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New Turkey and Management of the Religious Realm: Continuities and Ruptures

Salim Çevik


This article analyses the relationship between religion and the state in the AKP era and discusses whether AKP policies represent a rupture with the republican era or a continuity. The AKP developed a multi-faceted and comprehensive policy for controlling the religious realm in Turkey. Employing the Diyanet as the true representative of Islam and forging alliances with cemaats have strong historical precedents, yet the amount of resources the AKP invested are significantly greater. Moreover, it is not only that AKP devoted more resources to the religious field (quantitative change), but also that it did this in novel ways (that amount to a qualitative change). First, these institutions are not being developed as alternatives to each other but as parts or layers of a more complementary strategy. Second, these various institutions and communities are merging with the AKP and losing their autonomy. By co-opting all these institutions and organisations, Erdoğan controls most of the religious realm in Turkey. If one of the unique dimensions of Turkish secularism is the state’s desire to maintain control over all religious activity, ironically, it is Erdoğan who has come closest to achieve this.

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Author’s notes

This article is a much expanded and developed version of my previous SWP Comment; “Erdoğan’s Comprehensive Religious Policy: Management of the Religious Realm in Turkey” (Çevik 2019).

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  • 1 Technically, tarikat refers to a traditional religious community following a Sufi mystical lineage, (...)

1There is a consensus that a fundamental aspect of AKP’s claim of a New Turkey is the changing relationship between religion and state/politics. Religion has played a more central role in the public and political affairs under the AKP regime. Indeed, the AKP leadership has made it clear on several occasions that they aspire for a more pious generation (Eroler 2019). But exactly what is novel about the AKP period in terms of religion and state interactions? The current literature focuses on the expansion of the power, status and resources of the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs) (Karakaş 2021; Çitak 2020; Lord 2018), the increased prominence of religious instruction in the public education system (Yilmaz 2018; Lüküslü 2016; Kandiyoti, Emanet 2017) particularly focused on increasing numbers of Imam and Preacher Schools (Imam Hatip Okullari, hereafter IHOs) (Buyruk 2021), increased visibility and power of tarikats (religious orders) and cemaats (religious communities)1 in social and political life (Atay 2017) and increased resorting to religious values and norms in political discourse (Yilmaz 2021). While these are valid observations, it is not clear whether these features would be sufficient to point to a significant rupture from the earlier instances of religion and state interaction.

2When analysed separately, the AKP has not created these institutions or mechanisms. If Republican history is analysed comprehensively, the current increased role of religion in public life and political affairs can also be seen as the culmination of a century-long process. For instance, the Diyanet, which was established in 1924, has experienced continuous waves of expansion in its scope of duties and resources. Following a censure of religious education in the early Republic, religious instruction by the state had almost continuously expanded, the only setback being experienced in the 1990s. Despite being outlawed, tarikats and cemaats have survived the repression of the early Republican period eventually becoming important actors in public and political life. An important feature of electoral politics ever since its introduction in 1946 has been politicians’ resort to religious discourse.

  • 2 For instance, based on similar observations, Sinem Adar (2021) points to a continuity in governing (...)

3Considering all of these factors, one can address a continuity as well as a rupture of the relation between religion and politics.2 This article claims that there is a qualitative shift in the relation between religion and state under the current AKP regime. Accordingly, policies, with regard to religion during the AKP era, is not necessarily the final culmination of increasing resort to religion. Instead, in certain ways this era represents a rupture from Republican history. Thus, it is not only that the AKP devoted more resources to the religious field (continuity and quantitative changes), but also it did so in a novel way (amounting to a rupture and qualitative change).

  • 3 The focus in this article is exclusively over Sunni Islam which constitutes the bulk of the religio (...)

4The rupture in state religion affairs during the AKP era relies on two points. First, the AKP era policies on religion are comprehensive, and unlike previous governments the AKP does not rely on a distinction between “state Islam” which is organised and propagated by state institutions and “social Islam”, which refers to religious organisations and movements that are not created nor controlled by the state’s bureaucratic apparatuses. Second, despite the widespread resources allocated to support religious movements and organisations, a significant aspect of AKP policies is that they narrow the autonomy of these organisations and movements. Combined with the earlier policy of removing the dichotomy of state and social Islam, this means that the AKP has perhaps aimed for total control of the entire Sunni-Islamic religious realm (hereafter used as religious realm).3

5In order to demonstrate the rupture happened during the AKP era, I will first depict the state religious interaction prior to the AKP. In the following sections, I will analyse the general contours of AKP’s management of the religious realm both with regard to AKP’s relation with state institutions (Diyanet) and with social Islam (cemaats and tarikats). Finally, I will discuss the continuities and ruptures from the earlier Republican era.

6Throughout the article, I rely on formal sources in the analysis of the state institutions’ policies. These include state decrees and laws pertaining to the regulation of the religious realm throughout the Republican period, including the AKP era, as well as statistics with regard to budget and resources, revealed by the relevant state institutions such as the Ministry of Education and the Diyanet. In contrast, the analysis on social Islam, particularly its transformation during the AKP era, refers to news outlets, mostly from the opposition media in Turkey. These news outlets will be scrutinised as they are often biased against such religious organisations. However, formal data is almost non-existent and the academic literature on the topic is still growing. I turn to the available ethnographic works conducted on religious communities and expert opinions when they are available.

Historical Legacy and State Institutions

7Although “assertive secularism” (Kuru 2009) was integral to the official state ideology and secularism became a constitutional principle in 1937, religion paradoxically maintained an important role in the formation of the national identity and culture in Turkey even during the early Republican period. Accordingly, despite its modernist and anti-religious inclinations, the Kemalist regime used the influence of religion over Turkish society by controlling religious institutions. Moreover, the regime also aimed to create a modernised version of Islam that would be firmly under state control. Thus, Turkish secularism can be considered different from other examples of assertive secularisms such as the French model in the state’s attempt to not only limit the impact and visibility of religion in public life but also to control and shape the religion (Stepan 2010: 9-11).

