The prime minister made waves last Wednesday when criticizing CHP Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who had, as he routinely does, accused the prime minister of religious populism.
Erdogan, in response, said, "Do you expect the conservative democrat AK Party to raise atheist generations? This may be your business and objective but not ours. We will raise a generation that is conservative and democratic and embraces the values and historical principles of its nation?" The remarks have caused a firestorm of controversy, most of it re-active, as the Turkish public waits for Erdogan to clarify his remarks.
Though the AKP has always publicly affirmed its commitment to secularism, most notably of late in the prime minister's address in Cairo last September, doubts still linger as to whether the party is simply waiting to show its true face. Yet this does not really capture the picture. The issue now is not so much whether Turkey could give way to the religious fanaticism of Iran, which was always an overblown assessment, but whether religious minorities and nonbelievers can be secure in their rights as minorities amidst a largely Sunni, and fairly conservative, religious population. The tension between the two rises to the surface as much in private space as public, in particular when it comes to neighborhoods where the more and less religious are now residing next to each other and walking the same streets.
The real concern with Erdogan's remarks is to just what role he envisions the state to play in the religious arena. AKP officials are well-known for espousing their support for the American interpretation of secularism over the French, which is entirely different, but as I have written before (see past posts), these same officials often do not have a very good understanding of the American system nor is it free from excesses and more than the occasional encroachment of religion into public policy making whereby minorities -- religious, sexual, and otherwise -- routinely face discrimination thanks to legislation seeking to promote values.
Turkey, though not by any means more liberal than the United States, has to some degree been protected from such excesses thanks to the state's understanding of secularism, which, despite a horrible history of discrimination against what likely is a religious majority (for example, the headscarf ban), has explained why many of Turkey's minorities, in particular Alevis and Jews, are quite nervous about the state of secularism in Turkey (whether they would characterize it as "deterioration," "decline," or "renegotiation"). I know this last sentence has a lot of clauses, but is revealing of the degree of careful qualification and nuance the issue requires. What is disturbing about Erdogan's recent remarks is precisely their lack of nuance.
Even more disturbing is that after making the remarks, Erdogan did simply clarify his remarks and put the matter to bed. First, seemingly attempting to re-frame his remarks by stating that "people can be both pious and modern," and only after stating that criticism of his remarks was the product of an ill-intentioned defamation campaign, the prime minister posed this set of twin rhetorical questions: "Do you want our youth to become thinner addicts? Do you want a new generation that has no moral values and no purpose?" Thinner addiction has become a major problem among youth in many of Turkey's large cities, which have experienced massive amounts of migration and where many still live in poverty.
UPDATE I (2/15) -- The Young Academicians have initiated a campaign in response to the prime minister's remarks, which can be viewed here, along with a letter of concern (English version here) addressed to the prime minister. An excerpt:
We, as the youth and academics of this country, of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi'i, religious and nonreligious, atheist and agnostic backgrounds, all joined with a firm belief in secularism, find your recent remarks about raising a religious and conservative youth most alarming and dangerous.
. . . .
We further condemn your speech which served only to hurt and humiliate the children that live on the streets in Turkey (stigmatised with the media-catchphrase of ‘thinner-addicted children’), who already live under harsh conditions and who are subject to abuse. The plight of these children is not due to a lack of spirituality, as you have implied, but is caused by the deep-rooted social and economic problems of our country, to which you have served as Prime Minister for a decade.