A banner showing Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) and Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbas (left) with the minarets of an Istanbul mosque in the background, March 21, 2014. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
Critics of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have long voiced suspicion that the party harbors a “hidden agenda” of “Islamizing the state.” Those concerns have been inflamed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly repressive governing style at home, regional support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the allegedly ambivalent response to the rise of the Islamic State, whose violent bid to resurrect a caliphate is pressing up against Turkey’s south eastern borders. What does the claim of “Islamizing” the state actually mean, however? A closer look at two key sectors – the Directorate of Religious Affairs and education – provides a window for analyzing such claims.

The AKP’s efforts in these two sectors also intersect with its increasingly acrimonious power struggle with the Gulen movement. The followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen constitute a large and influential religious community in Turkey. The movement originally helped bring the AKP to power, long supported its politics and was instrumental in using its supporters in the police and the judiciary to launch a barrage of court cases starting in 2007 that helped to cement the AKP’s dominance. The cracks in the Gulen-AKP alliance began to surface in February 2012, when pro-Gulen prosecutors attempted to subpoena Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization and a close Erdogan confidant. In November 2013, Erdogan hit back by announcing his plans to abolish Turkey’s vast network of cram-schools (dershaneler), an educational system dominated by Gulen’s sympathizers and an important source of the movement’s revenue. The Gulenists then unleashed a corruption probe targeting a number of AKP members that came dangerously close to Erdogan himself. Throughout 2014 Erdogan intensified his rhetoric against the Gulenists, accusing the movement of creating a “parallel state” and attempting to foment a coup. The year was marked by waves of AKP retaliation against Gulen affiliates in the judiciary, police, media and even financial sector, culminating in December 2014 with government raids and arrest warrants for 31 of the movement’s alleged members on terrorism charges.

While there is no doubt that Erdogan often justifies political maneuvering through an appeal to religious attachments, this is hardly unique in Turkey’s history. Although officially “secular” in name as based on the constitutional principle of “laiklik,” the Turkish state has never been secular in sense of being “neutral” toward religion. Since the establishment of the Turkish republic, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which was created to operate directly under the control of the Office of the Prime Minister, has maintained a firm grip on the production of an officially sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.

The Diyanet was at its weakest during the Kemalist heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, though President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s government still made nominal appeals to Sunni institutions, elites and attachments. Kemalism is typically thought of as synonymous aggressive secularization, though in practice the Kemalists created a protected place for official Islam under the purview of the state. The Kemalists tasked religious elites at the Diyanet with producing modern Turkish translations of the Koran and other sacred texts, as well as publishing sermons for use in mosques across the country in an effort to create a sacred-synthesis between religion and nation. Today, under Law 633 (last updated in 1965), the Diyanet has a mandate to “operate affairs related to belief, worship, and moral principles of the Islamic Religion, enlighten the public about religious issues and administer places of worship.” In practice, this means that the Diyanet is responsible for the creation of sermons and mandatory school textbooks on religion as well as staffing mosques and Koran courses.

Many observers claim that the AKP has expanded the Diyanet’s authority and reach since taking executive power through elections in 2002 (and further consolidating power in 2007 when the AKP’s Abdullah Gul succeeded Ahmet Necdet Sezer as president). Is this true? One often cited statistic is the increasing number of civil servants working for the Diyanet under the AKP’s tenure. Others point to the Diyanet’s massive annual budget, which was approximately 4.5 billion Turkish lira (around $2.1 billion) in 2013 according official statistics.

Both of these claims need to be put into historical perspective. According to research by Nihat Ayturk, Yasar Celik, and Enver Sahinaslan published in the Diyanet’s official journal (Diyanet Dergisi) the number of Diyanet employees also rose considerably in the three decades between the political opening of the late 1940s and the 1980 military coup, from approximately 1,200 to 50,000 individuals. Consistent Diyanet personnel data from 1980s until the present has been more difficult to locate; but this is the data needed to put any more recent personnel increases in proper perspective. Regarding the Diyanet’s budget, Istar Gozaydin finds that from 1993 until 2008, the Diyanet’s funding remained fairly consistent relative to other government expenditures. Indeed, since as far back as 1951, Gozayadin tracks that the Diyanet’s share of the state budget has held fairly steady between 0.5 and 1 percent. I find that the most recent statistics do not deviate much from the trend Gozaydın identifies, with the Diyanet having approximately 1.1 percent of the overall government budget in 2013.

This is not to say definitively that the AKP has not or will not use the Diyanet as a political tool. Problems could arise if the AKP decides – and is able – to leverage the Diyanet as a political weapon against the Gulen Movement. A 2003 wikileaks cable noted that the cooperation between the AKP and the Gulenists “dovetails at the Diyanet and other elements of the bureaucracy.” One of these “other elements” was the judiciary, which has since been torn asunder by the Gulenist-AKP power struggle. In a rare and lengthy televised interview with the Turkish media on Jan. 31, Diyanet President maintained that the organization remained “above politics,” though he also lamented that many of the Diyanet’s imam-civil servants had recently lost their jobs after having been sucked into the political fray.

A second prong in the claim that the AKP is “Islamizing” Turkey is the highly publicized controversy regarding the government’s alleged expansion of the Imam-Hatip schools, which nominally provide Islamic “vocational education” (mesleki egitim). The New York Times recently called this the “latest front in Turkey’s cultural wars,” in which the AKP has “gradually injected religion into public life over the past 12 years in an effort to reshape Turkish society.”

The number of Imam-Hatip schools, which were originally created at the founding of the republic with the expressed purpose of training religious functionaries, has waxed and waned since the 1920s as the result of complicated changes in vocational and overall education policy. The schools were closed between 1930 and 1948 and were then gradually reinstated in 1949 (together with elective religion courses in state schools). The number of Imam-Hatip schools grew steadily throughout the 1950s and even increased after the “secularist” military intervention in 1960. This growth continued for well over three decades: Imam-Hatip students made-up 2.6 percent of the overall secondary students in 1965, growing to 8 percent in 1985 and 10 percent in 1997. Policies carried out by Turkey’s military government in the 1980s also firmly secured religion’s place in “regular” public schooling when it included article 24 in the new constitution, obliging all students to take religion classes from grades four through twelve.

Given the long historical lineage of the Imam-Hatip system and state-sponsored religious education, observers should perhaps worry less about the Islamization of state education and more about how the imminent closure of cram-schools and other Gulenist schooling institutions will shape the overall educational and political landscape. Many Imam-Hatip teachers and students are believed to sympathize with the Gulenmovement and a number of public school teachers – both in the Imam-Hatip and “regular” public school system – have supplemented their income for years by working at cram-schools after hours. The AKP’s assault on Gulenist infrastructure could thus have unpredictable ripple effects across education and politics. According to a bill passed in parliament in the spring of 2014, the cram-schools will either have to shutter their doors or covert themselves to state monitored private schools by September 2015. Cram-school teachers who lose their jobs are being promised a place in the state system, though it is unclear how the state plans to absorb affiliates of a movement that it is simultaneously trying to purge.

In Turkey, unlike the Arab world, opposition to the state has rarely taken a strong religious form. Turkey has also been largely immune to the influence of Salafi-style religious ideologies. The question is whether or not this could change given recent domestic divisions, which are not between Islamists and secularists as Turkish politics is often cast, but amongst Islamists with pro-regime and anti-regime politics. There is also the issue of whether the Gulenist-AKP split may force other religious orders (tarikatlar) to take a more definitive political stance, thereby shaping the upcoming 2015 general elections.

Kristin Fabbe is an assistant professor in the department of government at Claremont McKenna College.