The Turks are one of the oldest civilisations that have survived to this day. It is also one of the bigger civilisations in human history, having ruled over three continent for hundreds of years, during the times of the Ottoman Empire. At times, the Turkish rule was bloody and ruthless, but for a long time Turks shouldered the scientific advance of mankind with discoveries in the areas of maths, physics and predominantly astronomy. But also in the world of music, arts, poetry, literature and philosophy have Turks always been adding to the pool of knowledge of our species. Although often feared by neighbouring countries in Asia and Europe, Turks also enjoyed their respect and were viewed as equal, if not superior, to other great civilisations. Today, the situation is quite different. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century, its territory shrunk by more than half to what is today known as the Turkish Republic, or simply Turkey. Other Turks in Central Asia have been under Russian rule for most of the 19th century at that time already and this rule only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the case of Turkey, we are talking about a country that is among the biggest 20 economies in the world, while also having one of the strongest armies in the world. However, it is also a country that is riddled by a great number of problems. First, the economy is ill-structured to remain competitive in the future. With little to no production or innovation and also no investments in this area, Turkey stays a net importer. High inflation and youth unemployment, paired with a porous banking system and enormous tax burdens make Turkey highly vulnerable and, thus, an unattractive investment for both domestic and foreign investors. Further, Turkey has many social problems, as well. Most notably, freedom of speech is greatly restricted – Turkey led the list of countries with most imprisoned journalists for years and ranks currently second. Media is under full government control and the internet is strictly censored. But also concerning the quality of content, the government is harming its citizens in every way possible. The TV programmes are characterised by violence, promotion of infidelity and display of decadent lifestyles, transmitting superficial values. There are almost no educational programs that report on a topic in a neutral way. As a result, Turkey leads the world in exposure to fake news.
The list of problems goes on and on. Among them are ill-planned urbanisation, as the cities grow without any green spaces and without proper control of building standards, which is especially important in Turkey, as she is subject to frequent earthquakes. Another problem is the lacking rule of law, which is displayed in releases of high-profile murderers and financial criminals, while smaller crimes are punished harshly. The government is also completely built on nepotism, which hinders qualified people to enter the public service sector – let alone advance there. Currently, Turkey also does not host any top 100 university and its broader education system is highly inefficient in terms of producing high-quality graduates, as the work load and the quality of teaching are way too low to remain competitive. Also the quality of the content taught does not meet standards of global innovation leaders, such as Japan, Canada, Singapore, Finland or South Korea. In addition to that, the teaching methods, as well as school and university buildings, are outdated. The only people, who succeed in Turkey’s education system, are rich people’s children, who can afford to visit private schools.
It becomes clear that Turkey is in a very bad situation, considering it wants to remain a relevant global power. How did this once so glorious civilisation turned into such a lethargic, retarded and decadent society? It is the faith, or rather the illusion of it.
Far Away from its Origins
Although each of the problems enlisted above have their own imminent causes and are also somewhat interconnected, they can also be linked to a common problem. That common problem is the religion of Islam. To be more precise, it is the religion’s incompatibility with Turkish norms and values. Turks have their origins far away in the steppes of Mongolia – long before Christianity or Islam emerged. Over the centuries, there have been 17 Turkish states or empires. Among them are the Hunnic, Göktürk, Selçuk and Ottoman Empires. However, the early Turkish empires did not adhere to Islam, as it was not established at that time. It was only after the year 900, when the Karahanlı state was ruling in Central Asia, that Islam became the dominant spiritual choice of the people and also state religion.
Due to the religion being still very young and the geographic distance to the Arab world, where Islam originated, the Turks, at that time, had the chance to adapt to Islam organically. Religions, just as any other belief systems, are social phenomena and, thus, somewhat flexible, as the knowledge around it is transmitted through words, rather than numbers. A math equation (e.g. 5+5 = 10) carries the same meaning for everyone, because it has no room for interpretation. Written and spoken words, however, are always subject to interpretation on the part of the receiver. Even if information is transmitted unambiguously, the receiver still needs to process the information and internalise it, in order to make use of the information. For example, person A might be able to convince person B to believe that running is healthy, but it does not follow that person B will start running and even if she does, she might not know how to run properly. As Islam reaches Turks far away from the Arab world, Turks had the chance to integrate the Islamic belief in a way that suited the Turkish mentality. A huge aspect is, for example, the role of women in Turkish culture. From the very beginning, women and men were equals in every regard. As a small example, the old Turkish expression for woman, hatun, originally meant “queen”. The flag of the Uygur Khanate even shows a woman and a man side by side.
