Changing image of Sufism in Turkey’s religious education program

Previously presented as an historical phenomenon and an instance of reactionary Islam in textbooks used for religious education in Turkey, Sufi orders (tarikat) are now described in a positive light, writes Manami Ueno (Kyoto University) in Turkish Studies (June). This does not mean that the currently ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is willing to give up state control over the religion, but rather that Sufism is now considered as within the range of what the government sees as acceptable Islam. Sufi orders had been banned by the Turkish authorities under Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s and only managed to survive under other guises. Turkish authorities had also removed religious education, although it was later reintroduced as an elective course. After the military coup of 1980, an approach described as the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” was promoted. A course on Religious Culture and Morals was then made compulsory by the military government in 1982. A comparison of the seven textbooks published between 1983 and 2012 shows how modifications were introduced over time regarding Sufism as well as other topics.

The military government in the 1980s wanted to prevent the influence of “reactionary Islam,” of which Sufi orders were seen as an expression. Sufism was not ignored, and the contributions of Sufi orders in Turkish history were acknowledged, but they were presented as having degenerated in recent centuries, thus justifying their ban and making them a thing of the past. In the 2002 edition, under the government of Bülent Ecevit, the description of Sufism was kept in the textbooks, but references to the orders were removed. The 2008 and 2012 textbooks written under the AKP government not only increased the number of pages about Sufism, but devoted a specific chapter to the topic. While still refraining from using the word tarikat, several “schools of Sufism” were mentioned as active to the present day, with an emphasis on the positive values of Sufism and its being “completely within the scope of standard Islam,” contributing to “the cultural wealth of religion.” Thus, the AKP government has been drawing new lines about what acceptable Islam is and asserting its views on religion. This is also evidenced by the appearance of Alevis (the largest group next to Sunni Muslims in Turkey) in the 2008 textbook, presented as one expression of Sufism—although a number of Alevis have resented it as an attempt at the “Sunnitization” of Alevism.

(Turkish Studies,