The Perils of Religious Politics in Turkey

RAMAZAN KILINÇ, 7 MAY 2019

On May 6, Turkey’s Higher Electoral Council canceled the mayoral elections in Istanbul and ordered the rerun of the race on June 23. This decision wiped away the humiliating defeat of the governing Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. Turkey had already been in the path to authoritarianism under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but rejection of an electoral defeat put the last nail on the coffin of Turkish democracy.

How has Turkey come to this point? Not long ago, many considered Turkey as an example of democracy in a region of volatility and instability. However, the rise of religious politics destroyed Turkish democracy in recent years. When the ruling Justice and Development Party relied on religious arguments and mobilized its supporters through religious justifications, religious politics took over the field.

Religious politics undermined democracy by destroying the deliberation of public policy issues. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his close circles used Islam and Islamism to establish a hegemonic discourse that put all the opposing views to theirs as inferior. Erdoğan used media and public resources to consolidate a binary outlook that heavily relied on religious and nationalist claims.

In the rhetoric of the Islamists, their supporters were considered patriotic, pious, and authentic while the opponents were portrayed as traitors, impious, and the collaborators of the external powers. These binary distinctions shifted the attention away from rationalist deliberative policy-making to emotional, ideological fight. As a result, Erdoğan and the Turkish Islamists blocked the emergence of a free and competitive marketplace of ideas, a vital feature of a democratic society.

Islamism created a mass of supporters who acted with emotions but not rationality. Islamists made their followers believe that supporting them is a religious duty. Many everyday supporters of the Islamist party considered supporting other parties as a sinful act. Some party leaders even made statements that voting for Erdogan would open the doors of paradise.

In such an environment, the government departed from democratic principles with the excuse that the state was protecting itself from its enemies, who cannot claim to be a participant in policymaking. It went so far as that Erdoğan equated the votes given to other political parties as to the votes given to terrorism.

The polarization led by religious politics helped the government undermine the opposition’s attempts to mobilize against state policies. For example, on March 8, a group of Turkish women marched in Istanbul to celebrate International Women’s Day and criticize the government stance toward women. When police responded them with tear gas, women chanted slogans. Coincidentally, the Muslim call to prayer, azan, was being recited. Erdoğan capitalized on the incident and converted it into a polarizing tool instead of trying to understand protestors’ message. In an election rally two days after the march, Erdoğan told the crowd criticizing the demonstrators, “They disrespected the azan by slogans, booing and whistling.” Although the organizers of the march stated that they did not mean to disrespect the azan, the civil society organizations affiliated with Erdoğan mobilized the people to protest the organizers of the march and the opposition parties for “their disrespect to religious values.” Nobody even discussed the content of the protest and the message that the women aimed to communicate.

Employing religious political rhetoric and dividing the public along the lines of loyalists and traitors, the Turkish Islamists limited the space for a deliberative public debate. Once they started to consider opponents as villains but not participants of a public policymaking process, the space for the supreme democratic values such as the rule of law and freedom of speech narrowed down in Turkey. As a result, obedience to charismatic leaders replaced obedience to the rule of law, an end justifies means mentality replaced the due process, and fight to elevate group interests replaced a civil democratic competition.

The democratic culture takes advantage of the richness in differences by promoting a civilized debate among ideologically, socially, and religiously diverse groups in society. What we see in Turkey, in contrast, is the decrease of deliberative public policymaking and the increase of hatred among different groups divided further by the impact of religious politics.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2018-aota-kilinc100.jpg

Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan

Photo Credit: Faruk Melik Çevik on Unsplash

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