Many observers fail to see the unique position of Turkey concerning state, society and religion mainly because they concentrate on recent reports in the mass media which usually focus on tensions and fears. Therefore analysis on these issues only touches the surface and fails to grasp the persistent multidimensional modern Turkey. Turkey occupies a unique place among modern nation states. Not only from a geopolitical point of view, but also from cultural and religious points of view. Turkey lies at the crossroads between Eastern and Western interests. The political and cultural identity of modern Turkey emerged under the influence of domestic and external forces that existed in and around Turkey throughout the centuries. Since modern Turkey was established on the remains of the Ottoman Empire, periods of conflict and cooperation between Turkey and other political entities, such as Europe and the Middle East, have led to the development of the modern Turkish state and influenced its move toward modernization.
The establishment of a modern Turkey based on Western political models was a watershed in Turkey’s history. The early republican elite distanced themselves from the cultural and ideological heritage of the Ottoman Empire and laid the foundational elements of modernization and Westernization. These foundational elements were vastly embraced and expanded by the early republican elite circles in the formative period of modern Turkey. However, even today, the Ottoman political culture and state traditions continue to influence politics, though in a modified form.
Modern Turkey continues to seek an appropriate balance between religion and secularism in a nation that is almost entirely Muslim. Given its historical and recent experiences, Turkey offers an excellent example of a case study for those seeking answers to the following questions: Can Islam and democracy coexist? How far can religion and secularism be reconciled? To what extent can religious liberty, particularly freedom of religious expression, be extended in a secular state with a majority Muslim population? How does a Muslim majority address the problems of non-Muslim minorities? These and other similar questions should be answered within the context of the global spread of democracy and the rise of religion.
The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state in which the head of the state served as a caliph who held both temporal and spiritual authority. The traditional political culture of the empire, as well as its administrative machinery, continued with little change as long as the state preserved its military might and economic power. However, beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of military and economic decline. New ideas emerged regarding the necessity of reforms in the political, economic, educational, and military spheres. Consequently, Ottoman leaders felt it necessary to introduce reforms into the empire’s political, economic, military, and educational structures. The resulting modernization and secularization of the Ottoman Empire occurred in several phases that were ushered in by significant events. The earliest efforts at modernization and the incorporation of Western influences can be traced to the impact of the French Revolution in 1789.
The establishment of a modern nation-state in Turkey crystallized the ideological orientation of the republican elite aimed at reshaping the state and its institutions on the basis of a secular model inspired by the West. Political, social, and religious developments in modern Turkey were influenced by the ideals of modernism and secularism. As Nilufer Gole argued, “Since its foundation, Turkey’s political elites voluntarily attempted the most radical secularization among the Muslim countries. The principle of democracy was secondary to that of state secularism.”
Inspired by the principles of modernization, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding leader of modern Turkey, introduced sweeping changes in Turkish society with