by Robert Ruby, Senior Editor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

By nominating an observant Muslim for the Turkish presidency, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan inadvertently highlighted deep-rooted tensions about the role of religion in the nation’s political life. These tensions were already evident in recent Pew Global Attitudes surveys that found growing doubts among Turks that democracy can thrive in their country and increasing worries that Islam is playing a larger, and possibly harmful, role in politics.

Erdogan’s presidential pick, Abdullah Gul, is the country’s foreign minister. A leader of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, Gul is an observant Muslim. Like the prime minister, both members of the governing AK party, Gul promised to respect the Turkish Constitution and its requirement of secularism. Opponents instead focused on his religiosity and on his wife’s wearing of a head scarf in public, a symbol of relatively conservative Islam. The president is elected by parliament, where AK has a majority.

The secular establishment, including the military, is wary of gains by parties with roots in Islamic politics. Adding to the stresses, street protests have involved hundreds of thousands of demonstrators opposed to an observant Muslim becoming president. On May 1, the country’s highest court overturned parliament’s initial vote endorsing Gul as president, ruling that parliament lacked the necessary quorum when it voted. Erdogan says he now will seek new national parliamentary elections, to take place on July 22, a vote that may further strengthen political parties with religious roots.

Pew surveys find that Turks believe Islam is playing a larger role in the nation’s political life, and a majority worries that religion’s influence may be harmful. There also are growing doubts among Turks about democracy’s viability there.

In a June 2006 survey, 44% of Turks said they believed democracy could work in their country, a decline from the number in 2005 (48%) and 2003 (50%). And about half the population (47%) thinks religion’s role in national political life has grown in recent years. Of those who believe religion is taking on greater importance, 50% say that the development is bad for the country; 39% say it is good.

Yet most Turks cite Islam as a central part of their identity. A 43%-plurality of Turks identify themselves first as Muslim rather than by nationality, and another 27% identify themselves equally as Muslim and Turk.

Well before the controversy over a new president, most Turks held strong but sometimes contradictory feelings about the role that religion should play in public life. In the 2006 Pew survey, a substantial majority (60%) saw no natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. At the same time, a nearly equal number (58%) believed there was an on-going struggle between Islamic fundamentalists and groups wanting to modernize the country.

Among those who see a struggle over modernism in progress, a clear majority favors secular ways: Some two-thirds (67%) of those who said they see such a struggle also say they identified with groups wanting to modernize, compared with less than one in five (16%) who identified with Islamic fundamentalists. (Another 18% of this group did not know or declined to answer.)

Moreover, roughly half of the population is clearly anxious about the future, and views Islamic extremism as a threat within the country. In the 2005 survey, 47% saw such a threat as “fairly great” or “very great.” In 2006, 46% said they were “fairly” or “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism in Turkey.

Many fear that mixing religion with politics will bring about political divisiveness, a concern that the events of recent days may intensify. In the 2005 Global Attitudes survey, the largest number of Turks said that what concerned them most about Islamic extremism in their country was that it would divide the country (29%). Similar numbers said their strongest concerns were people having fewer personal freedoms (28%) or violence (25%) A smaller number said they were most concerned by effects on the country’s development (9%).

Many Turks attribute religious extremism to failings of the secular society, especially in providing education and creating enough jobs. The largest number of people (34%) cites lack of education as the most important cause of Islamic extremism in Turkey, followed by immorality (14%) and poverty coupled with the lack of jobs (14%).

Religion’s role in politics has been a central national issue since Turkey’s founding in 1923 as a secular state. Virtually all of the country’s 71 million people are Muslim, and the Constitution guarantees a secular government.

For additional information about Muslims in Europe, see the Forum backgrounder “An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe.”