Another point of the organic integration of Islam are the influences of Tengrism, which was the dominant religious stream up to the adoption of Islam. Tengrism is an animist religion that is heavily connected to the nature. In the vast steppes of Central Asia, the connection to the sky, the sun and the grass was very deep, which is also reflected in the flags of the Turkish states, most of which include the blue of the sky, the yellow of the sun or the green of the grass. As such, the Turks developed a spiritual belief that connected them to nature. Accordingly, Turkish music, poetry and art was influenced by the beauty of nature. When Islam reached the Turkish world, the religions did not clash, as it was the case in the Americas when Europeans enforced Christianity on the people there. The pureness of Tengrism dynamically interacted with the teachings of Islam and Turks were able to get the best of both worlds.
It happened that the Turks under the Selçuk Empire mainly adopted a Sufist and Ali-encompassing form of Islam, which later became to known as Alevism. This stream of Islam is a more proactive and philosophical approach to religious practise, compared to the restrictive teachings of Sunni Islam. This means, for example, that the act of doing good was regarded to be of higher value than praying per se. Great thinkers, such as Rumi or Yunus Emre, are representative of this school of thought.
The peak of Islamic influence on the Turks was during the Ottoman Empire, which heavily emphasised a Sunni tradition, as the Ottoman family was Sunni. Although most of Turks adhered to some form of Shia Islam, such as Alevism or Sufism, the rulers were Sunni and also promoted the Sunni belief. The main difference is that Sunni Islam grew hermetically isolated in the Arab world for many centuries. Accordingly, it is an organic product of Arab culture and the blank teachings of Islam. In other words, Sunni Islam comprises the thoughts that emerge when the Holy Qur’an is read it with an Arab background. Alevism comprises the thoughts that emerge when you read the Holy Qur’an with a Turkish background. It is a normal phenomenon that one text can be interpreted differently. This is also why we see so many different forms of Islam in East Asia and throughout Africa. However, problems start to arise when a belief system is imposed on a society. In Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, Islam is practised totally different, because it was able to grow organically into the society. In the Ottoman Empire, the ruling Sunni family started to impose the Sunni belief more strictly over time.
The divide became deeper with the conquest of Istanbul, which added to Ottoman power. Although the Ottoman military was heavily dependent on the elite Janissary corps, which were Alevis, the state started to alienate them and gradually reduce their power. Further, Anatolia, which was predominantly Alevi populated, was subject to heavy fighting over the centuries. Due to Ottoman power, Sunnism started to gain prominence in what today makes over 90% of Turkey. The Sunni tradition, with its Arab background came to Anatolia and this triggered the decline of the empire. The incompatibility of the women’s rights, the restrictive nature and the linguistic disconnect between Arab Sunnism and Turkish culture lead the society into a century-long decline.
An unsolved Puzzle
The most practised religion in Turkey is Sunni Islam and is heavily promoted by the government. Although already the second article of Turkey’s constitution manifests that the Republic is secular, which means that religious affairs and state affairs are to be strictly separated, the government of Recep Erdoğan has been heavily involved in solidifying the presence of the religion in the country. While there were around 75 000 mosques in Turkey at the time Erdoğan took power, today there are around 90 000 mosques. This number puts Turkey on 7th place of the countries with most mosques, just above Iran, which is an outright Islamic Republic. Also, the Directorate of Religious Affairs receives increasing state funds every year, receiving currently more money than: the Ministry of Industry and Technology, Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more than 10 other ministries and directorates. It becomes clear that the focus of the government is less on the development of the society in technical terms, but rather to deepen the adherence to the faith. Why is this so?