8The early Republican regime tried to control and shape religion by replacing social religious organisations such as tarikats and cemaats with state-controlled religious institutions. The madrasas (religious schools) were closed and waqfs (religious communal properties) were confiscated in 1924. Dervish lodges and sufi shrines were declared illegal in the following year. In 1924 the Diyanet was established as a new state institution aiming to fill the void emerging from the repression and outlawing of existing religious structures. Simultaneously during the creation of the Diyanet, all mosques became state property and all prayer leaders became state employees. Thus, despite its rhetoric on secularism, Turkey has been a state in which religion and the state are intertwined almost since the country’s foundation, to the extent that all the mosques and all their imams are controlled by the state. This has provided an apparent apparatus for the state to control and shape religious discourse, even at the local level.

9Since its foundation in 1924, the scope of duties and resources of the Diyanet have been constantly growing. The founding Act no 492 defined the duties of the Diyanet as “all provisions concerning faith and worship aspects of the religion of Islam and the administration of religious institutions.” (Gözaydın 2008: 220) While the initial duties of the Diyanet were carefully limited to administration, these were expanded at two significant points, the first in 1965 and the second in 1982. According to Act no. 633 enacted in 1965 the Diyanet was entrusted “to carry out affairs related to the beliefs, worship and moral foundations of Islam and to enlighten Turkish society about religion and to manage places of worship.”4 Article 136 of the 1982 constitution prepared by the military regime further entrusts the Diyanet with helping national unity and solidarity.5 Thus, throughout the Republican period, even before the AKP came to power, the duties of the Diyanet had expanded in several waves. Expansion of duties inevitably brought about the expansion of resources.

  • 6 Previously the Diyanet prepared sermons and published them in book formats, but did not prepare wee (...)

10The Diyanet remained an arm of the secular republic even through its constant expansion of duties and resources (Gözaydın 2006). The authority and scope of the Diyanet expanded under the supervision of Kemalist military and was perceived as an antidote to the influence of social Islam on society (Öztürk 2019: 86). For instance, the Diyanet was assigned the duty to prepare and disseminate standardised Friday sermons throughout the country in order to provide “a unity in the text” in the aftermath of the 1980 coup (Kara 2019: 70).6 This need for the Diyanet-produced sermons resurfaced during the 28 February process of the late 1990s, pointing that the Diyanet is perceived as a useful institution to counter the impact of social Islam by the Kemalist state.

  • 7 An exception is village schools, where religious courses remained in the curriculum until 1939. For (...)

11A second dimension of state control over religious life pertains to religious education. The closure of madrasas in 1924 was the first major move to limit religious education. Religious education was not included among the duties of the simultaneously established Diyanet and was assigned to the Ministry of National Education. However, starting from 1927, religious instruction in state schools progressively declined and ceased to exist by 19327, even though in some cases, particularly in rural areas, this instruction continued unofficially (Clayer 2015). Several attempts to provide religious education throughout the early Republican era had been all short-lived. In 1948, state investment in religious education recommenced with the formation of vocational courses to train religious personnel. Three years later, under the centre-right Democratic Party, these courses were transformed into secondary schools (IHOs). The number of these schools rapidly expanded under the more conservative governments of the 1970s and 1980s and became major sites for religious training. Unlike the Diyanet, however, IHOs soon became contentious entities. Fearing that these schools were not controlled, the Kemalist establishment intervened beginning in 1997 during the so-called 28 February Process. A coefficient system was introduced for university entrance exams, which was ostensibly enforced by the secular military, to make it almost impossible for IHO graduates to enter university departments other than theology. According to this system, exam results of IHO graduates were multiplied by a lower coefficient if they chose any department other than theology. This was a huge blow to IHOs; student enrollment and the number of schools rapidly declined (Gür 2016). However, the Kemalist establishment in general, and the military in particular, had not been categorically opposed to religious education in state schools. It was during the military regime in 1982 that elective religious courses in schools were made mandatory. While the military targeted IHOs during the 28 February Process, compulsory religious education in other state schools remained untouched.

  • 8 A growing body of literature aims to address these inconsistencies by pointing out to the limitatio (...)

12Overall, one could claim that the Turkish state’s involvement in religion was marked by complexities and inconsistencies throughout the Republican era.8 A combination of an assertive secularism that aims to limit the influence of religion at all levels, and state’s increased involvement with religion required the state to create a double discourse where the state effectively would make a distinction between good Islam and bad Islam. This discursive duality also led to the emergence of a double structure in which good Islam is represented by the official Islam promoted by state institutions and bad Islam is equated with the unofficial Islam of religious communities and is oppressed by the state (Cizre-Sakallioğlu 1996). Furthermore, the state elite’s involvement with religion and the resources they had allocated to the control and shaping of the religious sphere continuously increased. According to Öztürk (2019), this increase was due to two reasons: first, to the persistence of religious practices against the expectations of the positivist first generation of Kemalism and second, to the introduction of electoral politics.

The AKP and State Institutions

  • 9 In February 2012, Erdoğan stated for the first time that AKP aims to raise a pious generation. Over (...)

13Hence, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) makes extensive use of state resources for its declared goal of raising a pious generation (dindar nesil)9, it is building on a historical and institutional legacy. The Diyanet and IHOs play a central role, which can be observed through the increased visibility of the Diyanet in public life and the increased importance of IHOs in the education system.

