The Re- Islamization of ‘Secular’ Turkey


The gold bazaar neighborhood in Denizli, a Turkey city that has a liberal reputation, but is feeling an Islamic influence. (Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Islam taking root in Turkey’s bureaucracy

By Sabrina Tavernise

DENIZLI, Turkey: The little red prayer book was handed out in a public primary school here in western Turkey earlier this month. It was small enough to fit in a pocket, but it carried a big message: Pray in the Muslim way. Get others to pray, too.

“The message was clear to me,” said a retired civil servant, whose 13-year-old son, a student at the Yesilkoy Ibrahim Cengiz school, received the book. “This is not something that should be distributed in schools.”

This leafy, liberal city would seem like one of the least likely places to allow Islam to permeate public life. But for some residents, the book is part of a subtle shift toward increasingly public religiosity that has gone hand-in-hand with the ascent of the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The phenomenon is complex: The party has not ordered changes, but sets examples through a growing network of observant teachers and public servants who have been hired since it came to power in 2002.

The shift goes to the heart of the question that has gripped this country for the past two months: As the party settles more deeply into the bureaucracy, will it bring Islam with it? Or will it keep its roots in the past, and leave the public sphere as nonreligious as before?

The answer is as complex as Turkey itself. In more-religious Turkish cities, the party has had a moderating influence, persuading deeply conservative residents to support the European Union. But here in Denizli, a city situated closer to Greece than Iran, which never voted for pro-Islamic parties before Erdogan’s, the party’s new recruits seem to be laying the groundwork for a more pious society.

The mayor, Nihat Zeybekci, a charismatic businessman and a member of Erdogan’s party, strongly disputes claims that the party has limited freedoms. Alcohol is still sold near mosques. His party has women in local government. The opposition parties do not.

I get offended when a lady says to me, ‘When you have absolute control, will I still be able to swim at the beach?’ ” he said. “It’s like asking if I’m a thief.”

But secular residents say that they see changes, and that they are the inevitable outcome of several decades of economic transformation. “In a very quiet, deep way, you can sense an Islamization,” said Bedrettin Usanmaz, a jewelry shop owner in Denizli. “They’re not after rapid change. They’re investing for 50 years ahead.”

At the heart of the issue is a debate about the fundamental nature of Islam and its role in the building of an equitable society. Turks like Zeybekci argue that their country has come a long way since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular revolution in 1923, and that it no longer needs to enforce controls such as of women wearing head scarves.

“It’s like locking everybody in a stadium, when you know that only three are thieves,” Zeybekci said in his office, hung with pictures of Erdogan and Ataturk.

But secular Turks argue that Islam will always seek more space in people’s lives, and therefore should be reined in. They look to the military as secularism’s final defender.

“Islam is not like other religions,” said Kadim Yildirim, a history teacher in Denizli from an opposition labor union. “It influences every part of your life, even your bedroom.”

* A history teacher. He would know, don’t you think? 

Read it all: The Herald Tribune