Islam in Turkey is moderate and adapted to modern life. Many Turks value the moral and spiritual bases of Islam, and revere it as a guide to right living and ethical conduct.
I’ve written books on a half-dozen Muslim countries, and I’ve found Turkish Muslims to be the most moderate and tolerantof all. Non-Muslims are welcome as visitors in all Turkish mosques.
Islam in Turkey
Most Turks are Sunni Muslims; that is, they are among the majority of Islamic believers. There are Shiite (Shi’a) and Alaouite (Alevi) minorities as well. About 20% of Turkish Muslims look upon themselves as Muslims first and citizens of the Turkish Republic second; the other 80% see themselves as citizens first, and count religion as second, third or fourth; some are secular, and pay little attention to religion at all.
During the Ottoman centuries, Istanbul was the center of the Islamic world, and its ruler, the Ottoman sultan, was also widely acknowledged as the Caliph, or spiritual leader of Islam.
The Ottomans, and their precursors, the Seljuk Turks, made significant contributions to Islamic life and theology. Many sufi(mystical) orders were born in Turkish lands, including the Mevlevi (“whirling dervish”) order inspired by Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi and founded in Konya during the 1200s. (Visit Konya with me and see the dervishes whirl.)
Rule of Religious Law
The Ottoman Empire was a theocracy. The law of the land for Muslims was shari’a, the holy law of the Kur’an-i Kerim (Holy Koran). Christian and Jewish minorities were governed by their own laws, based on their own Scriptures, subject to the ultimate rule of the sultan.
Religious law had governed, or at least significantly influenced government, in most countries until the 18th century. (When thePilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, for example, their governing law was based on their religious beliefs.)
By the early 20th century, it was clear to Kemal Atatürk, father of the Turkish Republic, that religious government was hampering Turkey’s social, commercial and diplomatic progress. The republic he founded was staunchly secular, with the separation of government and religion as one of its fundamental tenets. According to the constitution, the Turkish armed forces are charged with preserving democracy and secularism.
Islamist Political Parties
In elections held in December, 1995, the Islamist Welfare Partywon 21% of the vote, a larger proportion than any other party, and earned the right to form a coalition government. (Many people believe that the Welfare Party’s success was the result of many “protest votes” being cast not so much for Welfare’s Islamist platform but against other political parties, which were seen as corrupt and ineffective.)
By 1997, Welfare politicians had stepped over the line in mixing religion and politics. The armed forces told Welfare to step down, and the courts later disbanded the party. The secular parties took over, with disappointing results.
In November 2002 a new, neo-Islamist party was given a majority of seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, and formed the first one-party, non-coalition government in decades. Again, a large proportion of the vote for the new Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) was seen as a protest against the old, ineffective, corrupt political parties and the substantial influence of the military establishment rather than as a vote for Islamism.
The new Justice and Development Party government vowed to govern in a secular manner (though guided by the moral and ethical precepts of Islam), and to maintain Turkey’s relations with its neighbors as well as with Europe and the USA. However, the Turkish government has also been working hard to strengthen relations with its Islamic neighbors, including the Arab states and Iran.
With a strong, active, expert-driven, non-coalition government in power, the Turkish economy boomed, Gross National Product soared, Turks’ standard of living increased dramatically, society and infrastructure were rapidly modernized, and Turkey took on a new prominence and importance in the world.
Military Influence Wanes
In 2010, the government brought charges of plotting a coupagainst more than 100 middle-and high-ranking military officers, shattering the tradition, in place since the founding of the Turkish Republic, that the military establishment was beyond the reach of civil law.
The accused officers were arrested, tried, and condemned to prison, but discovery later (2015) that evidence against them had been fabricated—in short, that they had been “framed”—resulted in all charges against them being dropped and all sentences vacated. However, the initial effect of the legal prosecutions—reducing the influence of the military in politics—remained.
Islamic Influence Increases
Along with rapid economic development, the Justice and Development Party nurtured a more public and quasi-official support for Islamic culture and influence. Official and semi-official policies and events no longer studiously avoided reference to religious themes. The official drift away from strict secularism, and the benevolent and tolerant attitude toward religious expression in government, was approved by religious Turks, but Turks who believe in the virtue of strictly secular government were distressed by this trend.
See also History of the Turkish Republic.