Turkey between Religion, Ideology and Politics: An Interview with Professor Roland Benedikter

In this talk with the leading civil society journal on humanities and social sciences “Mehrnameh”, published in Teheran as one of the few organs of the liberal, democracy-oriented and progressive intellectuals of Iran, Roland Benedikter and Abuzar Baghi cover a wide range of historical and contemporary issues concerning Turkey as an example of Islamic democratization. The interview has been carried out in English and translated autonomously by Abuzar Baghi into Persian (see Persian version).


1- Baghi: What is the state of contemporary Turkey, as seen from the interdisciplinary, multi-dimensional viewpoint of the seven-fold approach to the “global systemic shift” in which you specialize[1]? In particular, what is the state of affairs regarding the intricate relationship between Politics and Religion at the Bosporus today?

Benedikter: First of all, there are undoubtedly deep-reaching economic changes that are related to globalisation. There is indeed, as the current “moderate Islamic” government rightly underscores, a noticeable economic and financial growth with constant increases of the GDP of around 5% per year, though its direct benefits seem to be widely confined to the upper and parts of the middle classes. In addition, due to its conservative, domestic-centred and protection-oriented financial system, Turkey has mastered the global financial crisis of 2007-10 relatively well. As scholars like Adem Yekeler of Bilkent University have shown, the Turkish financial system came across a banking crisis in 2001 and was restructured and strongly regulated between 2001-2008, a.o. by strengthening the Turkish Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BRSA). This extended reform and regulation period contributed to the recent success of the Turkish banking system in the crisis period between 2007 and 2010. A steady economic and financial progress is undeniable, although the distribution of its outcome remains disputed. Simultaneously, there are ongoing political and ideological changes in today’s Turkey that in my view could result as systemically at least as important as the economic and financial ones. In short, the secular system based on notions inspired by Western enlightenment, modernization and rationalization established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s, which as we know has lain at the very basis of the modern republic of Turkey until the present day, is being increasingly challenged by a variety of religion-oriented or at least religio-phil parties, movements and groups.

2- Baghi: Could you explain this a little bit more in depth?

Benedikter: The global “return of religion” [2] has unfolded a powerful grip upon the political landscape at the Bosporus since the early 1990s. In the past decade, it took on concrete electoral forms not least with the three successive, much impressive victories of the “Justice and Development Party” of Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November 2002, in July 2007 and in June 2011. This has tightened the political spectrum, giving the moderate Islamic party an almost monolithic leadership over the country, and making Erdogan the longest-serving Turkish leader after Atatürk. Particularly the last, probably most influential victory in June 2011 paves the way for the change of constitution envisioned by Gül and Erdogan who want to shift the country from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. That could lead in the middle and the long run not only to a noticeable further concentration of power, but also to a general de-secularization of state and society. It is no chance that due to its widely unparalleled success in the past decade, Erdogan’s “moderate Islamism” is becoming a role model for Islamist parties throughout the Middle East, including for example Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. That has of course its pros and cons.

3- Baghi: Which ones?

Benedikter: On the one hand, the “Erdogan-Gül model” of Islamo-phil modernization processes is mitigating Islamic parties throughout the Middle East, particularly in the present situation of fundamental openness and deep-reaching transitions. What is interesting on the other hand is that in the framework of this development the general societal atmosphere in Turkey itself is changing. Foremost the educated, Westernized urban populations are perceiving the largely unchallenged supremacy of the governing party and the respective change as regress. This is because the secular state and its laical system are increasingly - and increasingly publicly - challenged in the name of “true democracy” by the religious right. This fact is of course a contradiction in itself.

4- Baghi: Why?

Benedikter: Among those who are currently crying out for a “better democracy” against the keepers of the secular state, i.e. the parliamentary parties, the parliament, the institutions and the military, are - certainly in a leading role - the various Islam-inspired movements. It is important to note that what their representatives usually mean with “better democracy” is not the improvement of the standards regarding pluralism, electoral representation, tutelage of ethnic minorities, tolerance and human rights. It is rather the request for the implementation of a presidential system inclined towards a kind of modern religious popularism: what the majority wants should be carried out. Not by chance international voices like the Economist and the Financial Times have in the past months repeatedly criticized the Turkish government for its authocratic and populistic tendencies.

5- Baghi: What does that mean?

Benedikter: The overall development indicates a slow, but continuous shift from the mindset of secular enlightenment, rationalization and modernization towards the ascent of a moderate religious populism which is being justified by the impressive economic and technological progress. This justification is another one of the many contradictions inbuilt in the current development of Turkey.

6- Baghi: Are there other ideological influences usually poorly or not considered, when we look at this complex, but increasingly important relationship between Politics and Religion in Turkey?

