New Turkey: Towards a “progressive Islam” | Foreign Affairs - Hellenic Edition
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New Turkey: Towards a “progressive Islam”

In the last years, the term «New Turkey» has begun to be established in the Turkish political discourse. It is considered useful to mention the new red lines which are going to determine the function of the socioeconomic and sociopolitical institutions in the next decades by the Justice and Development Party (JDP) led by the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


In April 23rd, 1920, the 1st Grande National Assembly opened. This Assembly comprised two groups; the 1st and the 2nd Group. The First group consisted of the people who defended Ataturk’s ideas and they later formed the Republican People’s party, the political expression of Ataturk’s ideas shaping the then red lines of the Turkish state.

On the other side there was the second group whose members were opposed to the founding philosophy of the Turkish republic in 1923. The spirit of the second group resurrected in the Justice and development Party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now, after the upcoming elections of June 24th, will be the leader shaping the new red lines of the “new Turkey” in 2023. How did the mentality of the 2nd Group “survived” after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923? To answer this, we must refer to Huseyin Avni Ulas, who was one of the ideologists of the 2nd Group. Huseyin Avni Ulas was ideologically an important figure with two main characteristics: First characteristic, he “westernized” the program of the 2nd Group, bringing it close to the American values. To illustrate this westernization we can look at Ulas stance on the election of the president; the second group was supporting the notion of caliphate, Ulas suggested to allow the people to elected directly the president and in addition to this instead of talking about “Islamic values that should guide people’s daily lifes” he prefer using the rhetoric of “freedom of religion”. The election directly by the people and the religious freedom had a crucial place [1] for the JDP when it came to power in 2002.

The second characteristic of Ulas was that he wrote the political programs of the parties which were opponent to Ataturk’s founding philosophy. He was the co-founder of the Religious [2] Development party and wrote its program. The party program refused the statism, the President should be elected by the people and, as far as the economy is concerned, it should be run by the principle of free competition in industry and trade. In other words, Ulas strongly supported the free economy mentality. Ulas and the 2nd Group worldview became part of the ideology of “religious vision” which was represented by Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the islamist party in Turkey. We can see very clearly from the political discourse of Erbakan that he strongly supported the Presidential system (president’s election by the people). Erbakan supported also very much the referendum as a tool for achieving social cohesion.


The hidden mentality of the 2nd Group appeared as an innovative movement on October 15th, 1978. At that time, the National Salvation Party’s 4th Congress organized by Erbakan and the innovative figure represented by Korkut Ozal, brother of Turgut Ozal [3]. Korkut Ozal’s main goal was not to replace Erbakan but to “revise” and adopt “new attitudes” because he believed that if there is no change in policies, the party will fail its mission. Korkut Ozal and his supporters understood that, without changing the core of Erbakan's religious ideology, the popularization was urgent and unavoidable in order to come to power. They realized that keeping pace with international conjuncture was compulsory. The international conjuncture which influenced turkey was the implementation of the new-liberalism. The mentality of the new liberalism was the “secularization/protestantization” of the religion and the divinization of American institutions.

In this framework, when Turgut Ozal became prime minister of Turkey, he totally adopted the new liberalism or the “we follow Reaganism” concept, as Ozal said. Ozal in his presidency and during his reign supported the presidential system as it was implemented in the USA. As for the economy, Ozal changed the basis; switching from a state-centered economy model to a market-centered system.

The year 1993 was a turning point for the Islamic movement. Its leader Necmettin Erbakan realized that with the current political and economical system the Islamic movement would not be able to come to power. So during the 4th congress of his party (the Welfare party) he argued that it should accept the free market economy mentality and the state should exist in order to serve the citizens. But Erbakan did not practically pursue this change, this “mission” was undertaken by his “political children” and especially by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turgut Ozal who appeared as his successors. As a result, in August 14th 2001, Erdogan created the Justice and Development Party and in 2002 November 3rd he came to power and since then the JDP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan are forming the new red lines of the ‘’New Turkey’’.


