If there were ever a form of Islam that could be considered German, then it’s the Turkish brand of Islam. Over three million people with Turkish roots live in Germany, and most of them are Sunni Muslims. Pope Francis recently visited Turkey, the land to which many of our Turkish immigrants are still connected to varying degrees, to illustrate the reverse: that Christianity also belongs to Turkey.
Though with this there is a difference: In Turkey, Christianity belongs to tradition, to the past; in Germany Islam is part of the future. Only one percent of people living in Turkey today are non-Muslim, whereas the number of people who share the Muslim faith continues to grow here in Germany. If we are to talk about the Turkish brand of Islam, then it’s essential for us Germans to talk about what it means, because the Turkish brand of Islam is no monolith. Ever since the beginning of the worker migration in the early 1960s, Turkish Islam has continued to change, and with it its influence on the Turkish migrants living in Germany.
For Erdoğan, being Turkish means being Muslim
Islam in Turkey has been molded by the secular tradition, which played a central role in the Turkish Republic until the start of the new century. As for the Turkish guest workers, many of them were not very different in their religious fervor from their Christian, German neighbors. Just like there was a Christian culture, there was also a Muslim culture. The term “culture” here means that the followers of one religion feel connected through different social and cultural issues, though without necessarily actively practicing their religion. Up until now, not much has changed, if one looks at the Muslims in Germany. Twenty percent attend weekly Friday prayers. The proportion of Catholics who attend Sunday mass is at 15 percent, with the gap widening.
Conflicts between religion and the state were not unknown to the secular Turkish Republic: Not long after its foundation, the call to prayer, which was sung in Turkish back then, began to be recited in Arabic again. The pressure of the faithful in the face of this measure, in their view an unacceptable one, was politically too great; like those of many of his successors, Atatürk’s attempt to completely expel religion from the government was unsuccessful.
But the coordination of the state-mosque relationship has shifted in such a dramatic way under Erdoğan that the secular establishment couldn’t have anticipated it a generation ago. The republic’s founder, Mustafa Atatürk, wanted to fence in Islam and bring it under state control. He saw religious influence in secular affairs as something outdated and shameful. All Turkish politicians after Atatürk have had to reposition themselves as both Muslims and politicians and carefully moderate their publicly expresded views on religion. They seem constantly to be asked the Gretchenfrage from Goethe’s Faust: “Where do you stand on religion?”
Goethe, whom today could certainly be called a friend of Islam, did not pose the Gretchenfrage only to the Christians of his time. As one of his era’s connoisseurs of Islam, it seems almost impossible that he could have intended the question only for the Christian faith. Mr. Erdoğan’s take on religion is clear: It is for him the deciding factor in what it means to be Turkish. A Turk is a Muslim, and even more: A Turk is a pious, God-fearing Muslim. What kind of piety is something to be regulated by the head of state. Our man in Ankara knows how many children a Muslim woman should bear and that homosexuality has no place in Islam.
Taking a page from Putin’s book
As president, Mr. Erdoğan has continually positioned himself as an advocate of religious freedom based on a Western model, but we know today, a decade after his assumption of the highest political position in Turkey, that he’s not at all concerned about religious freedom for non-Sunnis. A “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” is an established concept on which politicians before Erdoğan had set their sights.
But the self-confessed former “Islamist” wants more. The new palace, which President Erdoğan built in a nature reserve, sets a new understanding of authority in stone: one that hearkens back to the glory of the Ottoman Empire and not only sets the throne and altar (as we Europeans would call it) on equal footing, but has them both bound up in the authority of a single person. Caesaropapism, a very old notion from the depths of history, is manifested in this man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That is his self-image.
With this idea, Mr. Erdoğan is doubtless taking a page from the book of Vladamir Putin, who exploits Christianity to his own political ends with absolutely no shame. The Patriarch of Moscow does not hesitate to appropriate the word of Jesus to distance himself from secular world leaders, but he forever prostrates himself before Putin the Savior, who guaranteed his church permanent residence in Russia following the communist reign of violence and terror. Someday, perhaps, Mr. Putin will cast off the frankincense-laden choir jacket that he wraps around himself like a used condom. Until then, the Patriarch of Moscow can trust in the belief that he lives in a Christian realm, and he, like most (but not all) Russians, thus pays homage to their hero, who has as much in common with Jesus Christ as Warren Buffet has with Fidel Castro.
How things go for a Patriarch when the political winds do not blow in his favor is something that the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople knows all too well. His residence in the Istanbul suburb of Fener, far from the Hagia Sophia, is surrounded by Turkish Nationalists, whose German counterparts have nothing on them where granting another religion a shred of relevance or respect is concerned. The sowing of the —conservative Erdoğan is already bearing fruit.
The big loser is Turkey
When a particular Muslim or Christian orthodoxy is made part of the national narrative, it spells the constriction of personal freedoms for many people, and it surely means discrimination for quite a few more – which in Russia and Turkey can lead to imprisonment. For instance, religious denominations or sexual orientations that don’t fit this national narrative are demonized. That is how the constant expansion of power and influence works: the Russians have been forbidden to tell mother jokes, and the world has recently learned from Erdoğan that Muslims discovered America.
Under Erdoğan, Turkey is the biggest loser in the global arena: he is an erratic leader caught up in the frenzy of religious revivalism and the belief that he’s the leader of the Muslim world – just what the world today needs.
Should this version of Islam belong to a Germany of the future – weekly sermons telegraphed to Germany from the Turkish Ministry of Religion to be read during Friday prayers? The Kingdom of Granada, which Muslims and Christians alike venerated as a Solomonic home of religious balance and tolerance, had its great gilded age only after it freed itself from its fundamentalist roots.
Translated from German by Ben Hill
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