Benedikter: As colleagues like for example M. Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University, Vural Ülkü of Ankara and Mersin Universitesi or Cüneyt Kalpakoglu have convincingly pointed out, the historical interface between politics and religion in Turkey has seldom be analyzed appropriately when it comes to secular religion and to the generally small, but influential non-confessional, but still “essentialist” worldview groups and movements which have tried to combine modern secularism with a kind of progressive and individualistic, experiential “spiritual realism”. These groups adhere to a “third way” that can be located precisely at the interface between the militant creation of secular institutions and of a laical state on the one hand, and the search for a kind of “spiritual realism”, often also branded as “rational spirituality” appropriate to modernity, on the other hand.

7- Baghi: For example?

Benedikter: Among these groups is for example the - highly differentiated - field of Turkish freemasonry. Turkish freemasonry, or to put it in maybe more precise terms: Turkish freemasons have played an important role in shaping the modern history of Turkey in the past two centuries, including the establishment of a secular republic as such. These forces were present probably less as a “movement” in the strict sense, but more as single individuals connected by some basic convictions and aspirations - individuals who were distributed within the different movements of their times: in basically most of them, not only in the emancipative, reformist, liberal and progressive ones. What connected them was their “intermediate” ideology between political progress and religious conservativism: their attempts of reconciling progressive politics with a rational essentialism. Cüneyt Kalpakoglu and I have just recently published a brief historical overview about this still widely under-researched topic. [3] We hope this article can serve as a concise introduction into the issue in order to foster debate on it exactly in a moment when Turkey seems to be shifting in other directions.

8- Baghi: Does that mean that these “third way”[4] groups that in a certain sense were balancing between militant secularism and religious confessionalism have been trying to build bridges between politics and religion on a moderate, progressive and liberal scale, thus shaping important elements of the history of modernity in Turkey?

Benedikter: In principle yes, even though as always the “reality process” - as our grand doyen Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called it as you know - is never as clear and well confined as that. In socio-political processes, you are never able to just and only be the “good guy”. Every reality process in the modern era mixes some basic positive aspirations with their opposite almost always, almost necessarily as it seems. And the latter come into play when ideals hit practical politics and the social sphere. In addition, if you are in politics for a certain period of time (as I was between 1995 and 2003), some things unavoidably go wrong, encounter unforeseen events or even turn into their opposite. The outcome is always a combination between your aspirations and the happenings that are out there. But in principle, what you describe was at least the attempt. It was the idealistic aspiration of parts of the progressive movements from the 19th century onwards, including for instance some members of the so-called “Young Turks” and their revolution in 1908. Certain members of the “Young Turks” certainly had in mind the integration of modernity, secularism and a kind of public idealism in the form of a religion of visibly progressive traits. And some of them were undoubtedly closely tied to freemasonry and the respective ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood, which as we know were at the origins and have remained at the center of the main Western democratization processes.

9- Baghi: Who exactly were the “Young Turks”? Were they reformists? Or were they on the contrary the ones who alienated Turkey from its glorious past, as some conservative scholars assert?

Benedikter: They were certainly reformists in their minds, and in their aspirations. As I said, the reality process can turn things upside down sometimes, and in a certain sense and to a certain extent it did so also with the goals and hopes of the Young Turks. But in principle, the Young Turks were reformers and innovators in a historical moment of transition. Consider that they were in large parts composed of university students, intellectuals and artists, scientists, bureaucrats and administrators, i.e. the educated elites. These elites sensed already before WWI that the epoch of the great trans-cultural empires in Central and South-eastern Europe and in the Middle East was coming to an end, including the Ottoman Empire, and that the era of the modern nation states had begun. Accordingly, they aimed towards the creation of a nation-state including a constitutional system, a liberal economic order and a secular, nationally unified public culture, including one national language. On the other hand, we would certainly have to debate if they reached their goals, and where yes, to which extent, and in which fields exactly. Let us never forget the role of the Young Turks in the genocide of Armenians and Kurds during WWI. Like other movements of their time, the nationalistic fervour drove important parts of the Young Turks into ethnic cleansing and (until then widely unparalleled) crimes against humanity – an enormous, inexpressible contradiction against their own original ideals and goals.

10- Baghi: What were the dominant groups inside the Young Turks? What was their inner organizational structure?

Benedikter: As with many movements in the history of modernity, their inner organization was complex and contradictory, in many ways ambivalent, being disputed by various currents and sub-tendencies. Formally speaking, there was a continuous competition between at least two structural pillars: the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the Ottoman Freedom Society (OFS). Regarding the ideology, there were strong disputes between the secularist and materialistic forces, the economy-centered liberals and the “third way” tendencies mentioned above. We can probably say that these disputes have never ended; the Young Turks themselves never reached the structural and ideological unity they propagated for the modern nation-state which they envisioned for the future of their country.