14After the AKP’s ascension to government in 2002, even more so after the party became confident of its power, it started to take steps to revitalise the IHOs. To this end, in 2011 the AKP once again changed the rules for university entrance exams and annulled the coefficient system introduced during the 28 February process. This change by itself was enough to revitalise the IHOs, pointing to a certain demand by the public for this type of school. However, in the following years, several technical changes followed to ensure a growing student enrolment at IHOs, while several regular schools were also converted to IHOs. As of 2018, IHO students comprised of 12 percent of the entire secondary school population, demonstrating a considerable increase from 8.6 percent in 1997 prior to the military’s intervention.10 However, this increase was more a result of the deliberate efforts of the government rather than the popularity of IHOs. During the initial round of student placements for secondary schools in 2017, IHOs only reached a 52 percent occupancy rate, compared to 95 percent for regular high schools; i.e non vocational high schools.11 While the government attempted to attract more students to IHOs by changing the rules for student enrolment and registration, non-pro-government media outlets were routinely filled with complaints from families whose children had to be registered in IHOs against their will.12 Moreover, in 2012 three additional elective courses (“Basic Religious Knowledge”, “The Life of the Prophet” and “Qur’an”) were included in the curriculum of middle and high schools other than IHOs, in order to enable further religious training for the entire student body.13

15Along with religious instruction provided by formal education institutions, the Diyanet is the most important state institution related to religious life in Turkey. The Diyanet’s growing importance in public life can be observed through the continuous increase in the institution’s personnel and budget numbers. According to the 2019 budget, the Diyanet’s cadres exceeded 140,000 employees, and its annual budget, according to the exchange rate at the time, was approximately €1.7 billion, comprising 1.2 percent of the total budget. This means that both the number of personnel as well as the Diyanet’s share in the total budget had doubled since the AKP came to power in 2002 (Mutluer 2014). An important dimension of the Diyanet’s personnel expansion involves the considerable increase in the number of women employed as religious personnel by the Diyanet. Most of these female personnel function as vaize (preacher). Female preachers significantly expand the Diyanet’s outreach and impact at the social level. (Maritato 2020). Moreover, the increased budget and personnel was accompanied by increased levels of visibility and prestige. In the new state protocol list, which was updated in 2012, the head of the Diyanet was elevated from being 53rd in line to 10th. Moreover, the head of the Diyanet has become increasingly visible, and he often accompanies President Erdoğan at public events. Even the uniform for the head of the Diyanet was changed from a modest black cloak to an eye-catching and lustrous white one.

16Yet, the increased importance of the Diyanet is not limited to these factors. The duties of the Diyanet have been reorganised again with Law No. 6002 enacted in 2010, requiring the Diyanet to “expand its activities outside the mosque”.14 Accordingly, the Diyanet is now entrusted with, among others, of ‘enlightening people in religious matters, via radio and TV’, ‘developing educational programmes, planning and implementation through cooperation with relevant government agencies and institutions, organising and monitoring activities’, and ‘enlightening and guiding various sections of society, such as family, women, youth and others, in religious matters’. These changes align with the former director Ali Bardakoğlu’s earlier declarations that the Diyanet would no longer be confined to mosques (Çitak 2020: 174).

17In line with this, the Diyanet is now working in cooperation with other state institutions such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Family, and the Ministry of Youth (Karakaş 2021: 71-125, 171-205). As a result of such cooperation, the Diyanet is now active in various spheres of social life, such as celebrating religious nights at university dormitories, officiating marriages (which previously was exclusively regulated by the municipalities), providing educational support in elementary and high schools, providing social and psychological counselling at hospitals, marriage counselling, etc.

18As Sevgi Adak (2021: 201) argues, “the expansion of the Diyanet under the AKP rule is not only unparalleled because of its scale, but also is qualitatively different from the previous phases of its expansion because of the new roles the Diyanet has assumed”. The Diyanet’s cooperation with various state organisations constitutes only one part of this process of expansion. In a more radical way, the Diyanet has also cooperated with non-state organisations, i.e religious communities, in its activities through several signed protocols around the concept of Değerler Eğitimi (Values Education), thus undermining the previous distinction between state and social Islam.

19Furthermore, the Diyanet’s activities started to increasingly resemble those of the religious communities. The Diyanet no longer passively caters to the religious demands of society. It is expected to pursue proselytising activities that have been typically conducted by religious communities. In a similar vein, these activities primarily target youths. These activities are organised around “youth centres” that are established mainly on university campuses but also at other locations as well. The first youth centre was opened in 2018 on Uludağ University campus. Within one year, the numbers of such centres reached 250 with 1796 coordinators that have taken active duty within these centres. (Karakaş 2021:179-180) These youth centres facilitate religious activities at student dormitories due to protocols signed between the Diyanet and the Ministry of Youth, which controls all public student dormitories.

  • 15 As of 2018, 2773 students were living at the 387 student houses that are operated by the Diyanet (K (...)

20Moreover, the Diyanet has opened its own dormitories and even student houses that resembles the organisation of religious communities.15 Also, the Diyanet started a new project entitled Gencliğe Değer (Worth the Youth), in which every Diyanet official should contact 10 youngsters and provide them with religious supervision and counselling. Moreover, the Mufti office expects each Diyanet official to fill a form that includes the basic information of the supervised youth, such as their name, address and age. Actively seeking youngsters to provide religious supervision is the hallmark of religious communities (cemaats), yet the Diyanet now appropriates this method. As of 2019, 22,710 Diyanet officials have been watching 410,640 youngsters (Karakaş 2021:183).

  • 16 For instance, Ali Bulac, the leading intellectual of Islamism in Turkey had defined the Diyanet as (...)

