Turkey – Is the AKP a threat to the Turkish model of secularisation?

By Olivia Michelmore (2012)

Since its birth, the Republic of Turkey has been based on the principles of its founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who stipulated the establishment of a secular state where Islam and Islamic institutions would not be an obstacle to progress and development.[1] Whilst this model of secularisation has been maintained, this has not been without several challenges over the years. The current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey has been accused with ‘pursuing an Islamist agenda’, aiming to uproot the secular foundations of the Republic.[2] Consequently this has led to tensions between secular and religious groups. However, does the AKP pose a real threat to secularisation in Turkey? This essay will conclude that the AKP represents ‘social’ Islam and not ‘political’ Islam; therefore whilst the leaders may be personally committed to Islam, the aims and policies of the AKP do not reflect this, and thus the AKP is not a threat to the secular model. This will be argued by first analysing Turkey’s history and what the model of secularisation installed actually is, and next critically examining the aims and intentions of the AKP.

Secularism was not a new phenomenon that came with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk’s secularising reforms had their roots in Turkey’s Ottoman history, namely ‘his opinions as to the functions of religion in society and the methods which he used to translate his ideas into policy.’[3] During the period of the Ottoman Empire, Islam had considerable influence, especially in the judicial system.[4] However, although the Sheikh ul-Islam was able to approve decrees, ‘he did not have any serious power to direct certain practices or institutions’, and so it is debatable whether religion interfered in state issues or not.[5] Nonetheless, the blame for the demise of the Ottoman Empire was placed with the Ottomans, because many believed the Ottomans had ‘neglected their duties as Muslims’, as well as being responsible for the deterioration and corruption’ of the state machinery.[6] To combat this decline, the bureaucracy and military ‘embarked on a programme which had the aim of introducing into Turkey administrative institutions and economic incentives which European enlightened despotism had used for some time’; this programme had secular aspects to it. [7] Not only does this illustrative the basis for many of Atatürk’s reforms and ideology, but it also suggests that Turkey was already working towards the secularisation model before the creation of the Republic.

The secularisation theory states that ‘modernisation leads to a decline in religion’s role in the public realm, with it turning into a matter for the private sphere.’[8] This arguably was the aim of the Kemalist elite, who instigated ‘a radical transformation of Turkish society from an Islamic to a western orientation’ as soon as they got into power. However, the complete secularisation of Turkey was essentially never achieved. Secularism is defined as ‘the absolute detachment of religious affiliation from state affairs.’[9] What the new republic instead achieved was the placement of religion under state control by ‘controlling and limiting religious education, outlawing tarikats and replacing religious laws with secular ones’; this is the Turkish model of secularisation.[10] The architects of the new relationship between the state and Islam named it laiklik, after the French term laïcisme, and this emerged as one of the governing principles of the Republican People’s Party. [11] Davidson argues that whilst secularism and laicism as concepts are ‘synonymous in some limited senses’, they essentially have different etymologies; he argues because religion was not removed from the Turkish state, the ‘founding and operative institutional matrix is best understood as a form of laicism, not secularism.’[12] Examples to illustrate this include: the removal of Islam as the state religion from the 1924 constitution; the banning the use of religion for political purposes; and the abolishment of the Caliphate and Sharia.[13] A controversial area for religious and secular groups then and now is the headscarf and dress code of Turkish women. Although a dress code was initially not imposed in the Republic, ‘unveiling marked the commitment of women to the republican reforms’, particularly to the ‘new secular regime, principles of gender equality and development’.[14] Essentially, unveiling became the symbol of western modernisation, rejecting the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.[15]

From Atatürk’s viewpoint, what these reforms aimed ‘to institutionalise in Turkey was a technique of how to think, not a prescription of what to think.’[16] This process has later been referred to as ‘Kemalism’, and this was a largely successful project due to three main reasons.[17] Firstly, ‘an overwhelming majority of the people in Turkey began to stay away from superstitions and a dogmatic way of thinking’; secondly, ‘people began to see themselves as part of a secular nation and not as part of a religious community’; and finally the consolidation of democracy helped the legitimacy of the secular project.[18] All of this would suggest that the Turkish people are committed to the secular state, and so there is no need to fear a threat to the model of secularisation. The principle of laicism (or secularism) has ‘rooted itself sufficiently firmly never to be removed from Turkish constitutional practice.’[19]However, despite this there have been many political challenges to the security of this model, and its success has not always been guaranteed. Many argue the threat the AKP pose to secularisation in Turkey stems from the early political history of the AKP leaders.