11- Baghi: Before the emergence of the Young Turks and before 1908, the Turkish reform process began. This process continued in a way that the education system, the military, the institutions, etc. were in part reconstructed. Within this period, Europe and more generally speaking the West apparently were the main role models for the Young Turks to follow in reforming and reconstructing the socio-political system. The two-fold question resulting from this is: A) Did the reform efforts occur under the pressure of Western powers? Or (B) were they carried out mainly due to the necessities perceived by the convictions of the reformists themselves? In other words: Where did the main motivation of the reform movement come from: was it foreign or domestic?

Benedikter: Both, differing noticeably inside the Young Turks umbrella movement according to the origins and ideological inclinations of the various appertaining groups we mentioned. The influence of the West was particularly strong in the “third way” currents and in the economic liberals. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is possible to say that the reforms were undertaken “under Western pressure”. On the other hand, the Western influence was certainly less present in the radically nationalist groups which were much more interested in establishing a strong, modernized replacement of the Ottoman Empire, a.o. by “cleaning up” its multi-cultural and pluri-ethnic heritage. To put it in very abridged terms, they wanted to create a unified state able to ascent to a new epoch of splendour and influence. Both these tendencies battled each other inside the Young Turks. You have to consider this to understand their inbuilt ambivalences. As it was foreseeable, in times of war, during WWI, the nationalist currents gained supremacy, and this resulted in a kind of humane catastrophe for the movement as a whole, at least seen from the historical retrospective. The roots for the genocides were laid much earlier though, when parts of the Young Turks started to base their ideas of a unified modern nation on certain European notions of race which circulated among parts of the international elites at the end of the 19th century.

12- Baghi: There is a belief among some scholars that in the final phases of the Ottoman Empire, Theodor Herzl met with the Ottoman emperor, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, to get the permission to create a land for the Jewish people. But the Sultan seemingly rejected. Some people reached the conclusion that the Zionist movement tried to take revenge by creating the “Young Turks” movement through its representatives in the Ottoman Empire. They tried to make the empire collapse from within. Is that right?

Benedikter: This is a theory that I am not aware of. I believe that until it is proven by sound historical and socio-political research, it has to be considered as unreliable, and that basically means it has to be considered as wrong. As far as I can see, there is no evidence to backup such claims. As scholars like Hasan Kayali of UCSD have shown by historical in-depth studies, you have so many negative speculations on issues regarding the birth of Israel by misusing the history of Turkey and the Middle East, and by arbitrarily creating connections where there are none. I would completely reject any speculation. I recommend to solely rely upon the facts, and I can see no facts backing these kinds of theories you mentioned.

13- Baghi: Atatürk’s political and ideological heritage has been deeply embedded in the everyday atmosphere of Turkey until today. Until a decade ago, opposition against this heritage faced disadvantage and punishment. I would like to know how the Islamists in Turkey could live in harmony with the heritage of Atatürk?

Benedikter: You probably have to ask them directly to get a well-founded answer. In my view, there are many moderate Islamists in Turkey who recognize the need to keep the features of the modern laical state in effect, even if some of them long for more freedom to manifest their believes in public. My hope is that these moderate currents will prevail within the ongoing religious renaissance in Turkey. And I believe that coexistence is possible, although it will require compromise, and tolerance on all sides involved. My hope is that common sense will prevail. And that in the end, the secular republican system will be defended by the majority of the population, not only by the educated elites. Not least, because this will be a crucial aspect co-decisive for Turkey’s ambitions to modernize, and to join the European Union.

14- Baghi: In recent statements, you describe Turkey as being in the midst of a deep-reaching process of transition; and you describe as the most important issue for its future to activate and empower its “youth” in order to counter-balance the growing influence of traditional religion on the public discourse.[5] Is that a kind of indirect reminiscence towards the “Young Turks” movement?

Benedikter: No, not at all. The “Young Turks” movement belonged to a different era, and it unfolded in completely different historical and socio-political contexts. I wouldn’t compare today’s situation with that of 1908. That said, I believe that it will be a mix of secular and materialistic, economy-driven liberal and “third way” elements together with “non-affiliated” students, intellectuals, artists and members of the civil society (most of them still concentrated in the urban areas) that will be the advocates of the laical republic on the Bosporus in the coming years.

15- Baghi: But again: Could the “Young Turks” in this situation serve as an example for contemporary, progressive reformist movements throughout the region? And if yes: to which extent, and in which fields exactly?

