Secularism and Islamic Minorities in Turkey

Whirling Dervishes. Image: Babitha George. Turkish secularism is threatening the identity and vitality of the country’s Islamic minorities, in particular the Dervish Sufi and Naqsbandi Sufi movements. Secularism forces these two religious minorities to choose between becoming commoditized and controlled by the state—“public dilution”—and camouflaging their religious activities in order to protect their freedom to pursue private influence on public leaders—“private soft power.”

Modern secularism in Turkey can be characterized as a form of “assertive secularism,” which Ahmet Kuru argues is distinct from the more “passive secularism” seen in the United States that tolerates public visibility of religion and active religious presence in terms of attire and lobbying of government. The “assertive secularism” of Turkey, however, is modeled after the French form of secularism that aggressively regulates religious activity and scrubs the public square of any religious visibility or influence. This secularist model has been in place in Turkey since 1925 and has allowed the Turkish state to control religion within its borders.

Many examples illustrate state control of religion in Turkey. One in particular relates to the ezan, or call to prayer. From 1925 to 1950, Turkish law mandated that the ezan be conducted in Turkish as an attempt to further a “Turkish model of Islam” and to define the Turkish nation as distinct from Islamic Arabism. Additionally, imams in Turkey are hired, trained, and managed bureaucratically by the Ankara government’s Diyanet, established in 1925 after the abolition of the caliphate. Furthermore, in 2013 a group of government-appointed theologians published a new version of the Islamic hadith, a multi-volume collection of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his early followers. Such an action is the equivalent of a U.S. administration hiring pro-government theologians to reinterpret the New Testament in alignment with the government’s perspective.

Dervish Sufism

While both Naqsbandi and Dervish Sufism are Sufi tariqas (paths), they have differing origins and thus differing self-understandings of their role in Turkish public life. Even so, both are marginalized within the secular Turkish State.

Dervish Sufism, for example, is centered on individual in-depth self-abnegation and asceticism. While all Sufis use the zikr method of worship (chanting the 99 names for God so that they “remember” who they are and their place in the world; this is “a remembrance which consumes, destroys, annihilates, and ultimately resurrects the followers of the Sufi path in the Divine Reality”), Dervish Sufis are distinct in their use of  “whirling” to attain ecstatic states, opening the mind and body up to God.

In modern Turkey, however, “whirling” Dervish Sufism has been stylized and commoditized into ritualized Dervish ceremonies primarily presented in the Mevlana Cultural Center, a million-dollar, state-constructed theater visited by millions of international tourists each year. The Dervish community’s tacit consent to such state-sponsored commodification can be interpreted as a willingness to abandon any prophetic role the group may have and to implicitly consent to the neutralization of reformist and growth energies within the Dervish movement. Such accommodation can be costly, however, as it threatens the spiritual integrity and group vitality of Dervish Sufis.

Naqsbandi Sufism

As Brian Silverstein argues, Naqsbandi Sufism focuses not on the individual alone as much as the “individual in community.” The movement is very conventional, tracing its lineage through a rigid theological transmission line focused on orthodoxy and purity. Modern Naqsbandi worship occurs in privately-owned communal environments, and zikr is practiced along with ethical discourses on purity and righteousness. Turkish secularism, however, has forced the group to move into a “secretive communalism” that limits its desired ability to influence public officials toward leading virtuous lives.


Though the current prime minister of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, has been labeled “Islamist” by the Western media—a term which can be used to mean anything from “supporter of terrorism” to “governs using liberal Islamic values”—Turkey remains a secular polity. Recent interviews with Dervish and Naqsbandi Sufis indicate that, despite the prime minister’s allegiance to Islam, minority religious expressions continually have to choose between purely secularist options that threaten their identities, integrity, and vitality. Parliamentarians frequently use secular policies to push back against Erdogan’s use of conservative Islamic values for legal guidance.

Is there hope? Erdogan’s mandate will soon reach constitutionally-imposed term limits, and other minority groups such as the Alevis and Kurds are protesting to assert their claims to political rights. These protests challenge Turkey’s definition of democracy: can opposing voices with political power be tolerated in the public square and included in democratic structures, particularly if they are religious constituencies? We will find out in the coming years. In the end, this conflict could prove to be beneficial to the Turkish state, as it is often said that the enemy of religion is not secularism, but apathy.