Historical Background of Turkey : A Context for the Understanding of the Links between Religion and Education

By Pierre El Sayed Youssef

Atatürk's Principles : An Active Secularism and Progressist Stances 

In 1923, the Turkish Republic is established by Mostafa Kemal. This charismatic leader, also known as Atatürk, or « the father of the Turks », founds Turkey as a State opposed to the former Ottoman Empire. He hence directly adresses the issue of religion, believed to be an obstacle for the development of a distinct Turkish identity.  Indeed, as Mostafa Kemal put it, « Even before accepting the religion of the Arabs [Islam], the Turks were a great nation. After accepting the religion of the Arabs, this religion, didn’t effect to combine the Arabs, the Persians and Egyptians with the Turks to constitute a nation. (This religion) rather, loosened the national nexus of Turkish nation, got national excitement numb. This was very natural. Because the purpose of the religion founded by Muhammad, over all nations, was to drag to an including Arab national politics ».Rather than an all-inclusive religion, used as a unifying force, Atatürk calls for an exarcebated nationalism, encompasing all the members of the society even if they are not Turks. Indeed, ethnic minorities such as Kurds or Laz people are not taken into account in Mostafa Kemal's national project. This will of course lead to the increasing tensions between the government and armed groups fighting for a recognition : a Kurd revolt already takes place in 1925, and the conflict is still going on nowadays.

More than neglecting religion, Atatürk will in contrary fight it in order to impose secularism. For instance, he decided to outlaw the call for prayer in Arabic, designed Sunday as part of the week end rather than Friday, but also changed the language alphabet to the Latine one which meant that people willing to study religion had to learn the Arabic alphabet to read Qur'an. However, the main field in which Atatürk worked is the headscarf question as he forbade the wearing of religious signs in some public spaces such as educational establishments.

This leads us to another major dimension of Atatürk's national project : education. In his view, education is the most efficient way to shape the model of the Turkish Citizen. Therefore, courses focusing on civic education will take place, added to the singing of the national anthem and other songs on Atatürk's glory. Of course, religion courses are not allowed in the beginning, but this situation will change with the following regimes.


Religious movements and political parties with a religious trend : a brief history

Even though Atatürk wanted to separate religion from the public sphere and specifically the educational space, different movements with religious tendancies will emerge during the second half of the XXth century. These movements will be translated into political parties and will question Atatürk's main decisions concerning religion. For example, it is the Prime Minister Adnan Menderes who will bring back the adhan (call for prayer) in Arabic in 1950.

Turkey knew four army coups during the century. The reasons evoked to justify such action are the instability or the presence in power of antisecularist parties. That's why each coup led to a come back of the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Atatürk's historical party (view timeline). Several Islamic parties existed in Turkey and their rise was in the 1980's. They knew an increasing popularity since they were mainly adressed to the poor living in bad conditions suburbs, but also the lower middle class. It is mainly the phenomenon of accelerated urbanization and its consequences which helped the Islamic movement to gain a wide social support. Indeed, it triggered the creation of shantytowns but also unemployment and inflation. Islamic movements took their chance and became the champions of the lowest social classes of the population. We should notice that this support is not given by any kind of fundamentalists or religious extremists. Moreover, neither the leaders of this movement are fundamentalists, but people from professional and business environment : Necmettin Erbakan, Prime Minister in 1996 and known to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, for instance, studied in Germany and was a professor of engineering. However, he will be put under pressure by the Army and parts of the civil society.

The means put in place by this movement are solidarity networks ensuring supplies in food, coal or healthcare. They are able to work quickly thanks to the presence of « grassroots activists ». These activists live among the population on a daily basis and it helped the Islamic movements to gain a wider support compared to other parties which only contact people at elections time.


Erdoğan and AKP era

Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi can be considered as the last stage of the Islamic movement in Turkey. It was originally the National Salvation Party, then the Welfare Party, replaced by the Virtue Party which was banned of the political sphere in 2001.

The difference with the former parties is that AKP and its major figure Erdoğan succeeded into maintaining themselves in power for 12 years now. Furthermore,  Erdoğan managed to operate a « reislamization » of Turkey through educational and religious reforms. The population is still quite supportive of the movement even if some protest movement such as Gezi Movement emerged.

The problem resides in the fact that AKP tries to use the same means as before, without taking into account their political position. For example, in 2006, they proposed the religious system of zakat or alms to reduce poverty. Same concerning education, the religious courses are now mandatory, aiming to shape « the future Muslim citizen of Turkey ».



1923 : kemalist revolution (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi => emergence of the Turkish State with the help of sunnis and alevis, Turcs, Laz people and Kurds.

1925 : Kurdish revolt with Cheikh Saïd but retaliation.

1926 : Civil and Penal Codes are adopted.

1928 : Adoption of the Latine alphabet.

1934 : Womens right of voting and being eligible.

1935 : Sunday becomes the day of week end replacing friday.

1937 : Turkey officially defines itself as a « secular state ».

1938 : Dersim massacre / Mustafa Kemal's death and Inönü's succession.

14th of May 1950 : Demokrat Parti wins the elections and Bayar becomes the new President => religious interdictions are less numerous (adhan in arabic).

27th of May 1960 : Army coup.

1961 : New Constitution and Cumhurriyet Halk Partisi comes back to power.

12th of March 1971 : Army coup because of instability => Reduction of the liberties but the Parliament still functions and « independant » political personalities form a new government.

1972 : National Salvation Party => translation of the Islamic movement.

1980 : extreme right kill leftists (most of these are alevis).

12th of December 1980 : Army coup => absence of political parties and dissolution of the Parliament.

1982 : New Constitution (interdiction of the old parties).

1983 : Anavatan Partisi => religious courses become mandatory in primary and secondary schools.

10th of January 1984 : Abortion is legalized.

1990 : beginning of a wave of political assassinations attributed to Islamists => pro-secularism demonstrations.

1993 : end of the state monopoly over audio-visual supports // Tansu Çiller is the first women Prime Minister // Welfare Party replaces the National Salvation Party.

24th of March 1994 : Islamist party Refah Partisi wins the municipal elections and Erdoğan is Istanbul's first islamist mayor.

1996 : Necmettin Erbakan, head of Refah Partisi, forms a government.

June 1997 : Army and civil society pushes him to resign.

1998 : Virtue Party replaces the Welfare Party.

1999 : Öcalan is arrested in Kenya and is condemned to prison life / Coalition government.

2001 : AKP replaces Virtue Party which is banned.

2002 : abolition of the death penalty.

3rd of November 2002 : Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi and Erdoğan win the legislative elections => Constitutional and economic liberalism and the Islam traditional values.

2004 : Minorities languages are allowed on audio-visual supports.

2008 : an attempt by AKP to cancel the Veil's interdiction in universities fails.

2009 : peace process with the Kurds (« peace group » called by Öcalan).

10th of August 2014 : Erdoğan is elected 12th President of Turkey.