Turkey lays on the most important geographical point on this planet, being in the middle of three continents. Further, she is the only country on earth that comprises all known climatic zones, which makes her an autark country. That not being enough, she is one of the more water-rich countries in the region, giving her a political bargain over her Arab neighbours. A politically strong and independent Turkey would mean that she has a strong influence on global affairs. Both to the East and the West, as well as to Russia in the North and the Arab world in the South, Turkey presents an inevitable gate for trade and as a relevant actor in political and military matters. Hence, no country has an interest in Turkey being a strong actor who can impose her terms on others. However, Turkey would be just as useless as a failed state, as she would lead to a political deadlock between the countries that would fight over that territory. For Russia, the United States of America (USA), the EU and China, the ideal Turkey is a country that is trapped in a never-ending status quo, always lagging somewhat 1,5 steps behind.
Recep Erdoğan mastered this art. Having always had a weakness for Ottomanism, he is the Turkish equivalent of Nigel Farage in Great Britain, Marine le Pen in France or Donald Trump in the United States of America. This was even way before he became president. As the term conservatism already suggests, the goal of this policy direction is to safeguard the status quo. Erdoğan became appealing to many Turks by inflaming nationalist feelings. He used a two-way approach to do that. On the one hand, he touched upon the Ottoman past and portrayed its achievements in a positive light. This had the effect that he gave people of the lower social classes, who had little to look at on their individual resumes, a feeling of identity. The success of the Ottomans filled the identity gaps in the lives of many hard-working, but low-earning Turks. On the other hand, he amplified the these feelings by emphasising religious feelings. These are useful to separate oneself from other non-Muslim nations, such as the European ones. This helps to denominate a scapegoat by saying that Turkey is struggling, because “the Christians” are against Turkey. With these two psychological mechanisms, he won the hearts of many Turks. Instead of being innovative and emphasising self-development, as Alevism would promote, Erdoğan gave people a shortcut. Now, people could rely on their Ottoman past and with a couple of prayers become “good people” – no need for the hard road of self-realisation. Realising the potential of this conservative approach, the USA gave Erdoğan significant funds and training on institution-building in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the run-up to the election for the former office of Prime Minister in 2003. The USA even managed to lift a ban on Erdoğan, which prohibited him from continuing in politics, due to his radical Islamic and Ottomanist tendencies.
However, Erdoğan himself is far away from being an ideal Muslim. He used billions of Euros to finance one of the biggest presidential palaces on earth. The carpets in this palace alone are said to be worth around 800€ million. Further, his cabinet and the top levels of government are completely filled with close affiliates of his. Almost all government positions are held by his party members. Even the military, which is in Turkey’s constitution bound to the will of the citizens, is now led by Erdoğan’s party affiliates. In every step of the process, he, however, reiterates Islamic teachings and uses the religion to solidify a cult around his person. In other words, he uses the religion to gain followers. In exchange, he gives them a feeling of strength and identity, although Turkey is everything else but strong.
What to do?
Through utilising the restrictive nature of Sunni Islam, people have a simple point of reference to judge others. You pray? Good man! You wear a headscarf? Good woman! Alevism is much more complex and requires people to proactively work on improving themselves. It is about research, knowledge, poetry, beauty, arts, goodwill, modesty and many other aspects of live that need to be approached with humility and balance. These aspects are the core of Turkish culture, dating back more than 2000 years. These are the core values of a civilisation that has withstood time and grew organically into Islam. The enforced Sunni Islam by Erdoğan puts a great deal of stress on people. Paired with a free market economy, which in itself is a society-burdening structure, the Turkish society is moving away from their social core values under a system that exerts constant pressure on them.
The only way for Turkey to recover and become a strong political and normative entity in the region is to become a socially stable country, in the first place. Currently, the femicides are on the rise in Turkey, while criminality in general is drastically increasing. Suicide rates are on an all-time high. Highly trained young people are jobless and many of them move abroad in hope for a better life. A civilisation once led by greats like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned into one where people seek to marry foreigners, in order to get a different passport. Turkey needs to go back to its pre-Islam roots or more strongly embrace Alevism. By doing so, Turks will find back to their core values. Every philosopher would argue that the key to true success is to know yourself in the first place – just as loving yourself comes before loving others. Turkey is far away from its Central Asian past, from Tengrism and from Alevism. This is not to denounce Sunni Islam, but it is simply incompatible with true Turkish culture. Therefore, there needs to be an effort of Turks to re-familiarise themselves with the pre-Islamic past. Turkey’s future is in its past. If Turks do not understand this, they will never succeed.