In the first days of June, the İsmailağa Cemaati released a statement on its website in which they declared that the conservative religious movement had chosen to vote for Mr. Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential elections which will take place on Sunday, 24 June. The statement was immediately reported by numerous news platforms.
The İsmailağa movement has been growing for years thanks to its capability to address ‘the periphery in the metropolis’ (Çakır, 1990), namely the new immigrants to the large cities which tend to feel uncomfortable in the multicultural, secular and liberal urban space. Under the leadership of Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu (1929-), the movement since the early 1980s has distinguished itself from the larger Turkish Naqshbandi movement for its anti-modernization stand and for strict application of Hanafi Law. Its members are easily recognizable because men wear a shalwar and white turban, keep their beards, and shave their hair; while women wear a black niqab, which leaves visible only the eyes and nose.
“In the first days of June, the İsmailağa Cemaati released a statement on its website in which they declared that the conservative religious movement had chosen to vote for Mr. Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential elections which will take place on Sunday, 24 June. The statement was immediately reported by numerous news platforms.”
The statement by the İsmailağa was certainly not a surprise. The choice to point to a party has not been uncommon since the introduction of democracy in Turkey. The movement has usually preferred the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party, RP) – Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party, FP) line, the parties established by Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), the founder of the Islamist political movement in Turkey. Erbakan’s party in the 24 June elections is running in a coalition with the Kemalist CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People’s Party) and the newly established moderate nationalist İYİ Parti (Good / Oğuz Tribe Party). However, in the past elections the SP had underperformed because of the 10 percent electoral threshold, which had strongly limited the capability of small political formations to run in national elections. Moreover, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AK Parti) has been dominating Turkish politics for the past 16 years and, after the July 2016 attempted coup, all religious movements fear state repression.
After the coup, the largest religious movement in the country, the Fethullah Gülen Movement (FGM), was declared a terrorist organization (as Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü, FETÖ) because of the role in the coup of its leadership and adepts in the security apparatus. Since then, all religious movements have been seen as suspicious by state agencies and by large segments of the public, which is less willing to make donations or showing support to these movements.
Religion, Sufi Orders and Politics in Turkey: 1950 to Early 2000s
Moreover, religious movements and lodges have been an active element of Turkish public sphere since 1950. After the proclamation of the new Turkish Republic in 1923, all Sufi lodges and religious organizations were closed or forced to go underground. Only with the end of the one-party regime of CHP and the rise of the Demokrat Parti (Democrat Party), in 1950, there was a liberalization toward religious activities and religious movements and, since then, lodges were largely tolerated. The Demokrat Parti was a center-right party which relied also on the support of religious networks to collect votes, particularly in the peripheral areas of the country. In this period the most active groups were the so called Nurcu movements, which where animated by the followers of Said Nursi (1877-1960), a very influential religious authority.
In the 1960s, various religious orders contributed to the Islamic revival in Turkey, after being involved in political activities and media outlets. In this period, the most active among them were the Naqshbandi movements, which were the most relevant movement until late 1990s. The Naqshbandiyya is a Sufi order established by Bahauddin Naqshband (1318-89) in Central Asia. A turning point for the order was the establishment by Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) of the Mujaddidiyya branch, which adopted more puritan and political stands. Another key sufi master of the order was Khalid al-Baghdadi (1779-1827) who established yet another branch and introduced the Naqshbandiyya to Anatolia with a pronounced loyalty to the Ottoman state as an object of Muslim unity and cohesion, and a concomitant hostility to imperialism (all features that still characterize it today).
“Starting from 1950s the Turkish state eased restrictions on religious education and the presence of religion in the public sphere. However, in the 1980s the state even further eased these restrictions, it favored religious education, and gave larger powers to the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs), the public body which overviews religious life and mosques in the country.”
Starting from 1950s the Turkish state eased restrictions on religious education and the presence of religion in the public sphere. However, in the 1980s the state even further eased these restrictions, it favored religious education, and gave larger powers to the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs), the public body which overviews religious life and mosques in the country. In the same period various Naqshbandi groups transformed themselves from purely religious networks into educational and cultural associations.
