Why Turkey isn't as Islamic as you think

Mosque in Istanbul

There’s much to contend with when making a move overseas and investing in a home abroad. Navigating an unfamiliar bureaucratic system, leaving friends and family behind, adjusting to new weather, unusual food, and of course, an entire new set of cultural values. Throw a new and unfamiliar religion into the mix and it's sometimes enough to put most Europeans off altogether. 

Compared to ‘known’ western European countries like France and Spain, Turkey has traditionally been seen as a mysterious Islamic destination, crammed with unfamiliar landscapes, sights, smells and sounds. The call to prayer ringing out over the city several times a day; the sight of minarets in the cityscape and the smell of fragrant Turkish food make a heady and exotic mix. 

This is part of the reason why people looking for a holiday home or investment property have in the past chosen to do so in more familiar places that lack the perceived cultural gap. Old favourites Spain and France are cases in point. Many would-be property buyers or investors are frightened away by the words “Islam” or “Muslim” and see the gap between their own existence and Turkish society as simply too great a hurdle to contend with. Some imagine a world where women are dressed from head-to-toe in niqabs, where alcohol (and indeed, any sort of fun) is ‘banned’ under the oppressive Sharia Law.

However, while Turkey is of course an Islamic nation, its government does not recognise Islam (or any other religion) as an official religion, instead concentrating on a secular democracy. In fact, Turkey is about as far from a Sharia state as possible.

Democracy in history

Turkey’s democratic roots run deep, and are founded in a wave of democratic movements and reforms in the nineteenth century. Turkey’s constitution, written in 1861, was the first ever in a Muslim country. 

In 1950 there was a landmark general election where the ruling party, which had ruled the country for decades, held a general election and submitted to its people’s will. Since then there have been a number of military coups. What is incredible though, looking back on the coups that were staged in the 20th century, is that after the military gained power they immediately retreated, allowing the wheels of democracy to proceed. This is a really remarkable example of how strong Turkey’s democratic roots really are.

An exception to the rule

Today, Turkey is one of the world’s few Muslim democracies. You may wonder why there are so few Islamic democracies, and why Turkey is such a dramatic exception. 

One reason is that while democratic movements in Islamic countries have had their supporters, particularly among intellectuals, they face strong opposition from fundamentalist groups. While such groups often differ wildly from one another, they share an emphatic aversion to the basic principles of Western democracy, even arguing that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democratic rule. 

Turkey has also had the advantage of never being colonised or under foreign rule, allowing its political systems the time and scope to develop in an organic way. What’s more, Turkey’s ties to the Western world are firmly entrenched, dating back to the earliest days of the Ottoman empire. Turkey has consciously chosen westernisation - therefore adopting a more Western outlook and political view.

A series of radical measures by Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also pushed Turkey towards democracy in a sudden burst: such as repealing Sharia Law, disestablishing Islam and rewriting civil and criminal codes in a secular manner. Most other Islamic countries have Islamic words or references in some part of their constitution. Not Turkey.

This history highlights just how unique Turkey is in the Islamic world. Democratic and increasingly liberal, Turks pride themselves on their freedoms and the country’s openness to the rest of the world. Turkey’s readiness to accept change and embrace liberal values as part of its democracy is one of the reasons Turkey’s economy is so strong: the country has opened itself up to outside investors as well as embraced tourism wholeheartedly. As Turkey’s economy has developed, the emergence of a new middle and upper class has continued to uphold democratic and liberal values, perpetuating more and more positive change and economic growth for the flourishing country.

A country like no other

Some people have compared Turkey to the The United Arab Emirates. Dubai in particular is another destination that would-be buyers often investigate, particularly investment buyers. However, that’s where the similarity between the countries ends. The UAE (which is ruled by a monarchy) has a number of oppressive laws that epitomise the general reluctance of many to invest their time and money in an Islamic country. Heavy restrictions on alcohol, a poor women’s rights record and severe censorship to name a few, deter buyers who wish the same freedoms they enjoy in their home countries.

The appeal of traditional favourites, for example Spain and France, has palled in recent years following the global recession. Property prices have dropped considerably and many sellers have been sitting on properties that are going nowhere and probably won’t for some time. So it’s no surprise that Turkey, which escaped the recession relatively unscathed and has been in the media spotlight thanks to its strong economy, has piqued the interest of investors and home buyers who previously wouldn’t have considered the Mediterranean country.

Turkey’s most popular areas with buyers moving abroad are currently coastal regions and Istanbul. The coastal regions - for example, Fethiye, Antalya and Bodrum - are renowned for their relaxed, laid back lifestyles and liberal populations. Istanbul of course is an extremely modern city with European attitudes and a young, largely liberal population. 

As many recent arrivals to the country as well as overseas estate agents will tell you, buying property in Turkey means a lifestyle change for the better, with few compromises and a great deal of positives. Democracy and liberalisation in Turkey has turned the country into a destination where Islam is part of a cultural identity, and one that only enhances a people and a society.   


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