21Thus, although the AKP’s instrumentalisation of the Diyanet to shape religious life around the country is not unprecedented, the scope of the Diyanet’s activities and resources invested in these activities create a new and distinctive circumstance. Moreover, this investment in the Diyanet is particularly intriguing given that political Islamists in Turkey have a long history of distrust towards the Diyanet, considering, with certain insight, that the institution was initially created to transform religion so as to remain in line with Kemalist expectations.16

22However, in a significant departure from the Kemalist legacy, the AKP’s investment in the Diyanet does not aim to replace religious communities with the Diyanet. Instead, the Diyanet is only one pillar of a more comprehensive effort to shape religious life in the country, and acts in explicit cooperation with the religious communities that are loyal to Erdoğan. Moreover, in the process of this, the activities of the Diyanet have increasingly resembled that of the religious communities. This “tarikatisation” or “cemaatisation” of the Diyanet is also supplanted with the etatisation of cemaats and tarikats discussed later in this article. In combination, this symbiosis aims for the homogenisation of the religious field under Erdoğan’s personal control.

23Another important dimension of the changing relationship between the Diyanet and the state pertains to the autonomy of the Diyanet. Contrary to common knowledge, Ceren Lord’s (2018) detailed study of the history of the Diyanet reveals that the Diyanet had preserved its institutional autonomy throughout the Republican history for its own means. While it is not uncommon for the heads of the Diyanet to face political pressure, they have maintained a semi-autonomous status vis-a-vis political power. Ali Bardakoğlu, the first head of the Diyanet appointed by the AKP government also preserved this line carefully (Çitak 2020:179-180). However, starting with Mehmet Görmez’s presidency in 2010, the Diyanet experienced a complete loss of this autonomy. Görmez openly involved himself in various public discussions, most of which had no direct religious dimension and rather sided with the AKP government. In fact, no previous head of the Diyanet had ever intervened in politics as such (Arat, Pamuk 2019: 125). For instance, during the Gezi protests, Görmez aligned himself with the government narrative that protestors looted the mosques and that the Diyanet had video footage of this, even though such footage never appeared.17 He also denounced Twitter and YouTube when Erdoğan briefly shut them down during the Gezi protests (Arat, Pamuk 2019: 125). Later, when the AKP- Gülen movement conflict started towards the end of 2013, Görmez immediately aligned the Diyanet with the government.18 Yet, despite all such attempts, he was abruptly dismissed from office in 2017 and was replaced by Ali Erbaş, who took an even more extreme loyalist position towards the government, taking an important step backwards concerning the autonomy of the Diyanet.

24Thus, the expansion of activities and resources did not automatically bring institutional empowerment. On the contrary, starting from 2010 onwards, the Diyanet has lost whatever autonomy it previously had. This process of expansion of power and resources and simultaneous loss of autonomy is also one of the defining features of AKP era religious movements and organisations.

Incorporating Social Islam

25“Social Islam” refers to all religious organisations such as religious orders or foundations that are not created nor controlled by the state’s bureaucratic apparatus. Despite repression by the Kemalist regime of religious orders and religious communities, these organisations have survived and have become influential actors in social life. Although differing from each other in their totality, they constitute the bulk of the religious scene in Turkey (Mardin 2005; Yavuz 2003). Thus, while technically still illegal, their existence and impact are known to most, and they have been involved with political actors for a long time (Çakır 1990). Aside from these more traditional religious organisations, several Islamic organisations were founded throughout the Republican period in the form of foundations and associations. Although these foundations and associations have relied on a better-educated constituency, they have formed a much smaller portion of Turkey’s social Islam in comparison to the more traditional tarikats and cemaats and their social influence have traditionally remained limited. However, this seems to be changing under the AKP government and these foundations and associations have both multiplied in number and significantly have extended their influence. This transformation is analysed further below, but first the article will address the AKP’s “cemaat policy”.

26In relation to social Islam, the AKP demonstrates characteristics similar to its relation to state Islam. On one hand, the AKP have empowered religious organisations, while on the other hand, it has also strictly undermined the organisations’ autonomy. While the AKP, in line with the historical tradition of right wing-conservative parties, has developed good relations with most of these religious organisations, it has also developed a more comprehensive policy that goes beyond the patron client/transactional relationship that has characterised the political party-religious organisations relationship ever since the 1950s (Çakır 1990).

27The AKP’s comprehensive “cemaat policy” is based on a policy of reward and punishment. Accordingly, the AKP makes state resources available to some religious communities in exchange for their electoral support. One typical aspect of such government support is providing land and direct financial support for formal institutions bolstered by religious organisations. These include a wide range of institutions, including schools, universities, dormitories, Quran schools, and media organisations. A second type of support involves the informal opening of state cadres exclusively to certain religious organisations. Initially, the Gülen movement – with a better-educated constituency – made use of the bulk of these spaces. Yet, even during the heyday of the AKP-Gülen movement alliance, other religious movements also received their share of state cadres. A well-known example of this is the grouping of the Menzil community in the Health Ministry.19 Particularly after the fallout with the Gülen movement and the subsequent purge of Gülenists from the state, new cadres were opened to be filled by other religious organisations. 20Some of the financial assets and institutions that had been confiscated from the followers of the Gülen movement have been distributed to other religious organisations as a bounty.21 Thus, the government has many benefits to offer religious organisations in exchange for their loyalty.

28If the AKP fails to receive the support it expects, then it could resort to dividing the communities. The selective use of reward and punishment is once again this strategy’s main instrument. It is fair to say that, in the current religious scene in Turkey, intra-group divisions are almost as fundamental and significant as inter-group rivalry. As discussed below, several religious groups are divided on the axis of being either pro-Erdoğan or anti-Erdoğan.

