Islam, ISIS, and Turkey

A brief history of Islam in Turkey, and what it means for the rise of ISIS.

A Dutchman of 6-foot-5 stature looked at me with a tilted head at an academic conference. “My grandmother used to tell me if I didn’t behave she would give me to Turks…you don’t look that menacing.” I looked up at the man, who was a foot taller than me, and thanked him for the compliment, and we continued our discussion about Turkey’s accession to the EU.

That was the first time I met a European who expressed anything negative about the past relations between the Ottomans and the European nations. Most Americans are oblivious to the marks six centuries of an ever-growing Muslim empire have left, but the developments of the last decade in Turkey awakens the memories of the past.

In this analysis, my intention is to provide a historical overview of Islam in Turkey from Ottoman times to today’s Erdogan government, and to attempt to explain what this evolution means for the region, while placing ISIS within the context of Turkish politics.

Islam in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottomans, sons of Osman, were once a small tribe among many other Turkish tribes in Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. During the 2,000 years since Paul walked the Roman-made roads of the peninsula, much has changed, and the most drastic of these changes was the introduction of Islam.

Once all the Turkish tribes united under the banner of Osman, Constantinople became the ultimate prize in the eyes of the sultan. After all, Muhammad himself had promised blessings to the conqueror who brought the capital of Byzantine Empire under Islamic rule. Many attempted this feat, and many failed. It was the young Sultan Mehmed II who captured the city after a 53-day siege in 1453.

The conquest was a significant blow to the Christendom, opening Europe to further attacks and conquests by the Ottomans. In addition, having Constantinople—now Istanbul—as his capital, and having converted the magnificent Hagia Sophia church into a mosque, Sultan Mehmed became the uncontested leader of political Islam. All the emperor needed was to solidify the claim of his father, Murad I, to the caliphate.

istanbul's hagia sophia (image via wiki commons, by arild vågen)

Mehmed’s grandson, Sultan Selim I, conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and brought the two Muslim holy cities, Mecca and Medina, under Ottoman rule. This granted the title of caliph to Selim, who had united the Muslim lands under one rule.

Since in Islam there is no distinction between religious and political affairs—there is no separation of church and state—Shari’a was the law of the land. Conquered peoples had to pay the jizya. Even though non-Muslims were able to practice their religion, they were second-class citizens who were not allowed to build churches or synagogues, who were required keep their buildings shorter than those of Muslims, who could not carry weapons, and who had to show deference to Muslims.

The jizya laws were relaxed in the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined and gave in to pressures from the European powers, but the caliphate and the sultanate remained intact, albeit weakened, until World War I.

Mustafa Kemal and Islam

Despite the reforms of the 19th century, when the empire collapsed the people of Anatolia were predominantly Muslims who had lived under the rule of the sultan and the caliph for centuries. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the opportunity of saving the country from invasion to abolish the caliphate, to install a more Western constitution, and to ban all religious garb. The Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet, and a more Westernized education system was introduced. In the span of a decade, Ataturk was able to contain the river that had been flowing in the direction of Shari’a for centuries.

To think that these changes occurred peacefully would be naive. Ataturk was a ruthless dictator and a superb statesman. His experiences as a pasha in the Ottoman army and as the leader of the newly formed Turkish Republic provided him the legitimacy and the know-how to impose the French version of secularism, laicism, on a young and confused country.

The nation-building of the following years included a deep reverence for Ataturk himself, and only a certain amount of Islam. Ataturk was clever enough to know that the society needed Islam as its glue, even though it is doubtful that he was Muslim himself. The army nation where all children had to attend state schools and all young men were conscripted for a period of 18 months slowly became the only secular Muslim country.

Necmettin Erbakan and the widening holes in the Kemalist front

Ataturk’s strategy worked for a long time, with the support of a devoted cadre of educators and one of the strongest militaries in the region. Kemalists never let their guard down as the country’s cities became more Westernized, while the rural areas stayed in the previous century.

