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Turkey: Secular and Firmly Grounded in Islam

Turkey: Secular and Firmly Grounded in Islam

by Richard Burkholder

This article is the second of a two-part series on polling results in Turkey.

For residents of Turkey -- as for those of Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran -- "the Arab world" is essentially a world apart. It is a realm with which they share a common religion, but not a common culture or ethnicity. In one sense, however, Turkey is unique among these four non-Arab Islamic nations. At the insistence of its modern founder, Kemal Ataturk, Turkey was the first Islamic society to establish an explicitly secular republic.

For the past eight decades, Turkey's political and legal system has prohibited clerics from exerting any significant influence in temporal affairs. Journalists, political parties and even elected political officials have been forced prematurely from the stage if their leanings were seen as too Islamist in tone or content. The army waits in the wings as the ultimate guarantor of the secular modernism favored by the country's elites. Even the outward trappings of conservatism and traditionalism can be forbidden. Ataturk outlawed wearing of the fez at the outset of the republic, and it remains illegal for female teachers, civil servants or students to wear headscarves -- a prohibition that has occasionally led to protest demonstrations and arrests in recent years.

Connections With West Influence Turks' Perceptions of World Events

The attitudes expressed by Turks in Gallup's 2002 poll of nine predominantly Islamic countries reflect their country's connection to, and identification with, many of the perspectives and norms of the non-Islamic world.

For example, of the nine nations surveyed, Turkey is the only one whose residents are more likely to describe the attacks of Sept. 11 as completely morally unjustifiable (55%) than they are to have the same view of America's subsequent military response in Afghanistan (35%).

Similarly, only in Turkey does a plurality accept the veracity of the assertion that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by Arabs (46% "true", 43% "not true"). Turks are also alone in being more likely to express a favorable opinion of the United States (40%) than an unfavorable one (33%).

Islamic Faith Remains Important in the Lives of Turks

The unique nature of religious life in Turkey raises the question of what kind of role religion really plays in Turks' personal lives. Despite the country's strict separation of state and religion, it would be a mistake to assume that the Islamic faith exerts only a modest influence on the lives and values of Turkey's citizens. Indeed, when Turks are asked how important "having an enriched religious and spiritual life" is to them, roughly four in five describe it as either very important (37%), or as something that is "essential and you cannot live without" (41%).

Similarly, a quarter of all Turks (27%) say religion is the single most important thing in their lives -- ranking ahead of immediate family, extended family and community, country and self. A similar proportion (26%) places it second in this hierarchy, and only one in eight (13%) rates it as least important of the five. More than half of all Turks (53%) say that prayer "helps a great deal to soothe my worries," while just 6% say that prayer offers little assistance in this regard.

Reading preferences offer additional evidence of the importance of spiritual and religious matters to ordinary Turks. When asked what type of book they most prefer, books on religion (29%) rank just behind works of fiction (32%) as the single most popular choice.

Gallup's survey offers little evidence that religious faith in Turkey is waning. On the contrary -- nearly half of all Turks (46%) say they think "commitment to one's faith" will increase over the next few years, while just 18% think it will decline (36% feel it will remain essentially unchanged). Significantly, the views of younger Turks are broadly similar to those of their elders on this score: fully 45% of adults under the age of 30 say they expect commitment to faith to increase in the near term, 35% see it remaining unchanged, and only one in five young adults (20%) think it will diminish in the coming years.


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