29In religious communities that have detached themselves from the alliance, the AKP has tried to forge alliances with dissenting figures and support them in order to either take over the community or, at least, limit its influence by creating intra-community conflicts. To this end, AKP governments have supported figures in the past such as Mehmet Denizolgun from the Süleymancı community22 and Kemalettin Özdemir from the Gülen movement.23 These individuals had their own claims to leadership in these communities. By supporting them and their leadership claims, the AKP aimed to control these groups as well. Yet the most significant divide is the one between the Çarşamba and Beykoz sub-branches of the İsmailağa Cemaati. İsmailağa Cemaati is an important branch of the Naqshbandiyya order, and is currently divided into two sub-branches, each taking their names from the neighbourhoods of Istanbul where their institutional-legal centres (İsmailağa Vakfı and Marifet Derneği, respectively) are located. Whereas the Çarşamba branch is in full accord with the AKP’s rule, the Beykoz branch is trying to protect and preserve its autonomy without openly challenging the AKP government. However, this attempt of preserving its distance has come with a cost, as was observed most symbolically in 2016, when a Quran seminary built in Istanbul by the Marifet Derneği was demolished by the Istanbul Municipality without any court decision.24 To wit, the İsmailağa Vakfı have received all the benefits of a full accord with the government, as state institutions and resources have all been opened up for the group in the last few years.

30If these strategies do not work and a community remains as a whole against the AKP, then outright oppression could commence. Although the fate of the once strong Gülen movement is well known, the repression of the Furkan Vakfı remains an often unnoticed, yet revealing, case. the Furkan Vakfi is a small and highly conservative religious group with headquarters based in the southern city of Adana. The group’s founder and leader, Alparslan Kuytul, is a graduate of Al Azhar and follows a religious-political line that is highly inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Bortherhood. Moreover, as a movement that is highly critical of the Gülenists, the Furkan Vakfı partially sided with the government during the feud between the AKP and the Gülen movement. As such, it is an unlikely candidate for government repression, but its leader, Alparslan Kuytul, is also a persistent critic of the AKP government. As a result, the Furkan Vakfı has been subject to increased pressure in the last few years. When Kuytul continued criticising, he was eventually arrested along with dozens of followers on 30 January 2018 and remained in prison for almost two years.25 The activities of his community have been banned, as his vakıf has also been abolished. Police violence against the followers of Kuytul have become systemic and routine.26

Novelty of the AKP’s Approach

31Taken together, it is possible to claim that the AKP’s “cemaat policy” has been built upon three strategies: the first and main strategy is to create an alliance with religious communities, and only if that fails are the second and third strategies (divide-and-rule tactics or outright oppression) are enforced. Forging alliances with religious groups is certainly not a new phenomenon in Turkish politics. Creating such transactional relationships with religious communities has a long tradition in Turkish political history, particularly for right-leaning parties. However, this detailed and three-layered strategy and involvement into intra cemaat affairs has been unprecedented. More importantly, the simultaneous use of alliance or punishment has created a unique context in which religious communities both enjoy political patronage and access to state resources shadowed by a constant fear of oppression. Furthermore, the alliance between the AKP and religious organisations differs in significant aspects from previous alliances observed in Turkish politics.

32Firstly, the AKP invests incomparably greater amounts of resources into these alliances. Rewards offered by the AKP have created a new context in terms of financial resources and state cadres that are vast compared to previous support political parties have offered religious communities. This is still, however, a quantitative change well-observed both academically and journalistically. The resources that the AKP makes available for religious communities are not limited to financial means; they have increasingly enabled mergers between state institutions and religious organisations, pointing to a qualitative change as well.

33The introduction of a programme called Değerler Eğitimi is a case in point. Through this programme, the AKP offers these religious organisations access to state institutions and schools and gives them a certain role in the governance of religious education. This is a major departure from previous policies as the state had always been protective of its right to provide religious education.27 The first such protocol was signed between the Ministry of Education and Ensar Foundation in 2017.28 Later this protocol was abrogated by the State Council on the grounds that education is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and cannot be transferred to other institutions. This ruling has either been ignored by the Ministry or circumvented by protocols between local branches of the ministry and various religious communities.29 For example, the Ensar Foundation has conducted such an education programme thanks to the protocol signed with the Niğde branch of Ministry of Education30, whereas the Hayrat Foundation of the Nurcu community signed a protocol with the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Family that has enabled the Foundation to provide religious education to students.31 Through these protocols, religious communities have had access to state schools and have provided religious courses and activities such as conferences and social and cultural activities.32

34Religious organisations also have acquired a more prominent role in the activities of the Diyanet through similar protocols conducted through the Diyanet. These protocols between the Diyanet and religious organisations is a two-way street. While expanding the Diyanet into the realm of social Islam is part of the strategy, it also enables social Islamic movements (cemaats) to expand into the realm of state Islam. On one hand, the Diyanet increasingly has acted as a religious community with its youth organisations, grass roots movements and even student houses. On the other hand, religious communities have overtaken, or at least have shared the burden/authority/right to teach the true Islam. Thus, religious communities have the approval of state authority through these collaborations.

35Although in the past the distinction between state and social Islam has been largely preserved – the former more Kemalist-oriented and representing the political centre, and the latter allying with peripheral forces – the AKP has created a fusion of these formerly separate religious organisations.

