Muslim Light: What’s Behind Turkey’s Islamization and the Protests Against It

Erdogan has been pushing for an end to alcohol, kissing and other hallmarks of secularization, with disastrous results.

by CINAR KIPER The Atlantic

It has been a long time, ninety years in fact, since Turkey has had its latest facelift. It is about time considering it happens once every nine decades or so: after the modernizing Tanzimat reforms of the 1830s and the Westernizing Kemalist reforms of the 1920s, the 2010s are ripe for a whole new round of social engineering — this time at the hands of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Back when the secular republic was established in 1923, the facelift came in the form of renouncing all things Ottoman and many things Muslim, some benign — hats instead of fezzes! — others not as much. The idea being, to paraphrase the old adage, if it looks like a Westerner, writes like a Westerner and even drinks like a Westerner, then it probably is a Westerner. As a country that got stuck in the middle — too European to be Middle East, too Middle Eastern to be Europe — Turkey took its symbols very seriously; bars serving fancy cocktails and public displays of affection in one camp, headscarves and a mosque’s call to prayer in the other.

The social reforms might have been strict, but each one served to create a secular, homogenous and above all modern nation-state; a republic that could comfortably mingle at any European party. Yet the authenticity of the revolution was questioned since the beginning: in “A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen,” Toynbee wrote of a 1929 visit to Turkey right at the height of enthusiasm for the revolution. But even then he was distinctly aware of some of its superficiality, such as a tram in Istanbul where a curtain separating the sexes had been removed but men and women still didn’t mix — “The curtain had become invisible, but it was still there, all the same” — or how hats had successfully replaced fezzes, sort of — “Many a self-consciously behatted man is still wearing an invisible fez.”

Such invisible relics of Islam didn’t mean the social engineering failed — it did pave the way for Western-living, secular Turks after all — but that even those who couldn’t or didn’t want to play along were adorned in the trappings of the West. Regardless, for the next 90 years Turkey’s genuine secularists saw themselves as spearheading the drive towards Westernization and, perhaps more importantly, wanted the acceptance of Europe — to mixed results. But just as Turkey may not have been readily accepted by the West, it was also too foreign for the East.

Many throughout the Middle East perceive Turks as “Muslim Light,” the casual semi-faithful. Imagine the frustration of the devout Turk, so full of religious conviction yet never really accepted as part of Club Islam. One only has to hear the indignation of an AKP deputy recounting a visit to Mecca — where Saudi authorities were so rude as to doubt his faith and tested his knowledge of common prayers — to see his embarrassment at being indentified with those contemptible secularists. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan picks his crusade of the month, whether againstabortions,adultery or the arts, it is over his frustration of Turkey’s image among his fellow Muslims; the same frustration secular Turks felt for decades trying to be accepted by Europe.


Erdogan has waged a shadow war against the visibility of the secular lifestyle. His desire to keep it behind closed doors is only matched by his zeal to erect bolder and bolder monuments to a lifestyle that is more “Islamically appropriate.”

An anti-government protester shouts for help to extinguish a burning container in Istanbul’s Taksim square June 4, 2013.(Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Categories: Asia, Europe, Turkey

1 reply

  1. The protesters may seem to some ‘idealists’ who ‘nicely cooperate with each other’ even ‘cleaning up the mess left behind during the night’. Sounds good, but please remember that is how protests started elsewhere – in neighboring Syria for instance – until the ‘movement’ was hijacked by others with a more sinister agenda.

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