I grew up in one of the more conservative parts of the country, where women were not supposed to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts. Every summer, all the neighborhood kids toddled to the local mosque to learn how to read the Quran and memorize our prayers. Then, in the winter, we memorized speeches of Ataturk. Despite the deep-seated religiosity, I don’t remember seeing women in hijab. The older women, or those who wanted to cover their hair, used a simple headscarf in the fashion of Eastern European women. The government remained secular with the support of the military, and Islam remained the social foundation. In the short span of my lifetime, all this would change.

With a growing base that still retained its Muslim roots and the lack of depth in the Kemalist ideology, it was only matter of time before a resurgence of political Islam occurred.

Necmettin Erbakan and his National Viewpoint (Milli Gorus) came at a time when the rift between the urban and the rural deepened, while those who emigrated to cities found modern Turkey shallow and unsatisfying. The education system, especially the Westernized universities, supplied a steady stream of laicist upper-class, but the wide base became more and more disillusioned. Add to that mixture Turgut Ozal’s neoliberal and populist reforms in the post-1980 coup era, and Erbakan found a Turkey that was economically integrating into the world with a strong social base in Islam. Turks were stuck between East and West, and were ripe for someone to remind them where they came from.

In his short manifesto, Erbakan rejected further rapprochement with the West and encouraged Turkey to form closer ties with other Muslim countries. The glorious days of the Ottoman Empire were gone, he argued, because Turkey had turned its back on its roots and Islam. There was something fundamentally wrong with the secular system. [1] The “nation,” for Erbakan’s National View, is composed of those united around the principles and traditions introduced by Muhammad. This definition of “nation” sparked a new movement in Turkey that would bring Erbakan himself to power in a matter of years and lay the foundation for Tayyip Erdogan’s eventual rise.

A few political parties that followed Erbakan’s ideology were banned by the Constitutional Court, and Erbakan was compelled resign by the 1997 “Post-Modern Coup.” But the force he unleashed only grew in the coming years.

The Gulen movement

Unlike Erbakan, Fethullah Gulen never became the head of a political party. Instead, he chose to head a movement that appeared to be progressive and was applauded as the face of Islamist reformation. Inspired by Said-i Nursi, who favored Islam’s integration with science, Gulen introduced a more market-friendly Muslim outlook. His main focus was education. As mentioned before, one of the things that kept the Kemalist ideology intact was the influence of those who were educated in secular universities. As long as the education system remained solely in state hands, a viable resurrection of political Islam in Turkey was nothing but a dream.

The long registration line at Middle East Technical University contained some of the top minds in the country. A folder of documents was safely tucked in my bag as I waited for my turn to become a METU student. By then I had been an atheist for about seven years, and dirt poor. A Nurcu—what we called the followers of Gulen in Turkey—approached me with an offer of free room and board. All that was required of me was to attend a weekly get-together. It would have been utterly tempting, if I were not such a know-it-all. I mockingly rejected the offer, but I wonder how many they were able recruit that day.

This was the strategy of the Gulen movement in Turkey, reaching out to underprivileged, intelligent students so that the secularist cadres would eventually be replaced with more Islam-friendly bureaucrats, scientists, judges, and diplomats. Even though Gulen’s schools follow a state-imposed curriculum, the aim is to create a base as well as social capital that favor a modern outlook on Turkish Islamism. Gulen’s charter schools eventually expanded to other countries, including more than 120 schools in the United States.

The Gulen movement embraced the blessings of modern technology such as radio, the Internet, and other media to create a wide base of followers that extended beyond the boundaries its home country. Gulen managed portray himself as the face of progressive Islam and reached many in Turkey, in Europe, and in Central Asia. His movement was on the rise, until the struggle for power between Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to a head in 2013 in a series of corruption charges.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rise to power

Following the 1980 coup, Erdogan became part of Erbakan’s Welfare Party. As the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, Erdogan solved the numerous infrastructural problems of a city with a population of 15 million. His political agenda was kept in the shadows as more and more disgruntled residents of the metropolis supported his mayorship.