The AKP leadership emerged ‘from the cadres of the first organized political representative of Islamism in Turkish politics’ which was known as the “national view movement”.[20] Islamism ‘refers to political activism that aims to form a polity inspired, if not defined, by the principles of Islam, and envisages the construction of an Islamic society through the agency of the state.’[21] The AKP has consistently rejected this label for obvious reasons. During the 1950s, Islamist parties began to grow in strength as ‘a potent political force’, and this resulted in many clashes with secularist institutions, particularly the military.[22] Islamist parties were consequently banned from political participation.[23]The national view movement therefore was clearly in opposition to the Turkish Republic, and in 1971 (a year after its creation) the Constitutional Court closed the party down on the grounds that it ‘posed a threat to the constitutional principle of secularism.’[24] The same end was met by the Welfare Party after a ‘post-modern coup d’état’ in 1997 and also by the Virtue Party in 2001, whose members again included the founding leaders of the AKP.[25]

After the Virtue Party was shut down, the movement split into two factions: the ‘traditionalists’ formed the Felicity Party, and the moderate wing formed the AKP.[26] Despite the founding leaders having come from banned Islamist parties, the AKP reject the label ‘Islamist’ and define themselves as a ‘conservative democratic’ party; they likened themselves to Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe.[27] They insist they are ‘committed to the secularism of the Turkish state’, and they only oppose ‘the petty exclusion of religious symbolism from public life’, such as the headscarf in public buildings.[28] It has been argued however that the threat of constitutional banning has meant that Islamist movements have had to learn to operate in a restricted political environment.[29] As a result, the ‘practice of takiyye’, where Islamist parties hide their true ideas to escape constitutional prosecution, was arguably deployed by these parties ‘at the expense of clarity of political argumentation.’[30] The goal for Islamist parties now is to ‘build an Islamic identity with openly violating the constitutional principle of secularism’, and critics of the AKP argue this is their hidden agenda.[31] It is important to note though that when the Virtue Party collapsed, the AKP split with the Felicity Party not only leadership but also from the ideology of the old pro-Islamic circles.[32] The Felicity Party marketed itself as a religiously orientated party, with a programme to match.[33] However, in an effort to distance itself from Islamist beliefs, the AKP rejected any ideological liaison with the Felicity Party, as well as the old Welfare Party; the AKP has subsequently depicted itself as a national party ‘not based solely on regional, ethnic or religious support.’[34]

To add weight to the AKP’s claims that they are not an Islamist party, threatening to destabilise the secular Turkish state, their actions concerning the EU are important. Efforts to get Turkey accepted into the EU lend support to the claim they stand for “democratic conservatism”; the EU’s requirements of democracy, human rights and pluralism hardly support the principles of Islamism.[35] It is ironic however that while secularists in Turkey favour EU membership in order to contain the Islamists and secure the modernisation of Turkish society, the Islamists favour joining the EU to contain the state.[36] In October 2005 the EU decided to commence accession negotiations with Turkey, acknowledging that the AKP had “sufficiently met” the Copenhagen criteria (conditions for enlargement).[37] From this it can be inferred that the EU, and most likely the wider international community, had approved of the AKP so far. National election results strongly indicate that the AKP are popular with the majority of the Turkish population too. The election on the 3rd November 2002 produced a shock result: the newly founded AKP won 34.3% of the vote, which transpires as 363 of the 541 elected seats in the Grand National Assembly (or 72.6% of seats), and with the exception of the Republican People’s Party who won 19.4% of the vote (178 seats), all other parties were excluded from the parliament.[38] The openly religious Felicity Party on the other hand obtained only 2.5% of the vote.[39] In the 2007 election the AKP increased on the success of the previous election by winning 47% of the vote, securing a clear second-term victory.[40]