Beyond Transactional Alliances

36Although the benefits of such an alliance with the AKP may be obvious for religious organisations, it is clear that the AKP has the upper hand. The extent and terms of the alliance are not always decided by the religious organisations, but are sometimes forced upon them. Official declarations of support from several religious organisations to a wavering AKP government in the wake of the elections on 24 June 2018 are a case in point. Several experts with insider knowledge of these religious communities indicated that such declarations of support were abnormal and have resulted in the politicisation of religious communities to an unprecedented extent (Çakır 2018). Moreover, the impetus for this initiative did not originate with the organisations, but with the government.33 These movements were not generally enthusiastic about declaring their support, but rather were forced to make such declarations. Moreover, this specific case is not an isolated event, and at several other critical junctures the AKP has demanded such declarations of support.34 What is more surprising is that such declarations have few short-term benefits for the AKP. Given that Erdoğan already enjoys a large degree of support among religious, and that the only other religiously oriented party, Saadet Partisi (the Felicity Party) consistently polls around one percent in national elections, these declarations have little electoral impact. However, they are more crucial for assimilating these religious organisations into the AKP government and making them subordinate to political will. Such an alliance has long-term implications. The more such alliances become visible, the more the lines separating the government and religious organisations blur.

37This is a fundamental change compared to the former alliances between religious communities and right-wing political parties. The alliances built between centre-right parties and religious communities had been transactional. The political parties provided protection and patronage to the communities in exchange for their voter support. Group identities remained distinctly separate, and the support of religious communities was conditional upon the benefits it accrued through this patronage, but it was in no way guaranteed (Çakır 1990). Although certain alliances, such as the alliance between most Nurcu communities and former Prime Minister and President Süleyman Demirel, had been quite stable and long-term, the religious communities often shifted their support among different parties, creating new alliances before each election. This is the point in which the AKP’s policy on religious communities has differed the most significantly. The AKP is no longer satisfied with the passive support of religious communities. Instead, it demands active participation in the political framework designed by Erdoğan. The distinctive identities of the political party and the religious communities have been dissolved, and support for Erdoğan and the AKP forms the collective identity.

38Tayfun Atay (2017: 177-181), an anthropologist who specialises in Turkish religious communities defines this process as Erdoganism (Tayyibilik) becoming a tarikat by itself and Erdoğan representing the post of meşihat (head of clergy). Indeed, this high level of integration between the political party, its leader, and the religious communities has resulted in a transcension of the political leader into a “somewhat supreme leader” (Öztürk 2019: 93). Thus, Erdoğan sacralises the habitual and combines the political and religious authority within himself. He is no more merely a political leader but is also a religious leader. In fact, according to a survey conducted by You Gov in 2017, Erdoğan appears as the foremost religious authority in Turkey despite being a layman in regards to religion (Sarfati 2019).

39This sacralisation also partly explains Erdoğan’s brutality against non-obedient religious communities. While the history of Islam in Turkey has witnessed rivalries and struggles between religious communities and political parties such as the rivalry between Erbakan-led Refah Partisi and Esad Coşan-led Iskenderpaşa community throughout the 80s and 90s (Çakır 1990: 24-55), it has never become as brutal and oppressive as the AKP-Gülen fight. One reason for this severety of conflict is the vast resources both groups have commanded. On another level, it is Erdoğan’s transcension from a political leader into a “supreme leader” that has perhaps transformed the nature of these rivalries. Thus, neither the Gülenists nor the followers of Kuytul are simply political rivals or critics; they have become religious outliers and even heretics by virtue of their non-obedience to Erdoğan. Yet the oppression against these groups, particularly with the once powerful Gülenists, also function as a warning for other religious movements (Atay 2017: 156; Öztürk 2019: 93). Atay’s (2017: 177-181) interlocutors from various religious communities have underlined this fear and have further pointed out that while Erdoğan rules, the tarikats and cemaats will not have a significant impact on political life.

40Thus, ironically the AKP era represents both the politicisation of religious communities to an unprecedented extent and the decline of their impact over politics. Similarly, the expansion of religious communities’s resources go hand in hand with a severe fear of repression becoming prevalent among these communities. Thus, the overall result of Erdoğan’s “cemaat policy” has resulted in the expansion of power and resources of religious communities while diminishing their autonomy, a process that can be observed with regard to the Diyanet as well.

41Furthermore, this policy has tied together the future of religious organisations to the AKP, leaving the religious organisations no other option than to provide full support for the party. Whereas in the past these movements did not provoke the retaliation of the state and the government, largely due to their civil and independent character, this is now changing. Several of these organisations even survived military interventions with little to no damage in the past. However, their newly formed organic relationship with the AKP government means that they could suffer a serious setback if the AKP government falls. This not only enmeshes these movements and their voting irrevocably for the AKP, it also eliminates the possibility of a major form of opposition: religiously inspired opposition. This is particularly significant given that, in an authoritarian context where civil society and all forms of organisations are severely oppressed, the religious realm has the potential to become the main venue for the dissemination and organisation of dissent. The crucial importance of controlling and erasing the autonomy of the religious realm is therefore pertinent to an authoritarian regime that wishes to control all spheres of life.

New Religious Organisations

42The expansion of state resources and the incorporation of social Islam with state institutions and the party are complemented by the formation of a group of entirely new religious organisations funded and ruled by Erdoğan’s immediate circle, often including members of his own family. Two institutions, TÜGVA (The Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey) and TÜRGEV (Turkish Foundation to Serve the Youth and Education), are two typical and prominent examples of such organisations. Although Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, played a crucial role during the expansion of TÜRGEV, today the Erdoğan family is represented by Esra Albayrak, Erdoğan’s daughter (who is on the executive board of TÜRGEV). Bilal Erdoğan is on the executive board of TÜGVA and other similar but smaller-scale organisations, such as Yeni Türkiye Eğitim Vakfı, Kartal Eğitim Vakfı and İnsan ve İrfan Vakfı.35 Erdoğan himself frequently appears at events organised by these foundations and openly declares his support for their activities. For instance, at one of these events in 2015, he stated that TÜRGEV and other similar foundations are central to upbringing a pious generation.36

43Similar to other religious organisations, these two organisations focus on educational institutions, particularly student dormitories, with the professed aim of raising a pious generation. TÜRGEV has 26 dormitories, of which 3 are allocated to high school students and the rest to university students. There is a gendered dimension as well, a division of labour among the dormitories established by the two foundations: TÜRGEV exclusively focusing on female students, and the 39 TÜGVA dormitories appropriated to male students.37 Hence, Erdoğan’s daughter is in the executive board of the former, while his son controls the others.