We will focus on three elements. The transformation of the state or the “divine” state, the political system (parliamentary democracy and multi party system) and finally the notion of secularization.

a. The transformation of the central state or “divine” state.
In Turkey, all the sociopolitical and socioeconomical institutions power resulted from the actions of the state. The superiority of the state has also a “divine” character approved by the people. Because people in Turkey believed that the state's mission is to take care of their needs; they say that “the state is our father and it ought to protect us”, this is why the notion of individuality was not developed enough or if it was, it only existed in a social group which was the minority of the Turkish population. The transformation of the structure of the police forces is very characteristic in the sense that it helps understands the change. The police as an institution had a central character and the distance between the police and the people was very big. Besides that, the police considered anyone coming to them as a potential criminal. After 2002, and especially in 2006, the Turkish police changed its structure adopting the American federal model of community policing. According to the new police model, in order to prevent crime, police forces should be supported by the people, because the society is the one that knows better the social problems, so we have to care about the people, their needs, we have to pay attention to their local values. With the community policing model, the Turkish state started to loose its central character and adopt gradually the local government mentality, closing the gap between the police and the people, gradually loosing its “divine” character because the people also started to criticize the state.

b. The transformation of the political system.
During the last years Turkey started to abandon the parliamentary democracy to adopt the presidential system, a system very close to the American model. The main step was achieved with the referendum in October 21st 2007, when 68,95% of the Turkish people decided that the president should be elected by the people. And with the last referendum in April 16th 2017, 51% of the Turkish voters said yes to the new system, the presidential system. This political transformation changed also the party system, switching from a multi-party system to a two party system, just like the American model with Republicans vs Democrats. This party transformation process accelerated because of the upcomıng electıons on June 24th, 2018 (for the first time the presidential and parliamentary elections will happen the same day). The JDP united with the Natıonalist Movement Party and formed the “Republicans” bloc. The opposition parties made of the Republicans People party (CHP), the GOOD party (IYI Parti) and the Felicity party (Saadet Partisi) united, but only in the context of the parliamentary elections, this opposition formed the “Democrats” bloc, but as far as the presidential election is concerned, each party will run with its own candidate. In my opinion, after the elections, the union of the opposition representing the “Democrats” bloc will continue by electing their leader whose mentality will be in line with the red lines formed by the JDP; for instance the candidate of the CHP, the opposition party, has stated that they do not stand against the women wearing headscarfs in public institutions and that they do not want to go back to a parlamentary system.

But which will be the social basis the two party system will be founded on? In order to answer this rhetorical question we should refer to the notion of secularism.

c. The notion of secularism.
Enlightment is the process of the liberation of human mind; during this process the religion has a vital role. In Europe they considered the religion as an obstacle for this process and according to Jean Jack Rousseau the people is uneducated they don’t know how to liberate their mind so an institution should take over this mission and educate them. This European French secular (Laicite) mentality was the secular mentality that shaped Turkey from 1923 to 2002. The Republican Peoples party believed that they knew how to educate the people and the institution that should undertake this mission should be the Turkish army which imposed the European secularism in a military way to the society transforming it into a big barrack pointing out that the religion, Islam should stay in the private sphere.

Once out of the private sphere, one was expected to behave like a westerner. This is why in Turkey public servants should wear a tie to behave as a modern citizen, and if you wore a headscarf you had to take it off otherwise you could not find a job. And also in the universities, women wearing headscarf were forbidden to enter universities. It was a top-down modernization process. After the 2002, this top-down modernization started to change and the JDP party started to adopt the American secular way whose main characteristic supported the idea that the tool for the secularization should not be the privilege of one institution but the society itself should be the locomotive of it. When JDP and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to power, they put on the political agenda the process of “Democratisation”. Also, the other meaning of democratization is demilitarization which means that the role of army in the society as a “modernization tool” gradually ended, being withdrawn from within the society, the public sphere and put back into the barracks, thus limiting the army to its role of protector from outside enemies, enemies of the country. While the Turkish army withdrew from the society, in other words the public sphere, on the other hand Islam confined until then to the private sphere started to come out and appear in the public sphere, thus interacting with the values of capitalism which actually represent the protestant way of thinking; and this transformed the traditional context of islam. At this point I would like to give some examples.

- For the first time within the Islamic movement, the islamist feminist movement appeared. For the first time Muslim women argued that Quran should not be interpreted only by the man but also from a female point of view in the name of gender equality.

- A few years ago, on May 1st for the first time the Anticapitalist Muslim group or the “leftists Muslim” group appeared. The most interesting thing was that for the first time in Turkey Muslim values interacted with leftist values. This group supports what a Marxist believes in. One of the slogan that they use is “Allah, Bread and Freedom”. One of their activities is to protest against rich Muslims who in the period of fasting would spend thousands of dollars breaking their fast in luxury hotels, to protest this, the anticapitalist Muslim group preferred breaking their fast eating on the ground. The “protest” culture started being developed within the Islamic practices, debates using the Marxism lexicon such as means of production or class of conflict shows that Islam in Turkey started to gain materialist worldview, while 15 years ago they believed that everything came from Allah.

