Ani Sarkissian on Politics & Religious Civil Society in Turkey (Encore Presentation)
Date: December 7th, 2016

Program Note: We are still on break due to a heavy travel schedule and other professional obligations.  We do have some new episodes on the way, so stay tuned and tell your friends and family to check us out!

In a region that appears to be in great flux, Turkey stands out as one of the more stable societies in the region.  Nonetheless, significant changes have taken place recently in a country that straddles both Europe and the Islamic Middle East.  Prof. Ani Sarkissian, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University and core faculty member of the Muslim Studies Program and the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at MSU, returns to our show to discuss these interesting changes and put them in historical context.

We begin our discussion by travelling back in time to the days of the Ottoman Empire, and its rule over a multi-ethnic conglomeration.  Prof. Sarkissian begins with some of the reforms that the Ottoman caliphate attempted to undertake in the 19th century and then details the collapse of the empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Turkey’s post-Ottoman regime shared many traits in common with other modernizing countries at the time, including a desire to push secularism as official state policy.  Ani lays out a number of the reforms pursued by the Kemalist regime as they set the stage for how the state and civil society will interact over the course of the 20th century.

Following the death of Kemal Atatürk in 1938, we follow the course of Turkey’s autocratic political history including a series of military coups and efforts of civil society to organize.  Dr. Sarkissian notes that several political parties in opposition to military rule began to form in the 1950s, provoking the 1960 coup.  This is followed once again by stirrings amongst the population in the 1960s with the creation of several Islamist parties, led by Necmettin Erbakan.  These parties were outlawed, yet they began to set an imprint on Turkey’s civil society. We discuss how a “religious reawakening” was occurring throughout the region at this time and how political regimes that previously rested their legitimacy on secular nationalism began to adopt religious overtones to their rule.  This was also true of Turkey, wherein the regime attempted to forge a Turkish-Islamist synthesis beginning in the 1970s.

A similar dance between the autocratic rule of the military and civil society occurred throughout the next two decades, eventually leading to a number of laws that liberalized the rules under which civic associations could form and operate.  This was not a full-scale liberalization, though, and the 1997 “Postmodern Coup” placed important limits on the nature of non-governmental organizations and political parties.  The most important of these rules for our purposes in this interview was the prohibition on groups that had overtly religious or ethnic identities.  This occurs at a time when the former Islamist movement and Welfare Party spearheaded by Erbakan splits into two movements, one being a traditional Islamist group (Felicity Party) and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that took a less Islamist overtone, yet was still associated with civic groups that were interested in religious issues.

Ani documents her research on how civil society has had to operate under these restrictions.  The reforms that were meant to open up Turkey’s civil society ironically result in many independent religious groups being captured by the AKP party.  Prof. Sarkissian notes that this is not how civil society is supposed to act as a check upon governmental authority in a flourishing democracy.  We discuss the rise of the Gülen movement and its break with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.  We also cover the recent protests that have erupted in the country, why they have fizzled out, and what Erdoğan’s recent decision (as of July 1 when this podcast was recorded) to run for president means for Turkish democracy.

We finish our conversation with some speculation about Turkey’s role in the Middle East, with particular attention to the recent assertion of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and ongoing conflict in Syria.  While attempts by Prime Minister Erdoğan to assert his leadership in the Muslim world has not been all that successful, Turkey still remains a key player.  Ani ends with some optimistic notes about Turkish civil society and the future.  Recorded: July 1, 2014.


Prof. Ani Sarkissian’s bio at the Michigan State University’s Department of Political Science.

The Variety of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion, by Ani Sarkissian.



Ani Sarkissian on Religion in the Post-Soviet World.

Religious Freedom and Social Flourishing: A Panel Discussion.

Nathan Brown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ann Wainscott on the Politics of Islam in Morocco.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Green Movement.

Alessandra Gonzalez on Islamic Feminism.

Dan Philpott on Religious Resurgence & Democratization.

Ahmet Kuru on Islam in Europe.

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