As campaigning for next month’s parliamentary poll heats up, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pictured waving a Quran at an election rally and weeping during the reciting of an Islamic prayer, prompting opposition politicians to accuse him of breaking with the secular traditions of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and enflaming religious passions.
Religion has always played a part in modern Turkish politics, despite the determination of the republic’s founder to separate religion and politics. Islamists and nationalists have used religious symbolism in the past and so have army coup plotters. In the 1970s, Süleyman Demirel, then head of the Justice Party, the forerunner of Turkey’s current ruling party, was criticized for distributing copies of the Quran featuring his party’s symbol.
In the run-up to the elections, however, President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been throwing caution to the wind and painting opposition politicians as “un-Islamic.”
‘Abuse of religion’
“What we are witnessing now is the most extreme use and abuse of religion by the governing party and the president. This has become the main political weapon against the opposition during the election campaign,” says newspaper columnist Nuray Mert.
For Erdogan, the polls are crucial; he wants to amend the country’s constitution to shift Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary-based one to presidential governance, strengthening his own powers as a result. To do this, he needs a strong majority.
Last week, at campaign rallies in the mainly Kurdish towns of Batman and Siirt, Erdogan brandished a copy of a Kurdish-language Quran, published by the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate. The translation had taken five years.
As commentators noted, it was left to the president to unveil Turkey’s first “official” edition of the Quran in Kurdish. As he did so, Erdogan warned the crowds that the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party, the ruling party’s biggest election threat in the southeast of the country, had “nothing to do with religion.”
“Look, the Religious Affairs Directorate, which they want to shut down, has printed the Quran in Kurdish for you," he said.
The HDP poses a major obstacle to Erdogan’s constitutional reform ambitions. If the HDP reaches a 10 percent threshold for securing seats in parliament, it might deny him a sufficient majority to change the constitution.
Erdogan has regularly accused Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, a social democratic party, of “religious indifference.” The party’s leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, told reporters recently, “The use of people’s spiritual values and the Quran, which is a holy book for billions of people, as an instrument for scoring political goals, has deeply hurt me.”
On Monday, two separate explosions rocked the HDP’s local headquarters in the towns of Adana and Mersin, injuring half a dozen people. In a statement, HDP officials dismissed the government’s condemnation of the attacks, saying Erdogan and ruling party officials had to share some of the responsibility for the twin bombings, arguing that the AKP had turned the HDP into a target for attacks by using inflammatory language at election rallies.
“Neither the president, nor the prime minister, nor other government officials, should condemn today’s attacks. They should be silent. That is enough!” tweeted HDP lawmaker Pervin Buldan.
Criticism of Erdogan’s linking of the AKP with Islam seems merely to embolden the president. At rallies he has taken to proclaiming frequently, “I have grown up with the Quran and I live with the Quran.”
Last week, Erdogan and his wife, Emine, cried publicly during an official visit to Albania when a student at a ceremony to inaugurate a mosque recited a Turkish nationalist, Islamic-colored poem. The Turkish president had recently read the poem on television to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Turkish victory at Gallipoli during World War I.
Written by nationalist poet Arif Nihat Asya, it includes the lines, “Do not leave our minarets with no call to prayer, my God.... Do not leave this country, which was kneaded by Muslims, with no Muslims, my God.... Give us strength.... Do not leave the field of jihad.”
Government-owned TV channels have repeatedly re-broadcast Erdogan’s recitation of the poem, stirring further accusations that he is engaging in an exploitation of religion.
According to critics, Erdogan is increasingly breaking with the secularist underpinnings of the state, and his stirring up of neo-Ottoman sentiments has prompted the anxiety of some of the country’s leading business people. Earlier this year, Haluk Dincer, the outgoing head of the country’s top business association, TÜSİAD, urged Turkey to re-embrace the republic’s principle of secularism in order to progress economically.
“Turkey has understood the importance of the separation of religious and political affairs from each other, of freedom of religion and conscience, and of not imposing the lifestyle of certain social groups upon any others,” he said. The intervention earned Erdogan’s reproof, with the president telling him “to mind its own business.”
Another election accusation Erdogan has been making is that the West is in the grip of Islamophobia and that his domestic opponents are fifth columnists acting to undermine him.
Recently, he launched an attack on Western powers, saying they had not been outspoken enough in condemning the decision by an Egyptian court to sentence ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to death.
Speaking in Istanbul, he said, “The European Union, the West, have you not abolished the capital punishment? If you have, do you have any sanctions against those who implement it? What are you waiting for? Why are you still silent?” Several Western governments did condemn the ruling against Morsi, with U.S. officials saying they are “deeply concerned” about the court decision.
Critics of the president’s campaign rhetoric worry that after the June 7 polls, the AKP will govern in a more “Islamic” way. They argue that AKP politicians were more cautious in how they used religious discourse when they first entered government and presented themselves as conservative Democrats. Only “after managing to gather enormous power in its hands - did the AKP turn to religious-nationalist politics both domestically and abroad,” says newspaper columnist Mert.
In addition, pro-government newspapers have not been slow to accuse opposition parties and politicians of being un-Islamic. One paper recently reported an HDP leader ate a ham sandwich while overseas.