- One of the tools to spread and deepen the capitalist spirit/protestant way of thinking is to make the consumer mentality accessible to social communities which were excluded from this mentality. In the Justice and Development Party era, this outsiders social groups and their Islamic mentality appeared into the public sphere and started interacting with capitalism through the consumerism, interacting with the western life style, clothes, brands such as Mc Donalds, Starbucks etc... we notice that on one hand, the spirit of capitalism was appropriated by the Islamic movement that spread its characteristics to the society, to do so, it used Islamic values. In other words the capitalist system was disguised behind Islamic values.


The establishment of the “old” red lines during Ataturk era and the “new” ones under the reign of Erdogan is a process that make those two periods very interesting. The methods that Ataturk used for establishing the “new’ turkey in 1923 are the same methods used by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to establish the ‘’new’’ Turkey in 2023. Let’s mention some of them:

a. The personality of the leader. Turkey as an “oriental community” country is a type of country whose social transformation always reflects the international conjuncture whatever it is. The creation of Turkey in 1923 as a nation-state and the context that Ataturk created, the secularism as we mentioned above reflected the international mentality of that period and particularly the European one. The new context that Erdogan is creating and which will take its final form by 2023 reflects let’s say the New Liberalism spirit which started to be implemented in Turkey from the 1980s. One of the new liberalism point of view is the American secularism which has been deepening in Erdogan era. The personality of Ataturk and Erdogan, in the framework of social transformation, acted as a tool for the establishment and consolidation of it but was not or is not its creator. Because when we talk about social transformation we talk about the transformation of the society not the transformation of personality of the leader. It means that the “authoritarianism” or “dictatorship” of each leader was used and is used as a “legitimation tool”.

b. Both Ataturk or Erdogan as founding leader was/is Republican. Ataturk founded the Republican Peoples party on September 9th in 1919, a party which shaped the red lines of the Turkish Republic meaning that even if he was not in power, political parties on the political scene would act according and within the framework of this red lines created by the Republican Peoples Party. Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the July 15th started to become Republican, he gained the characteristic of the founding leader. In February 2018 Erdogan’s party united with the Nationalist Party thus representing the Republicans bloc.

c. The two parties, the Republicans Peoples Party of Ataturk (CHP) in the framework of the European multy-party system and the Republicans of Erdogan in the framework of the American presidential system have seen/see their political program shaping the constitutional mentality and of course the mentality of the state. For example the French secularism model (laicite) was taken into the program of the Republican’s People Party in 1931 and it became the essential factor of the state which included it into the constitution as an article in 1937. The Justice and Development Party did the same thing. On May 20th in 2017, Erdogan’s “Rabia” symbol which means “one nation, one flag, one home, one state” was taken into the party program. I believe that after the June 2018 elections, it will be added to the constitutional change as an article.


In my book, which was my doctorate dissertation and published under the following tittle “The Republic of the Seconds” I answered to the question: “How can a transformation be made in Turkey or under which conditions can a transformation occur? The transformation starts with the change of international conjuncture in the communities where there is a strong state tradition like in Turkey, the state reflects this transformation to all sections of the community. There is an important point which must be mentioned: This transformation doesn’t occur by building a new state. Existing state transforms itself and adapts to the international conjuncture. And then, the internal dynamics, conforming to the “new” international conjuncture, are mobilized and the transformation process starts. Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk era, represented by the 1st Group at the parliament established Turkey using the European mentality which means that the common ground of the people was the Turkish national identity and the religion, Islam, was an obstacle to this founding ideology and thus confining to the private sphere. But the situation started to change with Erdogan era, who represent the 2nd group. With the implementation of the New Liberalism in Turkey from the 1980s onwards, Islam which was hidden started to gradually appear and reach its summit under Erdogan; Islam interacted with the capitalism, thus transforming the context of Islam which adopted the protestant way of thinking. As mentioned above, Islam started to express itself using the global lexicon gaining the character of “progressivity’. This progressive Islam is going to be the common ground for the Turkish society in the new Turkey in 2023.


[1] Firstly the JDP members gave very importance to the religious freedom and in 2007 the notion of the president to be elected by the people, legitimated with the referendum which held in October 21st 2007, that the 68,95% of the Turkish people decided that the President should be elected directly by the people. (101 Article in Turkish constitution).
[2] The Religious Development Party was founded in September 5th 1945 and considered as the first opposition party. The name of Religious Development Party in Turkish is Milli Kalkınma Partisiç The meaning that given in english to word milli is national, which I believe is not appropiate because this party political position was opponent to Ataturk founder philosophy which based on the national character of turkey. The ciment of Turkey was the term “turk”. Therefore, the members of this party promote the religious values for the them the word milli, has only and only religious context and not national. Thats why I used the word religious instead for national.
[3] Turgut Ozal became prime minister at 1982 and was the 8th President at 1989.
[4] For more details it will be in my second book which is going to published in 2019.