Is Turkey transforming into a fundamentalist religious state?

Published: April 19, 2017

In this Saturday, March 11, 2017 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul. PHOTO: AP

Turkey has given its verdict in the referendum paving the way for a powerful Tayyip Erdogan presidency. Although the margin of victory is close and is contested by the opposition, but it does not really matter. Erdogan has gotten what he wanted. If one has to draw an analogy with Pakistani politicians of the past and present, it would be apt to say that Erdogan is on his way towards becoming what Ziaul Haq had been in the 1980s, what Nawaz Sharif wanted to be in the late 1990s, and what Imran Khan perhaps wants to be in the future – an autocratic religious head of the state.

In Turkey’s case, the referendum is another step in the process of the personalisation and enhancement of power which has been in motion since 2003. What has happened in Turkey is a democratic collapse, parallels of which could be found in Germany in the 1930s and in countries like Venezuela in modern times. In such cases, a democracy increasingly adopts a populist and then authoritarian character, often with the backing of the majority population. With time, democracy loses its liberal characteristic, which protects individual liberty against majority, and simply becomes a vehicle for establishing a majority-backed quasi-authoritarian regime. This transformation also shifts power away from multiple institutions to a single individual. In many ways, this kind of transformation is worse than a military dictatorship because it has democratic semblance, which gives it some legitimacy and hence durability.

The presidential system which Erdogan is going to head is way out of sync with other presidential systems such as that of countries like France and the US. In these countries, although the president is the head of the executive, he is nevertheless constrained by other branches of the government such as legislature and judiciary. In the case of Turkey, the new presidential system actually puts the president above the other two branches by giving him the authority to appoint senior judges and dissolve the parliament.

The implications of this for a liberal form of democracy are obvious. By placing so much power with the head of the state, Turkey has moved away from a model of checks and balances and has adopted what could be called democratic authoritarianism. In fact, it would be correct to say that Turkey is no longer a republic.

In the near future, and considering the fact that the win is actually narrow, Erdogan is likely to push even harder to use his new-found authority to quickly entrench himself in an extremely powerful position. Ironically, if he had won by a comfortable majority, he would not have been pushed to move quickly. However, given a close win and doubts over the legitimacy of the results, he is likely to quickly start using his extensive powers to change the institutional and political landscape. After the coup, the purge went way beyond the coup plotters and targeted schools, media and all the salient government institutions. With these powers and the need to quickly stifle dissent, worse is feared.

But an even greater potential impact is on the future of secularism. For years, Erdogan-led governments have been pushing Islamisation in the public sphere through various measures such as building thousands of mosques and religious schools, introducing changes in the educational system, and using religion as election rhetoric. Moreover, he also invited the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders into Turkey and has allowed Hamas to set up its international headquarters in Istanbul.

His has also tried to use religion to justify patriarchy and discrimination against women. In one of the most controversial quotes he said,

“You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. They were created differently. Their nature is different. Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”

With this referendum, the next move could be to bring religion into the direct affairs of the state as well by introducing changes in the legal code and the constitution. The present constitution was drafted in 1982 after the coup and reflected several of the secular principles on which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had founded the Turkish republic in 1923.

Over the years, there have already been calls by some members of the ruling party that the secular constitution be amended to reflect the Islamic identity. As I argued in my last article, secularism in Turkey largely represents an elite consensus, historically safeguarded by the Turkish military. With the society no longer secularised, there was always a danger that a populist wave could subvert secularism. Historically, the military used to step in to safeguard secularism, but now with the military rendered completely impotent after the failed coup and the subsequent purge as well as Erdogan becoming a powerful president, the transformation of Turkey into a fundamentalist religious state is a very real possibility.

If this happens, then the question will arise – can secularism and liberal democracy actually survive in Muslim majority countries? In the past, Turkey used to be our standard answer. After Turkey’s impending demise as a secular republic, I am struggling to find an answer.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Striver

    Secularism and Democracy twain have no correlation between them.A society can be secular yet undemocratic. Alternatively, it can be democratic and not secular. Its a choice exercised by the society. If Turkey has chosen a particular form of government, its a choice people have made.
    I don’t know if the author appreciates the concept of secularism. It does not prevent a government from building mosques and religious schools. If it did then it would not be secular nor liberal.
    A person whose ideal is liberalism and secularism should not be bothered if people choose a fundamentalist religious form of government.
    When you impose your liberal, secular ideals on others, you become an extremist fundamentalist liberal secularist.
    My comments are meant merely for mental stimulation and nourishment. We too often accept concepts without thinking about them.Recommend

  • RHR

    I know two are not always together. The article argues that Turkey is losing both. Separate paragraphs deal with both the concepts. Secondly, it does not say that building mosques itself leads to subverting of secularism, but it does show increasing religiosity promoted by the state. The next step in such cases could be changes in the legal code. This is increasingly feared in Turkey.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Ha, ha,….playing with word can be fun…..liked your comment.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    If the government is building mosques, then it should equally build temples, churches, synagogues etc.

    If the government is spending money on building places of worship for one particular sect of one particular faith while ignoring other creeds then it is by definition, not secular but religious.

    You seem to prefer a religious form of government, but only until it is convenient and you are in majority. If you lived in India you would be screaming your head off for a secular democracy. How about some mental stimulation over your DOUBLETHINK?

  • ab

    people coming back to the fundamentals .good to see that.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Mr Erdogan had to send his daughters to Europe for higher studies since the so called Turkish secular Universities were not admitting their own women students wearing a head dress!

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Sane

    Why worry about Turkey? Take care of India, the largest (Hindu) fundamentalist state in the world. Due to this India has become a concern and threat to regional and global peace.Recommend

  • Sane

    Being democratic and not secular is useless

    Yes, you are correct. Why don’t you couple these two in your country, India.Recommend

  • Sane

    What you eat now a days? Must not be beef I believe.Recommend

  • Anoop

    I dare you to quote me the law you say which exists in the law books.Recommend

  • RHR

    Rex what are you smoking these days Recommend