When Erbakan and his party were banned after the coup of 1997, Erdogan became one of the most vocal critics of the decision. He made the mistake of quoting a poem, landing himself in prison for inciting religious violence:

The mosques are our barracks,

the domes our helmets,

the minarets our bayonets,

and the faithful our soldiers…

After four months in prison, he had to give up his mayoral position and was banned from participating in parliamentary elections. However, a change in law lifted this ban, and he became prime minister in 2002 at the head of Justice and Development Party.

Having learned from his past mistakes, Erdogan was cautious during the first five years of his premiership. It had become clear that the more Islam was politicized in Turkey, the more reactionary the military and the secularist opposition became. JDP chose a conservative-centrist approach to counter this threat. [2] Erdogan even extended the rights of Kurds and religious minorities in Turkey, giving hope that his rule, after all, would not mean the rise of political Islam. However, by 2008 various declarations from Erdogan—such as, “It’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide”—started to reveal his true colors.

He became more and more emboldened, as his party won election after election. Freedom of speech and of the press continuously decreased, leading to Turkey being ranked 151st out of 174 countries in a Reporters Without Borders report on freedom of the press. In 2014, his government started to limit access to the Internet including Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

At the same time, under Erdogan’s rule the Turkish economy continued to grow, as he undertook reforms in education and the healthcare system, which affected the lives of those who did not care about freedom of speech or Internet use. His contributions to these improvements secured his position even more. His supporters became more devoted, and his critics became more vocal, dividing country more with every passing year.

By the time he was elected president in 2014, Erdogan’s ambitions had reached new levels. Now that the presidency and the parliament were at his disposal, there was no need to hide his agenda. He constructed a magnificent presidential residence and called it Ak Saray, which means White Palace. Add to that the similarity between Erdogan’s 2014 campaign logo and US President Barack Obama’s, one could only assume the new president of Turkey was not going to be content with being a minor power in the Middle East.

In his steady rise to the top, at first Erdogan welcomed the Syrian civil war. When ISIS emerged from the ashes, at first he considered this new actor as an opportunity, until it became clear that ISIS posed a threat to the stability of the southeastern region. Now that people were more concerned about who supported and who opposed Erdogan and JDP, the president of Turkey found it hard to gain the support he needed to fight.

ISIS in Turkey

One of the most significant outcomes of the rise of ISIS for Turkey was the revitalization of Kurdish movements. [3] For decades, the Turkish government has been struggling with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which wanted to establish an independent Kurdish state including parts of southeastern Turkey. This long-lasting struggle affected how the Erdogan government perceived ISIS, at least in its formative years. Why not let the ISIS fighters take care of the re-emerging Kurdish threat? Once that problem was dealt with, than it would be time to deal with the Islamic State, the reasoning went. Despite rekindled patriotic feelings among Kurds, ISIS attacks destabilized the region enough to put a hold on unification attempts, [4] thus giving the Turkish government a break in its fight against the PKK. In Kobani, the Kurdish city attacked by ISIS, the Turkish government considered the threat posed by Syrian Kurdish organizations more formidable than that of the Islamic State. [5]

If the Erdogan government supported ISIS in its early years as it is accused of having done, then by 2014, the tables had turned. ISIS had gained more and more territory. Turkey was nothing more than another apostate state, and now Erdogan had to find a way to rescue 49 Turkish hostages, who were kidnapped when ISIS raided the Turkish embassy in Mosul in June 2014. This hostage situation resulted in Turkey becoming the only nation in the region to not sign the September 11, 2014 communiqué that committed 10 Arab countries to the US-led coalition against ISIS. When the hostages were freed in September 2014, Turkey adjusted its policies to put more pressure on ISIS by reinforcing its Syrian border and allowing the US to use the Incirlik air base.

