Foreign Policy Blogs

Dilip Hiro on Turkey: Secular Elite vs. Religious Masses

Overlook Press has recently published Dilip Hiro’s new book: Inside Central Asia, which is an all-encompassing history of practically everything the average reader of history might want to know about the region. It even considers the ancient history of the 5 major “stan” countries, as well as Iran and Turkey. In fact, the first chapter is devoted to Turkey – “the heart of the Islamic World.” Hiro apparently aims to describe why Turks are so religious, but why there is still such a contrast between the secular elite and the masses. Actually, the book’s general framework for analysis is Islam, and how Islam has both shaped and been shaped by the political and cultural histories of the Central Asian region.

Important for understanding some of today’s radical, extremist, and terrorist groups, Dilip Hiro gives a good summary of how and why the caliphate in Turkey ended. (Al-Qaeda is one of many terrorist organizations that calls for a renewal of the caliphate.) Hiro explains how the struggle of Kemal Ataturk against the regime of the Sultan-Caliph “included a campaign against religion and religious infrastructure.” (p.72) Subsequently, “Kemalism replaced Islam as the state religion.” The rest of the chapter on Turkey concentrates on the development of Islamic political parties and the role of the military – specifically given the 1980 coup. By 1990, “the popular attraction of Islam as a viable social ideology increased.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Hiro claims that the Turkish goal was to prevent the Central Asian republics from being attracted to the ideology behind “Iran’s Islamic obscurantism.” I had never thought before of Turkey’s drive to influence Central Asia as centered on more than economic benefits. However, Hiro emphasizes that fear of Iran’s spreading influence was also a motivating factor for Turkey. Finally, Hiro looks at the “end of the secularist grip,” and the sense that there has been a real Islamization of Turkey. One of his major conclusions is that “the Justice and Development Party’s rule had been the death knell of Kemalist statism.”



Karin Esposito

Karin Esposito is blogging on religion and politics from her base in Central Asia. Currently, she is the Project Manager for the Tajikistan Dialogue Project in Dushanbe. The Project is run through the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies with the support of PDIV of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. The aim of the project is to establish practical mechanisms for co-existence and peaceful conflict resolution between Islamic and secular representatives in Tajikistan. After receiving a Juris Doctorate from Boston University School of Law in 2007, she worked in Tajikistan for the Bureau of Human Rights and later as a Visting Professor of Politics and Law at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research (KIMEP). Ms. Esposito also holds a Master's in Contemporary Iranian Politics (2007) from the School of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran and a Master's in International Relations (2003) from the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (GIIDS) in Switzerland.

Areas of Focus:
Islam; Christianity; Secularism;


Great Decisions Discussion group