University of the Philippines, Diliman

Ambivalence and Irony: ATATURKISM AND ISLAMISM IN TURKEY by Jerry Buenavista @ University of the Philippines-Diliman

From the ashes of the two great world empires – the Byzantine and the Ottoman – gave birth to a modern state of Turkey. It became a republic in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the founder and first president, hence, Ataturkism was named after him, the country’s founding ideology.


Ataturkism or Kemalism was the political, economic, and social principles advocated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk designed to divorce the new Turkish state from the remnants of the Ottoman empire and embrace modernity patterned after the Westernized way of living including the establishment of secularism and democracy. Secularism does not entail separation of the state and religion but a subordination of religion to the state; emphasizing that religious belief and practice should be limited in private life. Muslim Turks should consider themselves as Turks first, then Muslims. With secularism as the defining feature of Turkey, makes it a model for democracy in the Arab world. However, with the rise of Islamism, did it lead to political earthquake in Turkey?


Scholars who argue that democracy and Islam should not be considered as adversaries are Beinin and Stork 1997; Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Entelis 1997; Esposito and Voll 1996. On the otherhand, scholars who argue that Islam is ill-assorted with democratic values are (Fukuyama 1992; Huntingto 1984, 1991 and Lipset 1991). From the establishment of the republic, that is, during the era of one-party rule in 1923 until 1946, Islamist groups stayed underground. Starting from the 1990s, political Islam dramatically increased in Turkey. The army, ever protective of Turkey’s secular identity quashes anti-secularistic practices of the government. However, political parties organize in the guise of secularism, masking their Islamic roots. Is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) one of these?

Ambivalence in Two Turkeys

Two Turkeys coexisted in uneasy harmony: an urban, modern, secular, “center” and a rural, traditional, religious, “periphery.” The dominant elite was urban, modern and secular while the greater part of the population was rural, traditional and religious. The Kemalists carried out reforms that cut its ties with its Ottoman heritage. Most of the reforms instituted were limited to the urban centers. In the countryside, Islam continued to have strong social roots. Kemalism as a discourse and political project had been imposed from above and so it failed to reach the bottom layer of the society: its secularizing effect was confined to state sectors while most of the masses remained religious. Ataturk’s attempt to transform the country is represented by “revolution from above.”

Irony in Multi-Party

Democratization is the most significant element of the Turkish model. From authoritarian single-party rule, the country transitioned into a multi-party system in 1946, thus, ironically, the CHP (the party representing Ataturkism/Kemalism) has lost the monopoly on power. When the country had a multi-party, it opened doors for the proliferation of other parties such as those with religious undertones. The groups and individual leaders formed covert and overt alliances. During this period, the regime provided certain concessions to the religious demands of the periphery as part of a strategy to incorporate the rural masses and stay in power. One of the most important religious concessions was to re-open the imam-hatip schools. Indeed, these schools played a critical role in the Islamicization of Turkish society and the state. The consolidation of democracy in Turkey, including the successful inclusion of the religiously oriented groups, has been a consequence of an interactive relationship between Islam and democracy.

Irony on the Role of the Military

The military is the defender of secularism and the watchdog of civilian government. In several occasions since Turkey’s founding, the military has displaced politicians who challenged its power or deviated from Ataturk’s ideology. The military sees itself as the country’s guardian, not its ruler. After each intervention, it handed power back to civilian authorities once stability was restored.

Ironically, the military contributed to the strengthening of political Islam in Turkey. In an effort to combat communism and leftist ideologies, the military attempted to strengthen the role of Islam. Under the military’s tutelage, religious education was made a compulsory subject in all schools and state-controlled moral and religious education was promoted. Under the 1982 constitution, Turkey was defined as a secular state. On the otherhand, the role of religion was strengthened in schools and education as a means of reinforcing Turkish nationalism, which tended to weaken the emphasis on secularism.

Identity Masked with Ambiguity?

Turkey, a Muslim country that adheres to secularism dreams of becoming a member of the European Union (EU). It tries to maintain the practice of religion into the private sphere even discarded its Ottoman past. To comply with EU’s democratic credentials, Turkey clothe with democratic ideals. What is disheartening is, the very reason why Turkey is advocating secularism, is the same reason why EU is skeptical in accepting Turkey into the union. It’s like a prodigal son who stowaway, erased his dark past, embraced a new identity and wanted to belong into the neighborhood, but his neighbors still sees in him his “old self.”

With ambivalence and irony in Turkey’s history, its identity is masked with ambiguity.

Is it secular or Islamic?

Is it democratic or autocratic?




Alam, Anwar. 2009. “Islam and Post-Modernism: Locating the Rise of Islamism in Turkey.” Journal of Islamic Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (September): 352-375.

Heper, Metin. 1997. “Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Toward a Reconciliation?” Middle East Journal, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Winter): 32-45.

Phillips, David. 2004. “Turkey’s Dreams of Accession
 Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct.): 86-97.

Rabasa, Angel and F. Stephen Larrabee. 2008. “The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey.” RAND Corporation



Two women discuss Turkish politics during a joint rally in Istanbul between the Islamist and secularist parties shortly after the attempted coup in late July.

Credit: Fariba Nawa


  1. Baxter Shirey

    November 2, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    Interesting historical analysis of Turkish values following the end of the Ottoman Empire. I found it particularly strange that, from the way you described it, Turkey transitioned from its more liberal Kemalist views into more traditional Islamist conservative views after the single party system was eliminated and democratic elections were established. I automatically tend to associate the expansion of democratic rights with increased acceptance of liberal values. This, however, seems to suggest that a polarized voter base will tend to be more invigorated for the party not in power. A grass is greener on the other side effect. Your willingness to admit religious extremism may be at fault for Turkish division is interesting also as I think democrats in the United States are a bit more hesitant to attack that in the current political climate, despite secularism being a liberal mainstay. I wonder how an unapologetically militant atheist and anti-Islamist like Richard Dawkins would fare in today’s political climate.

  2. Michelle Manning

    December 6, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    This was a curious take on Turkey and how its history has led it to be an ambiguous state stuck between secular and religious ways to govern. The author named some of the obstacles that Turkey has tried to overcome in order to be secular and democratic. There was a historic account of how Mustafa Kemal secularized Turkey in 1923 but failed to focus on democracy, and how due to the separation of religion and state Islam was pushed out of society but never pushed out of the hearts of the majority. The author described two Turkeys, one that was modern and secular and one that was rural and religious. It seems that the main point of this article is to shed some light on why Turkey’s true governing system is unclear to the rest of the world and the polarized opinions of the people it governs. The author asked two questions at the end of the article: Is Turkey democratic or autocratic? Is it secular or Islamic? I think over the past few years, through the leadership of Erdogan, we have received the answer to these questions. Erdogan was democratically elected. However, he displays all four indicators of authoritarian behavior according to Levitsky and Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die”. He has held a monopoly of power since 2003 and continues to erode democracy through silencing the media and his opponents, as well as making an enemy of Kurds. He has also increased religion in schools and allowed the public display of religion as long as it is Islam. This could be seen as an increase in democracy, but he has used it as a tool to polarize the country. Turkey is autocratic and Islamic and will continue to be as long as Erdogan remains in power.

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