Turkey is secular.
Commentators often invoke “secular Turkey” (the Wall Street Journal) or the country’s “staunchly secular” military (a Turkey-focused commentary site that should know better), conveying a set of ideas that are misleading.
Turkey never was secular in the way Americans think about secularism, embodied in the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from making laws establishing a state religion or abridging the free exercise of one’s faith. In Turkey, the government has long controlled the expression of religious beliefs in the public sphere. There is an entire government apparatus dedicated to the production of state-sanctioned religious interpretation. Turkish leaders even use faith to advance their political agendas. The governing AK Party is an Islamist party. When opposition groups tried to outflank it by recruiting the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to run against Erdogan in 2014, they failed, partly because Erdogan is already seen as authentically pious.
Even the Turkish military, a supposed bastion of secularism, is deeply linked to Islam. After the 1980 coup, the junta that ruled the country went on a mosque-building binge and injected religion into the state education curriculum. The leader of that intervention, Gen. Kenan Evren, often boasted that he had memorized the Koran. This was done based on the belief that religion would depoliticize society after a decade of intense political polarization. has not yet drawn in Turkey’s broader Kurdish population.
No doubt, Kurds have suffered. For years, their ethnicity, language and culture were denied. Even so, many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds are well integrated into the political, economic and cultural life of the country. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s prime minister in the 1980s and president in the early 1990s, was of Kurdish origin, as is the current deputy prime minister, Mehmet Simsek. The country’s Kurdish voters have been a reliable constituency for the AK Party, and not just religious Kurds. The AK Party has invested in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, and the party’s emphasis on religious values and Muslim solidarity has helped drain support for the PKK. That group cannot be said, in an overly simplistic way, to represent the Kurds.