Signs of Islamic radicalization are everywhere East of the Bosporus, even on Turkey’s legendary beaches.

In early July, small groups of Muslim men and boys, roving Black Sea coastal resorts, confronted women in bathing suits, urging them to cover up. The men distributed a pamphlet titled, “Being the Lady God Wants” with guidance for Muslim modesty.

Among the 70 points were rules such as:

  • A pious woman should not shake hands with a man she does not already know.
  • She should ask permission from her husband to go outside.
  • She should avoid attending weddings where music is played.
  • She should never sit in public places.

 The main message: Pious women should not show skin.

Having stopped my teenage daughters from leaving the house for wearing various midriff-exposing and back-baring outfits, I sympathize with — even endorse — the main point.

At the same time, the Muslim Beach Tract is indicative of trends in Turkey rapidly moving the country toward intolerance.

There has been pushback. For example, when a popular Mediterranean resort in Antalya created a women-only beach this summer, it inspired a male-female swim-in. But the broad implications of these events are undeniable.


Erdoğan’s Regime

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was inaugurated this week as Turkey’s first popularly elected president, having served as prime minister since 2003.

More than 90 dignitaries came to Ankara for the ceremony (the U.S. sent a rather low-level delegation), evidence of Turkey’s rise as a world player in terms of financial clout and geo-strategic relevance especially vis-à-vis the Islamic world. With an economy called “one of the world’s zippiest” by The Economist, Prime Minister Erdoğan has presided over a global success story.

Yet, Erdoğan has used increasingly authoritarian tactics to squelch any voices of opposition, no matter how innocent or justified — to the point of blocking Twitter and YouTube nationwide last March, a move eventually termed illegal by the country’s courts.

Erdoğan’s presidential campaign was marked by particularly aggressive rhetoric bordering on paranoia. He raged about destroying the “Parallel State,” an allusion to a supposed cabal of insiders, especially within law enforcement and the judiciary, bent on destroying his political power. Special anger was directed against Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who inspires a movement, known as Hizmet (service) emphasizing education and charity around the world.  

In fact, legitimate accusations of corruption within Erdoğan’s government were revealed last December. By now, every prosecutor, judge and police investigator — thousands of people — associated with the case against Erdoğan’s family and allies have been fired, arrested, or relocated.

Erdoğan has also presided over an increasingly more radical Islamic attitude in Turkey.


Absurd to Grave

Like Robert Guiliani’s “Squeegee Rule” — the notion that when small offenses aren’t punished, criminals get the message that law enforcement is lax regarding major crime — the frequent drumbeat on Muslim behavior appears to quickly segue into larger intolerance.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç declared in late July that modest women should not laugh out loud in public. He made the statement at a religious event, Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.

Arinc’s remark inspired fast, negative response on social media, with women adopting the hashtags #Kahkaha (Laugh) and #Direnkahkaha (Resist, Laugh) to protest the notion that women shouldn’t be happy.

Arinc’s thinks moral depravity must be confronted for a society to remain healthy through state enforcement, much like the Muslim Brotherhood.

And Arinc exemplifies a politician who moves swiftly from points of individual behavior to using the state’s power to inhibit religious freedom. He’s the Turkish politician behind converting two major museums that were both once Orthodox churches, into mosques.

Most recently, the Turkish school system has been accused of placing students in Muslim “imam-hatip” schools (a prelude to reviving madrasa schools to train government-paid imams?), whether or not they are Muslim.

The context for religious radicalization in Turkey is social and political.

Domestic trends among Turkish youth, especially higher education attainment combined with unemployment feed the phenomena says analyst Mumtazer Turkone: Radical Islam provides a ready-made identity.

Erdoğan has actively encouraged it, as part of his neo-Ottoman vision. He is also the leading regional supporter of forces trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a conflict directly leading to Islamic radicalization.

An ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdoğan advocates changing society through state intervention.

Movements like Gulen’s Hizmet, as well as another moderate Islamic school of thought, the Nursi Movement, flowing from the commentary of Turkish religious leader Said Nursi, demonstrate that morality is more appropriately a function of individual discipline and faith.

What gnaws at Christian observers of Turkey is that Erdoğan could so easily chose to use his power and popularity to walk the Middle East back from hatred.

Instead, tragically, he and his political allies are fanning flames of intolerance, on the individual and international levels.