How were the newly created AKP able to win the support of the Turkish population? One reason may be that the AKP appear to focus on practical issues rather than religious issues. The favourite Islamic motto of the Prime Minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is “service to the people is service to God,” and this was demonstrated during his time as mayor of Istanbul, where he focused on public service provision instead of ‘utopian endeavours to transform society.’[41] Although this refers to social Islam, it does suggest that the uprooting of the republic’s secular foundations does not exist within the party’s aims. There is also compelling evidence that ‘voters are more concerned with practical issues than with religious or even ideological questions.’[42] The polling company KONDA found that the two top concerns leading people to vote for the AKP in 2007 were not due to religious sentiments, but rather the party’s economic-policy performance and the attempts of the military and the judiciary to prevent the AKP from electing its candidate for the presidency.[43] This would all suggest that the Turkish people have accepted the secular model, and whilst sympathetic to religious concerns, they do not necessarily want the current model of society to be replaced with an Islamist state. Public-opinion surveys have also implied that in the 2007 elections, the AKP received votes from electors who had voted for different parties in the previous elections.[44] Fluctuations in voter behaviour are a warning for parties not ‘to indulge in ideological politicking at the expense of moderate public discourse’; the AKP therefore will not risk having an ‘exclusively Islamist agenda’ due to risk of alienating voters.[45]

Despite secularism in Turkey appearing to be assured, secularists have expressed alarm over the growing visibility of headscarf-wearing. The AKP’s victory in 2002 led many pro-Islamic supporters to believe that the various bans on headscarf-wearing would be lifted.[46] In 2008, the AKP passed two constitutional amendments with the aim to lift the headscarf ban in higher education, which were ratified by President Gül.[47] These received strong support in parliament (owing to the fact the AKP hold a majority), but it triggered much reaction and strong reservations about it were made open from various sections of society.[48] However, the Republican People’s Party (the secularist main opposition party) applied to the Constitutional Court for their annulment, which was granted four months after the amendments were first implemented.[49] Critics argue the headscarf symbolises the hidden agenda of the AKP, and the AKP themselves have not explained why they consider the headscarf issue important, or how they plan to resolve it.[50] Currently, the AKP are increasing the public profile of the issue, which unsurprisingly alarms secularist groups.[51] To add to the complexity of this issue, the wife of President Gül wears a headscarf. Secular groups organised demonstrations in cities April-May 2007 to try and prevent the election of Gül as President; the prospect of a president with an Islamist background has caused major concern for secular groups in Turkey.[52] In a 2006 national survey, 75.2% of respondents indicated they believe the president should act as the guardian of secularism, whist also indicating that the president should be a practicing Muslim.[53] Whilst these results appear paradoxical, it can be inferred that although Islam has an important role in the lives of many Turkish people, they believe it should be contained to the private sphere (as do secularists) and not influence public or political spheres.

In addition to the growing visibility of the headscarf, the AKP have been credited with the growth of Islamic businesses and markets.[54] In 1995, MUSIAD (Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association) was set up to represent small and medium‐sized entrepreneurs with Islamic values as an alternative to TUSIAD (Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen).[55] Partly as a result of the AKP’s neo-liberal economic policies and Turkey’s integration into the global market, a new Islamic middle class with new consumption patterns has emerged in the public sphere.[56] Their bourgeoisie lifestyle however is creating divisions with the religious community, as well as not being approved by secular groups, and it is argued their luxurious lifestyle is incompatible with Islam.[57] Despite disapproval, it cannot be denied that this contributes to what appears to be the resurgence of Islam in Turkey, and in response secularist groups have dramatically increased the use of Atatürk imagery. To ‘demonstrate their commitment to Atatürk and determination to defend secularism’, the secular middle classes have begun to purchase and use Atatürk imagery.[58] This includes Atatürk lapel pins and the increased presence of portraits and statues of Atatürk in public places as well as in the home and workplace.[59] Whilst the AKP are not directly responsible for this conflict between the religious and secular middle classes, the AKP’s political presence undoubtedly triggered many of the religious community to be more public with their beliefs; this concerned secularists, who then retaliated against what they perceived to be a direct threat to the Turkish model of secularisation.

