03/21/2013 11:10 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

Religious-Secular Clashes in Turkish Politics

I've just returned from a trip to Turkey. Early in my stay, I stopped by a café in Istanbul. It had recently opened, and the staff was drawing the attention of passersby with calls of buyurun!

My waiter and I talked as I ate, beginning with him teasingly insisting I change my drink order from tea to a beer. When I mentioned I had previously been to Şanliurfa (a conservative city in Turkey's southeast, also known by its original name, Urfa) he said he had served in Urfa while in the army, and hated it. It was (according to him) hot, boring, and in the middle of nowhere (I enjoyed my time in Urfa, but might have tired of it if I lived there). And I imagined it was a dramatic cultural clash for an Istanbullu who clearly enjoyed drinking.

Talk of Urfa soon turned to discussion of Syria. He worried about the effect of Syrian refugees on Turkey, and claimed they had begun looting towns and cities. He was also disdainful of Turkey's government -- led by the conservative religious Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- for its desire to take leadership of the situation in Syria (and the broader Middle East) which, he thought, would bring ruin to Turkey.

I found the two sides of the conversation -- the love of the secular, liberal Istanbul and the frustration with the AKP's activist foreign policy -- interesting, and wondered if there was a connection.

As many have noted, there is a significant cultural divide in Turkey today. Secular, Westernized and liberal segments of society are worlds apart from conservative, pious communities in the interior of Turkey. This divide became both highlighted and blurred with the migration of Anatolians into the cities in the 1980s, which increased the political heft of the country's conservative populace.

This (among other factors) contributed to the electoral success of the AKP , as that party was able to harness these conservative voters and combine their electoral power with the country's emerging business class and pro-democracy reformists.

The AKP's success provoked a bit of a backlash. The military has been wary of the party, launching what some call an "e-coup" in 2007 in a failed attempt to prevent AKP official Abdullah Gul from becoming President. And secular elements of society distrusted the AKP, who they saw as trying to "Islamize" the country. This cultural clash has defined Turkish domestic politics for decades -- maybe since its creation -- and will likely continue to do so for some time.

But maybe this divide also affects the country's foreign policy. As scholars like John Owen have argued, domestic and transnational ideological struggles have driven international relations throughout modern history, with the Islamist-secularist divide in many Muslim countries the most recent example.

Perhaps the cultural divide in Turkey influences people's attitudes towards the religiously-leaning government's foreign policies. It isn't necessarily the case that supporting Syrian rebels is a religious policy, and opposing such actions a secular one. But religion isn't a fixed motivation for behavior; instead behaviors can be defined as religious or secular based on the rhetoric used to justify them. The AKP supports Syrian rebels, so this policy is framed through reference to the religious-secular divide; secular people as a result, oppose it. Moreover, it touches on elements of Turkish history -- such as its Ottoman past -- that religious Turks may be more interested in reviving than secular adherents of Kemalism.

Granted, this is an n of one, from which I as a good social scientist would never extrapolate. And as someone who has poked fun at overly-simplistic analyses by public intellectuals in the past, I should avoid descending into Thomas Friedman-ism.

And my analysis was complicated a bit by a protest I witnessed in Taksim Square a few days later. It was the anniversary of the beginnings of the Syrian uprising, and a small crowd had gathered in the square with Syrian flags and bullhorns. A call-and-response developed, in which the speaker's phrase was greeted by shouts of Allahu Akbar from the crowd.

But as I looked around, I didn't see conservative, Islamic dress, women in burkas and fully bearded men. I was surrounded by young men and woman in Western clothes.

I guess the take away is that when it comes to Turkey, religion and politics, things are always complex.