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Turkey has been governed for most of the last two decades by a party grounded in political Islam. So it came as a surprise when a recent poll revealed that levels of piety are flat or are even declining. It's a small shift but, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, it has people talking about where Turkey is headed.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Busra Cebeci is from the Turkish generation that has known only one leader. The 25-year-old says she was a young girl in elementary school when Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. When we met at an Istanbul cafe, Cebeci explained that she was raised to believe proper attire for a Turkish woman includes a headscarf. And when she was a teenager, she put it on without protest. But she began to have questions. She remembers practicing for a school performance one hot May afternoon several years ago and worrying about getting overheated.
BUSRA CEBECI: (Through interpreter) I remember it was really hot. So I said to my mom, maybe I should take the scarf off. And she started yelling at me. I didn't take it off.
KENYON: At college, she remembers long talks with her friends about taking off their scarves. And then one day, she made a decision.
CEBECI: (Through interpreter) I would look in the mirror, and I wasn't seeing myself. One day, I went inside. I took off the scarf, and I walked out without it. And that was my first day.
KENYON: She says it was two years before her father would speak to her again. But eventually, her parents got used to it. Cebeci's viewpoint is reflected in a recent poll that gave respondents five categories of piety to choose from, just as they'd done in 2008. The two most devout categories, pious and religious, were down compared with 2008, while the two secular categories, non-believer and atheist, inched up a few points. The poll does not indicate Turkey's becoming secular overall. The pious and religious respondents still hold the majority. But people are asking why their numbers should be declining at all when voters keep re-electing a government proud of its roots in political Islam.
Analysts say a big reason is because this government started out with a strong focus on the economy. But over time, Erdogan's use of the state to promote religion became more apparent. In this official video from 2017, he celebrates the booming growth of state-funded religious schools, which by that time were teaching some 1.3 million students.
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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) From here, the mayors were raised. The members of Parliament were raised. The ministers and the prime ministers were raised, and even the presidents were raised.
KENYON: Analyst Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says just as modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forced post-Ottoman Turkey onto a secular, pro-Western path, Erdogan has elevated piety over secularism. That, Cagaptay said in an interview via Skype, is generating a backlash among the same young people Erdogan had hoped to mold into a pious generation.
SONER CAGAPTAY: The polls are showing that because Erdogan has replaced the powerful authority with his own identity of this conservative, religion-loving politician, a lot of young Turks are reacting to it.
KENYON: If these polls indicate a real trend, Cagaptay says it could mean Erdogan's push to create a more religious Turkey is backfiring.
CAGAPTAY: Erdogan is, ironically, making Turkey less religious, when he thought he would make it more religious with himself on top.
KENYON: Again, that's less religious, not majority secular. But Busra Cebeci, the woman who stopped wearing her headscarf, believes this is more than just a reaction to any one politician. She thinks of it as women supporting one another.
CEBECI: (Through interpreter) When women show this kind of solidarity, I think it will continue. A woman who can't find the courage to take off the scarf, if she sees this, she may find the courage to do it.
KENYON: She hopes it's a trend that will continue, no matter who comes to power next. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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