To conclude, the AKP do not pose a threat to the Turkish model of secularisation. Laiklik, Atatürk’s vision of secularism, is not the complete separation of religion from the state; rather the state controls and regulates the presence of religion in the political and public spheres of society. The AKP has been accused of having an Islamist agenda, attempting to challenge the Kemalist secular principles of the Turkish Republic. However, apart from the controversy surrounding the headscarf issue, the AKP leadership have kept their private religious beliefs to themselves, and have not allowed them to dictate the policies and focus of the party. If the AKP ever was to publically exhibit Islamist beliefs, not only would they risk constitutional banning but they also risk losing popular support; the majority of the Turkish population have demonstrated their commitment to the secular state, therefore it would be foolish for the AKP or any other political party for that matter to implement an Islamist agenda. The AKP and secularist groups do need a solution for their current divisions; perhaps negotiations concerning the headscarf should start. However, it can be argued the AKP are a ‘globalist, market-orientated, pro-Western, and populist political party’ who only promote ‘social’ Islam, and thus do not challenge the Turkish model of secularisation.[60] Turkey may be experiencing a resurgence of Islam, but this is not explicitly related to the rise of the AKP.




Başkan, Filiz. “Religious versus Secular Groups in the Age of Globalisation in Turkey.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 11, no.2 (2010): 167-183. Accessed May 16, 2012. doi: 10.1080/14690764.2010.511458

Dagi, Ihsan. “Turkey’s AKP in Power.” Journal of Democracy 19, no. 3 (2008): 25-30. Accessed May 16, 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/v019/19.3.dagi.html

Davidson, Andrew. “Turkey, a “Secular” State?: The Challenge of Description.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 102, no. 2/3 (2003): 333-350. Accessed May 18, 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/south_atlantic_quarterly/v102/102.2davison.html

Heper, Metin. “Does Secularism Face a Serious Threat in Turkey?” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29, no.3 (2009): 413-422. Accessed May 16, 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/comparative_studies_of_south_asia_africa_and_the_middle_east/v029/29.3.heper.html

Mardin, Şerif. “Religion and Secularism in Turkey.” In The Modern Middle East, edited by Albert Hourani, Philip S. Khoury, and Mary C. Wilson, 347-374. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004

Onis, Ziya and Emin Fuat Keyman. “A New Path Emerges.” Journal of Democracy 14, no. 2 (2003): 95-107. Accessed May 21, 2012. doi: 10.1353/jod.2003.0042

Saktanber, Aye and Gül Çorbaciolu. “Veiling and Headscarf-Skepticism in Turkey.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society 15, no. 4 (2008): 514-538. Accessed May 18, 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_politics/v015/15.4.saktanber.html

Saygin, Tuncay and Mehmet Önal. “Secularism’ From the Last Years of the Ottoman Empire to the Early Turkish Republic.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 7, no. 20 (2008): 26-48. Accessed May 18, 2012. http://jsri.ro/ojs/index.php/jsri/article/viewFile/385/383

Tepe, Sultan. “Turkey’s AKP: A Model “Muslim-Democratic” Party?” Journal of Democracy 16, no. 3 (2005): 69-82. Accessed May 16, 2012. doi: 10.1353/jod.2005.0053

Turunc, Hasan. “Islamicist or Democratic? The AKP’s Search for Identity in Turkish Politics.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 15 (2007): 79-91. Accessed May 16, 2012. doi: 10.1080/14782800701273417




[1] Filiz Başkan, “Religious versus Secular Groups in the Age of Globalisation in Turkey,” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 11, no.2 (2010): 169, accessed May 16, 2012, doi: 10.1080/14690764.2010.511458

[2] Ihsan Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP in Power,” Journal of Democracy 19, no. 3 (2008): 25, accessed May 16, 2012, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/v019/19.3.dagi.html

[3] Şerif Mardin, “Religion and Secularism in Turkey,” in The Modern Middle East, ed. Albert Hourani et al (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 348

[4] Tuncay Saygin and Mehmet Önal, “Secularism’ From the Last Years of the Ottoman Empire to the Early Turkish Republic,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 7, no. 20 (2008): 28, accessed May 18, 2012, http://jsri.ro/ojs/index.php/jsri/article/viewFile/385/383

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mardin, “Religion and Secularism in Turkey,” 351

[7] Ibid.