However, during the “28 February Process” of 1997 when Turkish army engineered toppling of the elected government led by Erbakan in what is coined a “post-modern coup,” the government cut all funding to nongovernmental religious communities and brotherhoods. Other schools were closed and religious movements put under strict control by the authorities. Again, many movements and orders preferred to go underground. This process was reverted after the 2002’s rise to power of AK Parti. This last party created a liberal environment where all orders and religious movements were allowed to operate. However, symbolic changes like the lift of the ban on the veil in schools and public offices was possible only in 2013.
Pragmatism and Religious Movements in Turkey’s Political Life
The foregoing discussion shows that there has always been a link between religious movements, orders and the political parties.
“The foregoing discussion shows that there has always been a link between religious movements, orders and the political parties.”On the one hand, all the orders and movements have frequently argued that they are not involved in politics; the most famous remark on this topic came from Said Nursi who stated ‘I ask in the name of Allah to protect me from the devil and from politics’ pointing to its corruption and immorality. On the other side, however, all orders and movements are connected with politics for pragmatic reasons, mainly to protect themselves from the secular state, gaining financial support, construction permits, and licenses for private schools. The FGM, which has its roots in the larger Nurcu movement, always denied interest for (party) politics yet it built an unprecedented web of adepts in the police, armed forces and the bureaucracy. Naqshbandi networks, instead, invited their followers to engage in private enterprises but favored also attempts to join established political parties.
Can We Predict Religious Voters’ Behavior?
In turn, political parties also need orders and religious movements because they are primordial social networks powerful as the tribal, familiar or hemşehri (fellow townsman) bounds and organizations, always longed for by all Turkish political parties irrespective of their ideological background (Guida, 2014; Meeker, 2002).
“…it is difficult to measure the ability of orders and religious movements to influence their followers’ choice in the privacy of the voting booth. For instance, in 1995 elections the FGM supported Erbakan’s RP… However, in a study conducted in the city of inner Anatolia Kırıkkale in 1995 the most popular party among the readers of the newspaper Zaman – the paper run by the movement – was the center-right moderate Anavatan Partisi …”
However, it is difficult to measure the ability of orders and religious movements to influence their followers’ choice in the privacy of the voting booth. For instance, in 1995 elections the FGM supported Erbakan’s RP (Akyeşilmen & Özcan, 2014). However, in a study conducted in the city of inner Anatolia Kırıkkale in 1995 the most popular party among the readers of the newspaper Zaman – the paper run by the movement – was the center-right moderate Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party, ANAP) followed by the nationalist Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP). RP was only their fourth choice (Çaha, Topak, & Dalmış, 2004, p. 112). In the following elections, the movement built close relations to the center-left party of Demokratik Sol Parti (Democratic Left Party, DSP), established by Bülent Ecevit – the 1970s leader of the Kemalist CHP. Unfortunately, we do not have statistics on the choices of the movements’ followers then, however, the greater majority of followers who I met in 1999 elections refused to vote outside the center-right spectrum. Clearly, Kemalism, even in its moderate form, was (and remains) a taboo among conservatives in Turkey.
The İskender Paşa Dergahı, a Naqshbandi order very powerful under the leadership of Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980) also failed to shift votes. Erbakan was a follower of Kotku and his master helped him in creating an engine factory and, later, supported him in his early political career. However, after the 1980, the movement switched its support towards Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party, ANAP) lead by Turgut Özal, also a follower of Kotku (Guida, 2005). Özal was supported by the movement in the creation of a moderate political party even after the death of the charismatic master.In mid-1990s, the order was led by Kotku’s son in law, Esat Coşan (1938-2001) and with Özal’s death in 1993 the ANAP changed radically. The followers of the movement, again, returned to support Erbakan’s parties despite the fact that Coşan harshly opposed and criticized Necmettin Erbakan.
“The İskender Paşa Dergahı, a Naqshbandi order very powerful under the leadership of Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980) also failed to shift votes.”
The Religious Periphery in Turkish Political Life
Even if the capability of religious movements and orders to mobilize votes is modest, it is undoubted that religion has a key role in shaping and maintaining conservative values. In the words of a Turkish scholar: “New political parties emerged to represent the values of the periphery, which had been cloaked in tradition. At the core of these values were some form of religiosity, awe and suspicion of the state, and local heterodoxy which, in turn, bred decentralization as well as avoidance of the government, its officials, and their alien culture” (Kalaycıoğlu, 2007, p. 234).
