Turkey's modern history has been a complicated push and pull between competing currents of Islamism (or Islamist sympathy) and secularism. The country has no official religion, but the governing party under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly diluted the borders between religion and state. Religious classes with an Islamic bent are taught in public schools, and the government has pursued a policy agenda in line with Islamic conservatism. Currently, the blasphemy law as written has a general scope against insulting religious beliefs, and a violation can be met with imprisonment.

History of Blasphemy & Apostasy Laws


A constitutional parliamentary democracy since 1923, Turkey has been characterized by governmental instability, and the secularization of the country being un- and re-instituted many times over. There have been no direct or indirect references to Islamic religious law in Turkish criminal legislation since the 1930s. But while the laws themselves have changed, religion has remained a part of the cultural bedrock of the country, allowing for the unsurprising resurgence of religious fundamentalism in recent years.


Turkish legal secularization began with the Ottoman Reorganization (Tanzimat) in 1839, which included the abolition of Islam as the state religion. Since Tanzimat, the country has undergone oscillating periods of secularization and Islamization; today, the still-officially-secular country has seen an increase in blasphemy-related persecutions under the Islamist-leaning administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

During Ottoman rule, legislation was vested in the sultans, who were to uphold the sacred duty to protect and apply the rules of Islamic law. They were aided by a Sheikh ul-Islam, appointed by the sultan, to ensure the harmonious integration of religious and sultanate law.

A reform movement began under Selim III (1789-1807) to modernize an Ottoman empire weak against European military and commercial influence. Ottoman leaders were divided into two camps: reformists who favored Western methods, and conservatives who stood by the inseparability of religion and state. After pushback from religious leaders, Selim was deposed in 1807. It was under his successor Mahmud’s regime, in 1839, that Reorganization began. Reorganization was not merely influenced by European law, it often copied it, incorporating direct translations of French penal codes into their Turkish equivalents. Some internal inconsistency remained. While the 1858 penal code, a translation of its 1810 French counterpart, abolished hudud crimes, it did so with the exception of death for apostasy—which remained until 1926.

By 1871, all matters except personal law were the prerogative of secular courts. In 1876, Abdul Hamid II came to power via coup, and introduced a constitution that, while still declaring Islam as the state religion, set limits on the role of religious authorities. By 1907, however, Hamid’s now-authoritarian regime was overturned by another coup, and the 1876 constitution was reinstated. The reformers, a group called the Young Turks, reacted to Hamid’s fundamentalism with renewed fervor for secularism which they widely integrated into courts, schools, and legislation between 1913 and 1918. 

Modern Turkey

In 1920, Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, overhauling legal and social institutions with the goal of Westernization. Concordantly, the sultanate, caliphate, and Sheikh ul-Islam position were all eliminated. Every area of Islamic law—civil, criminal, commercial—was supplanted with its equivalent European model. Arabic script was replaced by the Latin script, and the Gregorian calendar replaced the Islamic one; active and passive female suffrage was introduced, along with regulations promoting Western-style dress, banning religious garments of all kinds (Law 676). The upheaval was as much cultural as legislative; Arabic influences were expunged from school curriculums, the alphabet, and the calendar. 

After Ataturk’s death in 1938, democratic Islamization and military secularization took turns in power, until a coup in 1960 forbade the use of religion again, and the country would remain secular from 1965 to 1985. The mercurial nature of Turkey’s religious character rang clear in the 1982 constitution, at once guaranteeing freedom of religious belief but requiring religious education in schools. The 1924 Presidency for Religious Affairs was founded towards this end—to transfer the purview of religious affairs to the state. 

Recent Developments

Despite deceptively laic reforms—a 1987 head covering ban and the removal of religious articles from the penal code in 1992—religion maintained a strong social foothold; the Islamic Welfare Party made successful advances in 1994 elections, including the mayorship of future president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In 2002, the Islamist-leaning AKP Party, a reiteration of the dissolved Islamic Welfare Party, took power, which it would keep for a decade. During its tenure, the AKP appealed to religious interests, including proposing lifting the controversial headscarf ban in 2013. Under Erdoğan, there has been a resurgence of “blasphemy” accusations with varying levels of punishment since 2014. Since its foundation in the same year, members of the Turkish Atheism Association received death threats, and their site was blocked for several months for “disrupting public order and insulting religious values.”

Cases of Persecution in Turkey
Opposition mayor Halil Arda receives suspended sentence for insulting Turkish president, "insulting religious values"
Atheist activist Arsalan Rezaei murdered abroad, Iranian government involvement likely
37 killed, many injured in fire set to kill Rushdie's Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin
Former politician Banu Özdemir arrested for sharing video of hacked mosque loudspeakers
Actress Berna Laçin faces up to a year in prison for blasphemous stance against death penalty
Journalist Enver Aysever detained for tweeting cartoon mocking clerics
World renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say arrested for series of tweets
Journalist Hakan Aygün arrested, held for one month for Twitter blasphemy
Founder of popular Turkish blog Sedat Kapanoğlu sentenced to ten months
Turkish-Armenian journalist Sevan Nişanyan imprisoned for Islam-critical blog post