Turkey is a country with a majority Muslim population. There are no formal statistics on the population’s religious affiliation. National identification cards automatically list any citizen as ‘Muslim’ at birth unless their parents have registered them to a constitutionally recognised minority religion. According to this record, 99.8% of Turks identify as Muslim. However, this figure understates the proportion of people who are unaffiliated with a religion or follow a minority religion.
The Turkish Constitution officially recognises Sunni Islam, Christianity (some Catholic and sects) and Judaism. Non-Sunni variations of Islam and other sects of Christianity (including Reformist Christians and Rum Christians) are not recognised. People belonging to minority religions are generally free to practise their faith, although there may be social challenges. For example, on behalf of any minority religion can be socially unacceptable. Those who convert from Islam to another religion can be also ostracised by their peers or family depending on the social environment. Schools across Turkey may cover the basic ideas around other religions, but primarily teach the theology and practice of Sunni Hanafi Islam.
Islam in Turkey
Turkey has a deep Islamic history. The land was governed as a Sunni Islamic State under the Ottoman Empire. Impressive Islamic architecture and monuments throughout the country are visible reminders of this history. Although not all Muslims practice their religion strictly, there is a strong level of religious belief throughout Turkey. Reverence of Islam is evident in daily life. For example, it is common to hear someone slip “Maşallah” (Praise God) into casual conversation and the call to prayer is heard echoing from mosques across cities five times a day. These traditional social patterns reinforce the presence and importance of Islam in Turkish society. Of those Turks who follow Islam, roughly 80% belong to the Sunni branch (mostly following the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence). Meanwhile, at least 20% follow a form of Shi’a Islam – mostly the Alevi faith.1
Secularism and Politics
Turkey has a strong tradition that arose after the caliphate was abolished. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk removed Islam as the official religion of the country and restricted visible signs of religious affiliation. Atatürk believed the political influence of religion and the Islamic tradition was detrimental to and modernisation. Borrowing ideas from the French idea of laicism, he took control of formal Islamic institutions and limited their political power. These ideals developed a strong opposition to ‘Islamic ’. The common national attitude asserted that ‘Islam is a religion not a lifestyle’ and one’s faith should not interfere with the public/civil spheres. In some cases, ideals resulted in religious expression being legally and constitutionally restricted. For example, women who wore the traditional Islamic headscarf (hijab) were banned from participating in Turkey’s public institutions until 2013.
Limitations on Turks’ public religious devotion have been hotly debated in recent years. Traditional morals have been challenged as Turkey has been governed by a party steeped in political Islam for almost two decades. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promoted a more conservative religious morality through many of its policies. Changes in Turkey’s educational system have introduced compulsory religious instruction and altered the governance of schools and universities in ways that weaken the nature of education.2 Alcohol sales and advertising have been restricted and modest clothing (e.g. the wearing of headscarves) is more publicly promoted. There is a growing divide between those who strongly believe in a state and more conservative Muslims. Some critics argue that Turkish public institutions, once staunchly , are shifting in favour of Islamists.
Turkey is host to a substantial Sufi community. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasises introspection and spiritual closeness with God. It is not a of Islam, but a movement of worship within Islam. Therefore, membership in a Sufi order or brotherhood (tariqa) may overlap with a Muslim’s Sunni or Shia identity. There are multiple orders and communities based on the Sufi tradition in Turkey.
Sufism emphasises the possibility of gaining knowledge of God through euphoric worship and other practices. They concentrate on different forms of ritual meditation patterns, such as chants (dhikr). The Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order practice a form of active meditation where they whirl in circles on the spot during a worship ceremony (sema). This Turkish Order has become very well-known throughout the world, with many people gathering to watch the Sufi whirling (semazen).
The Alevis are the largest religious minority in Turkey. While their population size is a matter of debate, recent statistics estimated them to number around 20 to 25 million people.3 Alevis are technically part of the Shi’a denomination, although they have a different interpretation of Islam from Shi’a communities in other countries. Their religious tradition combines Islam with elements of Turkish culture.
Their religious practice also differs outwardly from the Sunni majority of Turkey. For example, Alevis do not fast during Ramadan but do so during the Ten Days of Muharram (commemorating the death of a Shi’ite Imam). They also do not bow during prayer in the same fashion as Sunnis. Alevi teachings put strong emphasis and value on reciprocal assistance without necessary practice of formal almsgiving. They also gather at a different kind of place of worship, known as ‘cemevis’, instead of mosques.
The Alevi population of Turkey can be divided into four categories on the basis of linguistic groups: Azerbaijani Turkish-speakers, Arabic-speakers, Turkish-speakers and Kurdish-speakers. Each of these further groups reflects a specific religious and cultural identity within the Alevi faith. The Turkish and Kurdish speakers constitute the largest Alevi groups.