44The activities of neither foundation are limited to student dormitories. TÜRGEV also operates several kindergartens, primary and higher-level schools, as well as one university. For its part, TÜGVA holds a wide range of educational and cultural programmes organised all around the country facilitated by city and district representatives. These programmes point to vast financial resources. It is not uncommon for TÜGVA programmes to end with an international trip to Spain (Andalusia), Central Asia or the holy cities in Saudi Arabia outside the month of pilgrimage. Needless to say, all these programmes are free of charge. In both TÜRGEV and TÜGVA, all the lavish activities and the exponential growth of the foundations are financed by unidentified donors. Yet, TÜRGEV is known to have received a $100 million donation between 2008 and 2012 from Gulf countries through Bilal Erdoğan, broadcasted for the first time in 2013 during the corruption scandal that involved the Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty in New York to charges of money laundering (Alemdaroğlu 2018).

Distinctiveness of New Religious Organisations

45Although activities of these organisations resemble those of other social religious organisations, they differ from a typical religious organisation through their lack of a central religious leader and religious teachings. Their mission statements consist of vague verbiage such as “cultivat(ing) generations that would restore and rebuild our civilisation” and “to cultivate youth who know their history, identity, and goal(s)”. Bilge Yabanci’s (2021) extensive field work with these organisations reveals that the primary focus of these organisations is not instilling a particular religious value or even a religious practice, but rather obedience to the state and, by extension, to Erdoğan.

46Although the AKP has largely succeeded in its attempts to incorporate most of the religious movements into the party and state, the loyalty of these movements could not be guaranteed. As mentioned earlier, these movements have experienced intra-group tensions over demonstrating loyalty to Erdoğan and preserving their autonomy, even though most of them eventually have preferred to be co-opted by Erdoğan. Keeping these groups under thumb requires Erdoğan’s constant supervision, while the new religious foundations governed by his own family and close circle would not have this burden.

47The history of these foundations also highlights the centrality of loyalty to Erdoğan for these organisations. Although the history of TÜRGEV dates back to Erdoğan’s mayorship of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, its resources and activities started to multiply during the third Erdoğan government (2011-2014), and from 2012 onwards it has become a nationwide organisation. TÜGVA was founded in 2013. Since then, several other small-scale organisations have followed. Thus, since 2012 the third pillar of Erdoğan’s policy in the religious realm has been activated along with the deployment of state institutions and incorporation of religious communities. This also roughly corresponds to the dates in which Erdogan broke with the Gülen movement, implying that loyalty issues were the primary motivation in the attempts to create new loyal religious movements. The impact of the fallout with the Gülen movement during the sudden growth of these foundations is also acknowledged by the executives of these foundations.38 The lack of clear religious teachings or a clear ideology – other than loyalty to Erdoğan – in the programmes of these organisations also confirms this hypothesis.

  • 39 This dependency is best demonstrated by the downsizing of their activities following the opposition (...)

48As the loyalty of these new organisations surpass the traditional religious communities (tarikat and cemaat), the new organisations have been prioritised when receiving state support and political patronage. While traditional religious communities also benefit from state resources, their activities are financed through their grassroots organisations, too. In contrast, the activities of TÜRGEV and TÜGVA and their rapid expansion almost completely rely on direct and indirect state funding.39 These two organisations are also prioritised in the Değerler Eğitimi and they manage to enact many more protocols than other religious organisations.

49It is yet to be seen whether extensive state support in the form of financial resources and political patronage would enable these new organisations to solidify their base as more organic religious communities have done. However, even in its current embryonic form, this is an unprecedented move in Turkish political history. Although religion and politics have interacted with one another in various ways, no political leader in Turkish history has ever attempted to create entirely new religious organisations and movements. Moreover, the enormous amount of resources and effort channeled into raising religious youth loyal to Erdoğan also implies Erdoğan’s long-term power projections. These efforts, which would come to fruition in no less than a decade, imply Erdoğan’s desire to remain active in politics for the foreseeable future, potentially transferring this loyalty to his offspring. By creating new religious organisations organically linked to the party, the AKP constitutes a global exception as well. Although several Islamic organisations around the world have discussed the separation of religious organisations from political parties, the most prominent example being the Tunisian Ennahda which arguably announced this separation in its 2016 party congress, Turkey’s AKP seems to be deviating from this trend. Erdoğan, who previously ruled over the AKP with an iron fist but was hindered by lack of religious background and religious organisational backing, now intends to create a community through any means necessary. However, this religious community seems to be defined by a personal allegiance to Erdoğan above anything else. To this extent, this could be argued as more of a political move than a religious one.

