq’s, “Turkey Announces Founding of State Islamic University in Istanbul”, Yeni Safak, October 1, 2014.

[17] See: “Turkey’s education row deepens as thousands placed in religious schools ‘against their will’”, Hürriyet Daily News, August 28, 2014.

[18] See: “Turkish government promoting Islamic schools at the expense of secular education”, Asia News, August 24, 2013.

[19] See note 17 above, idem.

[20] See: Ceylan Yeginsu’s, “Turkey Promotes Religious Schools, Often Defying Parents”, the New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[21] See: “Alevis gather in İstanbul to demand greater freedoms”, Today’s Zaman, February 8, 2015.

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