The more Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses the state’s police power to indoctrinate young Turks in favor of devout political Islam, the more they tend to put a distance between themselves and Erdoğan’s “devout generations” campaign. Pictured: Erdoğan and his wife Emine pray during his presidential inauguration ceremony on July 9, 2018 in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
Trust for Islamist politics in both the Middle East and North Africa has plummeted since the beginning of the Arab Spring. A survey for BBC Arabic found that since 2012-13, public trust in Islamist political parties in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Iraq has significantly declined, from nearly 40% to less than 20%. The survey also found a similar decline in trust for religious leaders in the same countries. In the Gaza Strip alone, public trust in Hamas fell from 45% to 24%. In Turkey, Islam does not appear to be appealing to masses as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently hoped it would.
In 2012, Erdoğan described his political mission as “raising devout generations”, a remark for which Turkey’s main opposition called him “a merchant of religion”. In November 2019, Erdoğan repeated his quest for “devout generations” so that “we will not see alcoholics on the streets”. He boasts that since he came to power in 2002, the number of imam school students has risen from 60,000 to 1.3 million. No doubt, that is an impressive record for an Islamist strongman. But too premature to cheer about.
A survey, part of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, has revealed that 54% of imam school students do not feel they belong to their school, compared to 27.5% to 29.1% of students at other types of schools. It seems a greater number of families have forced their children to enroll at imam schools but, at least at the high school level, these students are unhappy.
There are empirical studies that theism is on the rise in Turkey, especially among imam school students. The pollster Optimar found that in 2017, 99% of Turks identified themselves as Muslims, but in 2019, only 89.5% said they were Muslim. An unexpected 4.5% said they were theist, 2.7% agnostic and 1.7% atheist, and 1.6% did not answer.
Another pollster, Konda, who published a survey of 5,800 people, found that Turkish youths were less likely than the wider population to describe themselves as “religious conservative.” They were also less likely to say that they fasted or prayed regularly, or (for females) that they covered their hair. Konda’s survey found the percentage of atheists at 3% while in the past ten years, the percentage of “devout” Turks had declined from 55% to 51%. Konda’s survey also found that those Turks who think a woman must receive her husband’s permission to work had dropped from 69% to 55%.
“Apparently,” said Selin Özköhen, head of the Atheism Association, “Erdoğan’s campaign to raise devout generations has backfired.”
Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency places the blame on the internet. “There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet. We are often shocked at the queries (the department receives from citizens)… they ask us if one can be a Muslim theist,” said Ekrem Keleş, head of Supreme Board of Religious Affairs.
The AKP’s effort to forge a new generation of young religious conservatives has been undermined by the party’s own actions, offered İhsan Eliaçık, a left-wing Islamic theologian and a fierce critic of Erdoğan. “People saw that even though they claimed to be Muslims, they committed the worst sins,” Eliaçık told Financial Times, accusing the ruling party of human rights abuses and corruption.
Erdoğan’s government boasts of operating a huge network of state institutions for religious education, including the Education Ministry, Quranic courses and the Religious Affairs General Directorate. The state employs 100,000 imams, 40,000 Quran teachers, 3,000 religious orators and 1,250 muftis. There are 5,000 imam schools (of secondary school and high school level). Apparently this big army of Muslim faith purveyors has failed to impress many Turks. According to a survey by Ipsos, an international pollster, only 12% of Turks trust Islamic clerics, an embarrassing figure — less than half the 26% of Turks who expressed trust in total strangers. The only less-trusted profession in Turkey, according to Ipsos, are politicians (only 11% trust them).
Half the population of Turkey is under the age of 32 — a young population. Many of these young Turks are, it seems, pushing back against Erdoğan’s state-imposed Islamization.
The more Erdoğan uses the state’s police power to indoctrinate young Turks in favor of devout political Islam, the more they tend to put a distance between themselves and Erdoğan’s “devout generations” campaign.
Perhaps Erdoğan’s best service to his country is to show young Turks what it actually means to live under an Islamist regime.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.