[8] Başkan, “Religious versus Secular,” 168

[9] Saygin and Önal, “From the Last Years of the Ottoman Empire,” 27

[10] Başkan, “Religious versus Secular,” 169

[11] Andrew Davidson, “Turkey, a “Secular” State?: The Challenge of Description,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 102, no. 2/3 (2003): 337, accessed May 18, 2012, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/south_atlantic_quarterly/v102/102.2davison.html

[12] Ibid, 333, 337

[13]Ibid. 337; Metin Heper, “Does Secularism Face a Serious Threat in Turkey?” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29, no.3 (2009): 414, accessed May 16, 2012, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/comparative_studies_of_south_asia_africa_and_the_middle_east/v029/29.3.heper.html

[14] Aye Saktanber and Gül Çorbaciolu, “Veiling and Headscarf-Skepticism in Turkey,” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society 15, no. 4 (2008): 519, accessed May 18, 2012, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_politics/v015/15.4.saktanber.html

[15] Ibid.

[16] Heper, “Secularism Threat,” 414

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 414-5

[19] Mardin, “Religion and Secularism in Turkey,” 372

[20] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 25-26

[21] Ibid, 26

[22] Hasan Turunc, “Islamicist or Democratic? The AKP’s Search for Identity in Turkish Politics,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 15 (2007): 81, accessed May 16, 2012, doi: 10.1080/14782800701273417

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 26

[25] Ibid; Turunc, “Islamicist or Democratic?,” 81

[26] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 26

[27] Turunc, “Islamicist or Democratic?,” 79-80

[28] Ibid, 80

[29] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 26

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 27

[33] Heper, “Secularism Threat,” 419

[34] Turunc, “Islamicist or Democratic?,” 81

[35] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 27-28

[36] Sultan Tepe, “Turkey’s AKP: A Model “Muslim-Democratic” Party?”, Journal of Democracy 16, no. 3 (2005): 72, accessed May 16, 2012, doi: 10.1353/jod.2005.0053

[37] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 28

[38] Ziya Onis and Emin Fuat Keyman, “A New Path Emerges,” Journal of Democracy 14, no. 2 (2003): 95, 98, accessed May 21, 2012, doi: 10.1353/jod.2003.0042

[39] Ibid, 98

[40] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 26

[41] Ibid, 28

[42] Ibid, 29

[43] Ibid, 29-30

[44] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 30

[45] Ibid.

[46] Sultan, “Turkey’s AKP,” 78

[47] Saktanber and Çorbaciolu, “Veiling and Headscarf-Skepticism in Turkey,” 514-5

[48] Ibid, 515

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid, 516; Sultan, “Turkey’s AKP,” 78

[51] Sultan, “Turkey’s AKP,” 78

[52] Başkan, “Religious versus Secular,” 180

[53] Heper, “Secularism Threat,” 416

[54] Başkan, “Religious versus Secular,” 180

[55] Ibid, 170

[56] Ibid, 171

[57] Ibid, 173

[58] Ibid, 178

[59] Ibid, 178-179

[60] Dagi, “Turkey’s AKP,” 30


One thought on “Turkey – Is the AKP a threat to the Turkish model of secularisation?

  1. The structure is clear and coherent, the introduction and conclusion excellent. The signposting is fine too, though it perhaps could be a little more visible throughout.

    The analysis is excellent The argument is clear, well researched and well supported by good use of evidence. The Kemalist model is explained well, and based on that is developed an intelligent analysis of the effects and questions posed by the rise of the AKP. Perhaps the essay could have discussed a little further the possibility, which it alludes to, that the AKP does have a secret Islamist agenda, and what that might mean in terms of the essay question. Perhaps it could have discussed the variations across the country between, say, a very modern and European Istanbul and the more traditionalist regions deeper in the Turkish mountains. Perhaps it could have spelt out exactly how the AKP feel on Sharia law, and what they have done about it since in office. Perhaps it could have alluded to some of Turkey’s recent foreign policy moves in a broader regional and global context in which Islamism is on the rise. But for a 3000-word essay, it already articulates a coherent and detailed analysis.

    The essay is also very knowledgeable on the topic, which proves that a good deal of relevant research was conducted for it. The bibliography provides further evidence of in-depth engagement with the literature.

    In short, this essay stays focused on the question, and provides a balanced, nuanced argument.


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