Following the release of the hostages, the clashes between the Turkey and ISIS increased despite the fact that the Turkish government declined to commit any troops to the coalition. Meanwhile, there have been a number of deadly ISIS attacks in Turkey.

It was Erdogan’s hubris that brought about the inconsistent policy against ISIS. Backing the rebels and the jihadis against Syria’s President Assad, and hoping the Islamic State would weaken the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, eventually led to the creation of the Islamic State. Now, we have a mess in the Middle East. Turkey wants Assad gone, but if it takes any concrete action, Iran has threatened to support the Kurdish separatists. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to launch attacks in Ankara and Istanbul.

This was not the way Erdogan had imagined his days in the magnificent presidential palace. If only there was a coup?

The attempted coup of July 15, 2016

Whether it was Gulen or Erdogan himself who attempted the feeble coup on July 15 is almost irrelevant now. The tanks, fighter jets, and soldiers of that night provided all the excuse and legitimacy Erdogan needed to purge the entire country of his opponents, arguing that all those involved were traitors.

It hasn’t been a full month since the coup was attempted, but already about 60,000 soldiers, police officers, judges, prosecutors, and civil servants having been discharged or detained for conspiring against the Erdogan government. Deans of Turkish universities were ordered to resign, while a travel ban was issued to all professors. Licenses of 15,000 teachers were revoked. Forty-two journalists were arrested, as 2,000 lawsuits against more journalists and media wait to be heard. This purge is nearly unbelievable in its proportions, and will have repercussions for Erdogan, if he doesn’t play his cards right.

However, if he succeeds in suppressing all opposition while keeping the country in a constant state of emergency, then the torrent the Kemalists had been trying to hold back will sweep the only secular Muslim country.

What now?

There is the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Now, we have a sultan/caliph-to-be in Turkey. Unlike ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, Erdogan has an extremely organized military apparatus complete with fighter jets, navy, special forces, and nuclear weapons, curtesy of the US government. The Mediterranean and Black Seas provide logistical advantages, while the Ottoman Empire and abolished caliphate supply political and religious legitimacy. If Erdogan went as far as re-claiming the caliphate for the decedents of the Osman, would the Islamic State bow before the new masters? I doubt it.

It is no secret that Turks and Arabs deeply dislike each other. Sultan Selim had to conquer the Mamluks to be finally accepted as the caliph, but as long as Erdogan is unwilling to put Turkish boots in ISIS lands, al-Bagdadi will retain his title. It is also doubtful that Erdogan’s revolution will spill beyond the borders of Turkey. After all, the age of empires is over. His nostalgia for the glorious Ottoman era would have to be realized within Anatolia, where he can be the sultan of his small but still influential kingdom. The Muslim world is so divided that anything less than the formidable army of an empire would be unable to unite it. This, however, does not mean that Islam as an ideology will not continue to spread.


[1] Elizabeth Ozdalga, “Democracy for the Sake of Power,” in Heper and Sayari, Political Leaders and Democracy in Turkey, Lexington Books: New York, 2002.

[2] Ihsan D. Dagi, “The Justice and Development Party: Identity, Politics, and Human Rights Discourse in the Search for Security and Legitimacy”, in Yavuz, The Emergence of New Turkey, The University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City, 2006.

[3] Charlie Carlee, “Those who face death: An examination of the Relationship between Kurdistan and the Islamic State,” inCovarrubias et. al. The New Islamic State, Rutledge: New York, 2016.

[4] Ibid., 122.

[5] Patrick Cockburn,  The Rise if Islamic State, Verso: New York, 156.

About Derya M. Little 5 Articles
Derya M. Little has a PhD in politics from Durham University, England and an MA in history from Bilkent University, Turkey. She converted from Islam to Catholicism in her early twenties, and now is living in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.