What Kalaycıoğlu calls ‘periphery’ was the portion of Turkish population that was exposed less to Kemalist secular reforms and ideas. During the 1950s, the periphery remained attached to religious values and maintained a strong attachment to nationalist values with a profound admiration of the glorious Muslim and Ottoman past (something that Kemalism aimed to conceal). Religion remained a key element of Turkish identity. In a survey conducted in 2006, 44.6 percent of Turks defined themselves first as Muslims, whereas only 30 percent define themselves first as citizens of the Turkish Republic (Çarkoğlu & Toprak, 2007, p. 44). However, this figure did not meant support for the introduction of Shari’ah law that remains marginal (8.9 percent in 2006 (ibid., p. 81)).
“Religion remained a key element of Turkish identity. In a survey conducted in 2006, 44.6 percent of Turks defined themselves first as Muslims, whereas only 30 percent define themselves first as citizens of the Turkish Republic.”During the one-party regime, Kemalism also neglected rural areas and focused on urban centers for its project of modernization. This produced a strong feeling of mağduriyet, victimization among conservatives living in the periphery. Moreover, forms of discrimination toward the pious or, for instance, the ban of the veil or beard in schools and public offices strengthen the feeling of being marginalized.
Throughout the rapid process of Turkish urbanization, the periphery moved toward urban areas and gained access to higher education and public office. However, the process of urbanization did not lead to socio-economic and political integration. Religious orders and movements often have helped to sustain, transmit, and support alternative identities based on religion. After the 1990s, private schools, student accommodations and economic enterprises – promoted by different religious groups – offered students and employees success at university entrance examinations and careers but maintained some form of peasant or small town culture, psyches and virtues. Students and employees were encouraged to take part in religious instruction and ceremonies, study Ottoman grandeur and to criticize Kemalism.
Turkey’s Kulturkampf and 24 June 2018 Elections
In the long run, there has been the creation of a Kulturkampf, a deep division along cultural lines between two large communities – secular and pious – which affects political and electoral behavior, as well as being at the center of a clash between elites, including Islamists of varying positions. On the one hand, there are those whose lifestyles are shaped on the basis of a secular image of the good society. On the other, there are those who structure their lives and view of society around values of tradition and religion (Kalaycıoğlu, 2011; Mardin, 1973).
Kulturkampf has been a key factor in influencing Turkish voting behaviors (Kalaycıoğlu, 2007, 2011). In the past sixteen years, AK Parti has been able to monopolize socially conservative, religious and economically satisfied community of voters by amplifying the role of Kulturkampf. It was able to build the monopoly thanks to a positive record of economic growth, expansion and melioration of welfare state, as well as the 10 percent threshold and the rise of the costs of politics. Small political parties of the center-right were easily co-opted (for instance Suleyman Soylu’s Demokrat Parti and Numan Kurtulmuş’s HAS Parti).
“Whatever the result of the upcoming presidential and legislative elections both religious movements and religion as identity will be a key element of the different parties’ discourse and will certainly influence voters.”
Opposition parties were unable to alleviate the conservatives’ fears of a backlash of Kemalist secularism or to respond to their concerns. Both CHP and the Kurdish-leftist Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Democratic Party of the Peoples, HDP) have welcomed in their ranks conservative politicians and smoothed their critiques of religion or religious education. Even the main challenger of Tayyip Erdoğan, current president and chairman of AK Party, at the presidential elections – Muharrem İnce – has many times stressed his ‘peripheral’ background and the fact that his mother and many members of his family are veiled. Nevertheless, conservative voters remain diffident. In the upcoming election, though, the chance to participate in the elections with a coalition has given the chance to Islamist Erbakan’s old FP and İYİ Parti, born from a split in the nationalist party, to overcome the threshold and attract conservative votes. Both of them rely on tradition, religion and nationalist sentiments to challenge AK Parti.
Whatever the result of the upcoming presidential and legislative elections both religious movements and religion as identity will be a key element of the different parties’ discourse and will certainly influence voters.
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