Conclusion: A Comprehensive Policy

50When considered together, the three elements pointed out in this paper, namely, i) using state institutions and resources to define and control the religious discourse and life, ii) incorporating religious communities and organisations into the party and state institutions, and iii) forming new religious organisations and communities through family-controlled religious foundations (vakıf), comprise a comprehensive and multi-faceted policy for controlling and regulating the religious realm in Turkey. While employing the Diyanet as the true representative of Islam and/or forging alliances with religious communities have strong historical precedents, there are certain ruptures in these otherwise typical moves. First, the amount of resources allocated to the Diyanet and religious communities is significantly greater compared to earlier periods. Second, these institutions are not being developed as alternatives to each other but as layers of a more complementary strategy. The Diyanet, cemaats, and newly emerging religious organisations are not deployed as rivals but as allies in the formation of a new religious generation. In this process, the historical distinction between state Islam and social Islam has blurred and lost its significance. As religious communities have been integrated into the state apparatus, the activities of the Diyanet have increasingly come to resemble those of religious communities. Last, but certainly not least, these various institutions and communities are now merging with the AKP and losing their autonomy. By co-opting these institutions and organisations, Erdoğan has direct and/or indirect control over most of the religious realm in Turkey. This has enabled Erdoğan to control a critical realm of civil society, which is crucial in sustaining an authoritarian system. Moreover, if one dimension of Turkish secularism is a desire to maintain state control over all religious activity, ironically, it is Erdoğan who has come closest to achieving this feat.

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1 Technically, tarikat refers to a traditional religious community following a Sufi mystical lineage, while cemaat refers to a relatively new religious community organised around a charismatic religious personality but not affiliated with a Sufi lineage. In practice, however, both words are used interchangeably.

2 For instance, based on similar observations, Sinem Adar (2021) points to a continuity in governing through religion rather than a rupture.

3 The focus in this article is exclusively over Sunni Islam which constitutes the bulk of the religious scene in Turkey. The AKP’s interaction with religious minorities, including the Alevi community, is based on an entirely different set of political considerations and follows a different path that this article deliberately excludes.

4 (accessed on 28 December 2022)

5 (accessed on 28 December 2022)

6 Previously the Diyanet prepared sermons and published them in book formats, but did not prepare weekly standardised sermons and did not enforce these sermons. For a more detailed analysis, see Yaşaroğlu 2016.

7 An exception is village schools, where religious courses remained in the curriculum until 1939. For a comprehensive outline of the history of religious education in Turkey, see Gündüz 1998.

8 A growing body of literature aims to address these inconsistencies by pointing out to the limitations of state power in projecting its modernisation ideals as well as to the society’s resistance and the inevitable bargaining and compromise between state and society. See in particular, Lord 2018; Bein 2011; Clayer 2015. Grounded in a “state in society” approach (Migdal 2001), these analyses are particularly valuable in depicting the discrepancies between the policy formulations and their implementation as well as pointing out to the internal tensions within state institutions. However, I would like to point out that even without a societal resistance to secularist policies, Turkish state’s double policy of secularism and controlling the religious sphere creates an inevitable contradiction that could only be overcome with a double discourse of good Islam (state Islam) and bad Islam (social Islam).

9 In February 2012, Erdoğan stated for the first time that AKP aims to raise a pious generation. Over the years, on many different occasions he repeated his position. See, (accessed on 31.01.2023)

10 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

11 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

12 (accessed on 28 December 2022)

13 (accessed on 31.01.2023)

14 Başbakanlık Mevzuatı Geliştirme ve Yayın Genel Müdürlüğü ( (accessed on 30.12.2022)

15 As of 2018, 2773 students were living at the 387 student houses that are operated by the Diyanet (Karakaş 2021:193)

16 For instance, Ali Bulac, the leading intellectual of Islamism in Turkey had defined the Diyanet as an institution established to tame the religion and secularize the society. Among numerous such articles of him, see, (accessed on 28.12.2022)

17 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

18 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

19 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

20 There are two excellent articles to consult for a detailed analysis and a chronology of how the AKP-Gülen Movement alliance turned into a rivalry and later open fight between the two groups. See (Taş 2018) and (Demiralp 2016).

21 Abdülmetin Balkanlıoğlu, a leading cleric from the İsmailağa community declared that all the belongings of Gülenists can be taken as a booty (ganimet). There are plenty of anecdotal evidence that this became a widespread though non-systematic practice. On the other hand, schools and dormitories confiscated have been systematically distributed to other religious communities and organisations. See, (accessed on 30.12.2022)

22 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

23 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

24,327366 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

25 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

26 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

27 Even the IHOs as state schools received a heavy blow once they were considered to be going out of state control. Necmettin Erbakan’s declaration that IHOs had become a backyard of his National View Movement (Milli Görüş), was one of the triggers of state’s action against these schools.

28 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

29 (accessed on 30.12.2022)

30 (accessed on 30.12.2022)

31 (accessed on 30.12.2022)

32 For other examples, see and

33 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

34 A similar declaration of support was orchestrated during the corruption probe crisis that sparked the AKP Gülenist feud. AKP officials’ pressure on the representatives of religious organisations on that particular event were also wiretapped and available on YouTube. For instance, (accessed on 31.03.2022)

35 There are also certain foundations whose existence pre-dates AKP but are completely co-opted by Erdoğan and his immediate circle. Most prominent of them are İlim Yayma Vakfı and Ensar Vakfı. These two organisations can be considered on par with TÜRGEV and TÜGVA with regard to the state support they receive and their organic connection and loyalty to Erdoğan (Yabanci 2021: 476).

36 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

37,950786 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

38 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

39 This dependency is best demonstrated by the downsizing of their activities following the opposition victory in the Istanbul municipal elections as Istanbul municipality served as one of the main channels for transferring state resources to these organisations. For instance, both institutions operated much more dormitories until 2019; 67 for TÜRGEV and 58 for TÜGVA. See,,950786 (accessed on 31.03.2022)

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Electronic reference

Salim Çevik, New Turkey and Management of the Religious Realm: Continuities and RupturesEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 34 | 2022, Online since 30 June 2023, connection on 24 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Salim Çevik

German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS);

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