On the surface, it is extremely easy to explain the ‘Religious Make-Up of Turkey’: Turkey is 99.9% Islamic.
The remaining infinitesimally minute 0.1% encompasses all and everything that is not Islamic in Turkish society.
So, you could say, “job done” – the religious make-up of Turkey is for all intents and purposes exclusively Islamic.
But, what does that mean?
To try to begin bringing an understanding to what that means, I have written a brief, cursory introduction to what that massive percentage means. It is my attempt to describe some of the multifaceted and multifarious groups and divisions within that 99.9% and which are readily visible within Turkey in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
For the purpose of this blog, I will leave untouched the 0.1% that make up the remainder.
Be forewarned, the following is a simple layman’s explanation of the various groups or divisions that make up Islamic society here in Turkey. This is not, nor is it intended to be, an academic explanation. This merely contains and reflects my anecdotal and casual observations of life here over the last thirty six years.
There are a number of assumptions, prejudices, biases, preconceptions, misinformation and ‘media narratives’ which can cause stumbling blocks to a proper understanding.
The First Stumbling Block…
One difficulty we face is we that tend to rely on our own, personal experience, that which originates from our home country and culture, that which we known and understand, the various trends and attitudes flowing in our society and culture and then to apply them wholesale to a totally foreign culture and situation.
Consequently, many people, when they see a number like 99.9%, will assume it is like in their home countries, where the bulk of the population may ‘identify’ as Christians, but far fewer are actually ‘practicing Christians’. It is incredibly easy to assume that the bulk of the population here will, likewise, ‘identify’ as Muslims, but, far fewer will actually be practicing Muslims.
Please note: this is not the case.
Whilst the percentage of the population who actually engage and practice their faith is far lower than the 99.9% headline number, it is a far, far higher percentage than the percentage of the population who are practicing Christians in any Western country – bar none.
This is a very religious society.
When we contemplate the epithet ‘Muslim’, which is what 99.9% of Turkish society identifies as, what to we understand of this term?
The Second Stumbling Block…
Generally, we, as people, like things simple, clear cut and well defined. We prefer things to be black and white or to be absolute good and absolute bad. But, alas, life is not at all like that; there is black and there is white, and often there is a whole lot of grey as well.
Among humanity, there are good and there are bad people in our world, and sometimes the very good have some very bad in them and sometimes the very bad have some good in them. We would prefer our villains to be wholly villainous with no positive elements at all. And in the same manner we are horrified when the ‘good person’ is revealed to have feet of clay and sometimes some very, very ‘bad’ elements abiding in their souls.
We like definite, unambiguous explanations and understandings – but life is far too complex and intricate for such simple declarations.
This can lead us, sometimes, to presume that all of Islam is the same, with the same beliefs. We can assume that the same beliefs and practices are held and followed by all under the banner of Islam – well, they aren’t.
Yes, there are some banner beliefs that are declared to be universally held…but this does not begin to tell the whole story.
To begin with, there are two major divisions in Islam; Sunni and Shi’ite. Shi’ite is also identified as Shia. Sunni is often regarded as Orthodox Islam. Shi’ite / Shia is held dear by those who believe that Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, should have succeeded the prophet on his death; that Ali was the prophet’s spiritual heir; and so Ali is held in extremely high regard by them.
Although these two major divisions claim the same prophet, the same root, and the same book, and whilst they hold a great deal in common, they do differ quite a bit from each other in both practice, emphasis and belief.
It is also true that in some regions of the Islamic world, the Sunni majority reject the Shi’ite minority to such an extent that they do not even regard them as Muslims – considering them worse even than Christians.
As stated above, there are two major, distinct divisions in Islam; Sunni and Shi’ite but it should also be pointed out that Shi’ite Islam isn’t always called by the same name in all the countries it exists in. Sometimes it is identified as Alawis [as in Syria], Alevi [as in Turkey], Hezbollah [as in the Lebanon] and Shi’ite / Shia as in Iran [and many other countries].
The Third Stumbling Block…
In addition to the misunderstanding that all of Islam is an undivided, tight unity, is the misunderstanding that these two major divisions are monolithic; that their adherents all believe identically.
At a distance, without any first hand experience, it is far too easy to assume that all of Sunni – Orthodox Islam believes and practices the same.
Er, sorry, they really don’t.
Likewise, it is easy to assume that all Shi’ite / Shia (Alawis, Alevi, Hezbollah) Islam believes and practices the same
Guess what, this too, is not true.
Within Sunni Islam there are multiple sects who declare and follow their own take on Sunni Islam with, for example, extra prayers or extra fasting or beliefs and practices taken from the traditions and the life of the prophet or some other added ‘special’ ingredient, all in an effort to meet with God – to find intimacy with the Almighty. As well, there those who in Sunni Islam take a more relaxed, an almost indifferent, rather nominal approach. Those who take this approach may keep or appear to keep the major events in the Muslim calendar, but, practically they are rather negligent in all other aspects of the faith – they still consider themselves ‘believers’ and quickly and adamantly identify as Muslim, but without really engaging in the practices of the faith.
And likewise, within Shi’ite / Shia (Alawis, Alevi, Hezbollah) Islam you have a plethora of little groups, sects, sheikhs and teachers with their own, unique take on things – and again, with the same goal, to fill the void in their lives. And here, too, there are those in Shi’ite Islam who take a more relaxed, indifferent or nominal approach and yet, when challenged, will adamantly and vociferously declare themselves part of the faithful Alevi community.
Added to this is Sufism, which can rise from either Sunni or Shi’ite Islam and which is a mystical expression of Islam which reflects a longing for God and a desire for friendship with the Almighty. The ‘Whirling Dervishes’ and the writings of Rumi and many others with their emphasis on the Love of God, are examples of Sufism.
A Word Of Caution…
Now I feel I must caution against disparaging the various sects within Islam as can be our wont, and rather suggest that we could think of them like the myriad and myriad of denominations within the Protestant branch of Christianity – each one acknowledging the greater Church, and yet putting themselves forward with their own unique and ‘correct’ understanding and interpretation of the Good News.
The Practical Conclusion…
Just because someone identifies as a ‘Muslim’ does not mean you automatically know what they believe, think, feel, long for, or practice.
They may be an agnostic Sunni, or a holy warrior, or a devout seeker of God, or a keen, well-meaning Alevi seeking to be a ‘good person’, or a strict rule keeper trying to please God or a strident enforcer of what they believe the duty of all mankind is or they may be some syncretic and unique mix of parts of the above and other things.
Until you know them, spend time with them, share your life with them and they with you, you can not know who they are, nor what they believe. By the same token, they cannot know who you are and what it is you truly believe unless you share your life and living with them.
The Conclusion of the Question…
The conclusion of the matter raised at the commencement of this blog: the country of Turkey is primarily Sunni (with its nominal Sunni component and its myriad of sects), and there exists a very sizeable Alevi minority (again with its nominal element and its plethora of sects), and Sufism continues to be expressed.
As in many Sunni majority countries, those of the Alevi branch feel that they are looked down on and are being actively discriminated against. In Turkey, officially, Sufism is restricted, which is not the same as saying it is not practiced.