Turkish civil society under pressure

By Nafisa Yilmaz

Nobody has embodied the Erdoğan regime better than the Imam of Hagia Sophia, who was newly appointed after its conversion into a mosque at the end of July last year. Theology professor Mehmet Boynukalın was modern and liked to tweet – until his involuntary resignation at the beginning of April. On March 8, International Women’s Day, he wrote that the “talk” about feminicide was nothing more than a propagandistic slogan to incite women against men. On the same day, the “Platform for the Prevention of Femicide” in Istanbul had drawn attention to it that 300 women were murdered and 171 deaths classified as suspicious across the country in 2020. “The religion of the state is Islam,” wrote the imam. “Secularism should be deleted from the constitution.” The last straw came, however, from his remarks about the ban on selling alcohol during the three-week Ramadan lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. “You will probably not perish if you do not drink anything for a few weeks,” remarked the Imam dryly and treated Erdoğan critics as alcoholics. “Your salary is financed with our alcohol taxes!” The Turkish state received three billion US dollars from these taxes in 2020. The Imam replied, “I have already bought first-class shrouds for you with my share.” The outrage caused such waves that Boynukalın had to leave the most important “mosque” in the country.

Money, Prayers and Connections

Nevertheless, the recent history of Turkish Islamism can be told in his person. With Necmettin Erbakan, who died in 2011, his father Rifat founded the Islamist Millî Görüş movement, which is also well organized throughout Europe. After the military coup in 1980, he emigrated to Saudi Arabia, where Mehmet Boynukalın grew up until he later attended Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Together with his brother, who was studying theology in Saudi Arabia, he later founded a food company, which caused a sensation because of its lucrative business with the Saudis. A nephew of the later Hagia Sophia Imam was first elected chairman of the AKP youth organization and then a member of parliament. It is precisely this diffuse mixture of religion, politics and economy that characterizes the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today. Money, prayers and good connections count in it. And the formula works.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey is developing more and more towards a theocratic state in which some earn more than others. Behind this, however, is a large network that has been gradually built up through hard work since the founding of the secular republic in 1923. Anatolian sects are represented in it as well as urban, anti-secular intellectuals. They all found their “leader” in Erdoğan – after he broke away from the Millî Görüş movement and founded the AKP – whom they respectfully call “Reis”.[1]

Erdoğan continues to enjoy the image of a devout underdog, who has been subjugated for decades by “secular, westernized elites” and finally raised to the voice of the people by God’s hand. The class question mixes here with religion and politics, religiousness among the urban, modern sections of the population has steadily declined since the 1930s. The Anatolian immigrants in the cities and in the countryside, on the other hand, lacked the capital in every respect to participate in the “western”, liberal lifestyle. From 1950 onwards, the rural exodus produced an impoverished urban proletariat, which, due to the low level of industrialization in the country, often fled to self-employment. Small family businesses and trade thrived on the outskirts of large cities, which over time grew into mega-cities. Especially after 1980, many of these Anatolian businessmen succeeded in building up their own economic, political and cultural networks within the economically liberal Turkish system and thereby advancing. Especially those of them who feel despised by the western-liberal-minded citizens found their political home with Erdoğan.

The Islamism of the Ottoman Empire was transformed into a new movement that wanted to transform the demonized “Kemalist republic” into a theocratic state. But unlike in the past, the goal of an Islamic state seems within reach today cultural capital of the emerging new classes; it is also worth striving for as a legal guarantor of their new wealth.

The question of women as the anchor point of the Islamist worldview

The question of women is not only an unmistakable source of conflict, but one of the most important anchor points of the Islamist worldview. The fact that Erdoğan suspended the Istanbul Convention [2] on preventing and combating violence against women overnight was just another warning shot. The Turkish women’s movement knows what it is dealing with. And despite the demonstration bans legitimized by the corona pandemic, there is a lively feminist scene in the country. Above all, the well-educated young women in the big cities also follow the international debates. So it happens that feminists and LGBT activists in Turkey are heavily discussing Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in their ranks, while the AKP is trying to introduce separate urban buses for women and men. But the environmental movement, business-liberal networks, academics and trade unions continue to fight against the complete takeover of the country by the AKP. Civil society is undoubtedly opposed to any palace ordinance and any practice that is in the direction of a theocratic state. But with what success?