Benedikter: As always with reformist, progress oriented movements of the past, certain aspects may serve as indication, others not. You can’t, and you shouldn’t ever try to repeat history. Every political movement, be it as idealistic, reformist or progressive as it can be, is necessarily ambivalent. So I would prefer to ask your legitimate question slightly differently: Could the republican order of today’s Turkey serve as an example for the surrounding modernizing societies? In my view, the question of the progressive elements of the Turkish civil society serving as an example of a participatory society for its neighbours is as interesting and inspiring as it is disputable.[6] It is interesting and inspiring, because I believe such an example of a “religion-inspired republic” or even “Islamic democracy” is maybe one of the most needed models in our post-9/11-world. It is particularly needed for the transformation towards more liberal societies that is happening throughout the Middle East. But it is also disputable, since Turkey itself is in the midst of a transition of unclear features. I nevertheless am optimistic that the country will exert a positive influence upon the region, hopefully by demonstrating that a moderate religious political influence and a secular, pluralistic state are not completely incompatible.

16- Your outlook on the probable relationship between Politics, Religion and any kind of “intermediate” Ideologies in Turkey to expect for the years ahead?

Benedikter: In my view, the “intermediate” ideologies we talked of may get a unique chance in the coming years. They will get the opportunity to prove their value as an effective, concrete and down-to-earth interface between religion and politics in the 21st century. “Islamic democracy”, “rational spirituality” and a pluralistic society are in principle no opposites. Since we witness the global ascent of “contextual politics”, i.e. of religion, culture, mass psychology, convictions and ideas to become always more influential political factors, those able to build rational and tolerant bridges between the elements will gain in influence. We shouldn’t forget that as long as the moderate religious parties in Turkey are democratically elected, they are legitimated by the people. In turn, these parties shouldn’t forget that they were able to ascent to governmental responsibility by becoming the main beneficiaries of a pluralistic, republican and participatory system dependent on the will of the people.


Abuzar M. H. Baghi, PhD, is Journalist and Editor-in-chief of the International section of Mehrnameh. Journal of the Iranian Civil Society, published as an independent review for the Iranian Civil Society since 2002 in Teheran, Iran. He graduated in political science at Azad University in Tehran in 1995, and has since then been arrested various times by the Iranian authorities because of his efforts to create a non-Western, independent democratic discourse in Iran. He translated several books and many long theoretical articles from English into Persian in the area of human rights for the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a.o. by Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, etc. He is the brother of Emadeddin Baghi, a leading journalist and human rights activist in Iran who has been behind bars for several years. Contact: abuzarbaghi@gmail.com.

Roland Benedikter, Prof. DDDr., is European Foundation Professor of Interdisciplinary Sociology with focus on Contextual Political Analysis and Global Change, in residence at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and Research Affiliate / Visiting Scholar at the Europe Center, Stanford University. 2000-2002 Visiting Professor at Mersin Universitesi, Turkey. Authorized websites: http://europe.stanford.edu/people/rolandbenedikter/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Benedikter. Contact: rben@stanford.edu or r.benedikter@orfaleacenter.ucsb.edu.

Published in a translation into Persian in: Mehrnameh. Journal of the Iranian Civil Society. Special Issue: Turkey. Teheran, August 2011.


[1] R. Benedikter: What is the“Global Systemic Shift” of our days, and how does it work? A seven-fold approach: System Action theory. In: Critical Globalization Studies, edited by Royal Holloway University London. Forthcoming in 2011.

[2] Cf. R. Benedikter: Politics and Religion. Notes on the Current Relationship between two Societal Fields. In: Berliner Debatte Initial. Zeitschrift für sozialwissenschaftlichen Diskurs. Herausgegeben von der Gesellschaft für sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung und Publizistik Berlin. 19. Jahrgang, Heft 4/2008, Berlin 2008, pp. 90-101. (German).

[3] R. Benedikter and C. Kalpakoglu: Freimaurerei in der Türkei (German). Forthcoming in 2011. Reprint in: H. Reinalter (ed.): Lexikon der Freimaurerei. Forthcoming in 2012.

[4] Cf. R. Benedikter: Third Way Movements. In: M. Juergensmeyer, H. Anheier and V. Faessel (ed.s): The SAGE Encyclopedia of Global Studies, New York 2011.

[5] R. Benedikter: On Contemporary Turkey. In: Changing Turkey in A Changing World. Analyzing Turkish Politics and Society within a Global Context. Edited by Royal Holloway University London, http://changingturkey.com/2011/06/16/interview-with-prof-roland-benedikter-ucsb-and-stanford-university/, June 16, 2011.

[6] Cf. R. Benedikter: Turkey as an Example of Democratization for its Neighbours? In: R. Benedikter: Nachhaltige Demokratisierung des Irak? Sozio-kulturelle und demokratiepolitische Perspektiven, Wien 2005, chapter 5, pp. 285-354 (German).