It is true that every measure encounters resistance, since in Turkey the transformation to an Islamic state – in contrast to Iran in 1979 – in a now heavily modernized country is only creeping in, without a “revolution”. But the parliament is largely disempowered and Erdoğan usually determines the course of events by nightly decree. Civil society is also organized, if at all, in small associations and groups and, due to the immense police pressure on the street, continues to fight, especially in social media and on platforms such as YouTube. Lawyers announce the trial dates on Mondays where unjustly accused journalists or activists need support. Women’s organizations draw attention to a suspicious death almost every day and call on citizens to follow up. The environmental movement is fighting on many fronts: most recently in Rize, for example on the Black Sea, in Erdoğan’s homeland, where one of the most beautiful river valleys in the country is destroyed by a mine. There are photographers who provide impressive images, reporters who speak to local residents, and lawyers who take up the matter voluntarily and take action against powerful companies that have too good connections to “rice”. Its wealth and power apparatus, in turn, can no one meanwhile assess – the fixation on the leader figure Erdoğan is currently perhaps the only vulnerable point of totalitarianism in Turkey.

This day-to-day struggle is extremely tiring. Just following tweets or watching YouTube conversations takes up a lot of time and gnaws at your soul. From high school students to academics and politicians, many have experienced prosecution and imprisonment. But this part of Turkish society has understood one thing: democracy and freedom are not given. You are not only dealing with a powerful state apparatus, but also with the media and the AKP trolls who are active on the Internet and who use every means of propaganda to distort and falsify information. It deserves respect how they still hold on to their rights and try to regain them.

Civil rights without a strong forum

It is precisely in this transformation process, enforced from above, how closely these movements are related to democracy. Each of these civic movements aims at the freedom of the individual, while Islamism as a totalitarian worldview has the collective in mind. How women (or a non-binary individual) have to dress and behave is directly connected to a democratic, free state order based on the separation of powers and which defines and guarantees the responsibility and freedoms of the citizens. Education, worldview, economic position and way of life are closely linked and lead to a coherent result – for example in elections. That is why Islamist or other totalitarian movements can exist in a liberal democracy, but not the other way around.

But civil rights do not have a strong forum in Turkey; in case of doubt they can be sacrificed to the strong state. Erdoğan succeeds in mobilizing votes before every election, for example with the Kurdish question or an alleged “attack” from abroad on the Turks. This works: According to the latest polls, his AKP comes in at 30 to 35 percent, which is clearly ahead of the social democratic CHP, which lands at only 20 to 26 percent, while the pro-Kurdish HDP has around 9 percent, and the rest of the vote is divided among the nationalists and conservatives.

If Erdoğan faces just one candidate in the upcoming 2023 presidential election, he calculates, he will definitely win it in view of the divided opposition.

Even the activists in Rize who are fighting against the devastation of their environment today will probably vote for him again. Last but not least, social policy plays an important role: every citizen has health insurance, unemployment benefits and assistance are available, private clinics are open to everyone in an emergency and the state also pays high treatment costs, for example for cancer patients. During the pandemic, the government distributed around 300 million euros to those in need – that is well received.

The old disappears to make way for the new

So what’s next in Turkey? Erdoğan’s “creeping Islamization” initially places the Islamic order as an “alternative” alongside the existing one: another school, another hotel, another business, another bank – each according to his own style. Gradually, however, the old disappears to make way for the new.

A few examples: Couples have been officially married by an imam for almost three years. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to divorce her too? And why should a family not be allowed to regulate their inheritance matters according to Islamic law (which among other things means a double inheritance for the man)? Why should a maximum of four wives not be legalized, isn’t it beneficial for them?

In the never-ending, grueling debates on these issues, three points are crucial.

First, who interprets the Sharia? In Turkey this is the official religious authority Diyanet. Deviating, more liberal interpretations of the Quran meet with resistance from the conservatives – and if in doubt, they win.[3] For this reason, a reform is currently not to be expected from theologians in the civil service and the chosen path leads to a more conservative than liberal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam.

Second, how long can Turkish civil society hold on? Not long without political support. In the long run it is powerless against a massive AKP apparatus, which is already noticeable in the growing wave of young city dwellers who emigrate.

Third, from whom can Turkish civil society expect solidarity? Not from political institutions from abroad that defend their national interests in case of doubt, but from other parts of the world, involved in matters of civil liberty, feminism and LGBT rights, the environment, the climate and much more. Turkish civil society urgently needs this international networking and support. Otherwise it will be pretty quiet in Turkey.


[1] From the Arabic root ras: “Leader, leader, captain”. In Turkish, the word has a strong patriarchal connotation

[2] The Council of Europe Convention, adopted in Istanbul in 2014, is not only extremely important for the Turkish women’s movement. Islamist propaganda equated it with the visibility of homosexual and transsexuality in public and pleaded for “moral reasons” for Turkey to withdraw from the convention in order to protect the family as the basis of society

[3] The theologian Mustafa Öztürk had to give up his professorship at the Marmara University in Istanbul in December 2020 due to criticism from the conservatives. Öztürk advocates a historical classification of the Quranic verses and criticizes the conservative school

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