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Politics

Muslim Democracy in Turkey

10 August 2003

Muslim Democracy in Turkey

By Gwynne Dyer

It goes against all the stereotypes about Turkey. Talk to the party secretary of the traditionally secular Republican People’s Party in a small south coast town and she sounds old-fashioned and anti-democratic with her talk of the Turkish army as the ‘last resort’ against the threat of Islamic reaction. Talk to an allegedly Islamist MP from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in a conservative central Anatolian city, and he comes across as a modern democratic politician advocating genuine freedom of religion. Islamists trying to make their country more democratic? What is going on here?

“What we are seeing are the demands of the European Union and pro-Islamic groups in Turkey overlapping for the first time in Turkish history, with Islamic groups finding in the West an ally that can protect them against the excesses of the Kemalist state,” said Dr Ihsan Dagi of Middle East Technical University in Ankara in March, and this month he was proved right. Last week the Turkish president ratified legal changes that drastically reduced the power of the army in Turkish politics.

Under the old rules, the civilian cabinet had to meet the Turkish General Staff once a month in the National Security Council to discuss an agenda drawn up by the general who controlled the NSC’s secretariat — and democratically elected Turkish governments ignored instructions issued by the NSC at their peril. Two governments dominated by Islamic parties have been removed by the army in the past fifteen years. In future, however, the chief secretary will be a civilian deputy prime minister, and he will decide when the NSC meets.

For the army to accept this from Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a man who was once jailed for allegedly inciting Muslims to violence against the secular state, implies a sea-change in Turkish politics. It also has a wider significance for the Muslim world, for Turkey is the oldest Muslim democracy, and ‘Kemalist’ democracy in Turkey (named after the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk)has always rested on the principle of a rigid exclusion of religiously-oriented parties from politics.

Ataturk saved Turkey from partition and European colonial rule after the First World War, but he believed that it must become modern, democratic and ‘Western’ in order to survive and prosper in the long term. He also believed that the traditional Islamic institutions of the dying Ottoman empire would resist all that because they would lose their power, and he was doubtless right about the situation in 1923. So he declared a republic, abolished the Islamic caliphate, banned Islamic forms of dress, and introduced a constitution that rigorously separated mosque and state.

The mass of the Muslim faithful in Turkey abhorred these changes, but the educated minority and the army were with him, so he won. Unfortunately, this transitional struggle congealed into a permanent confrontation between ‘Islamists’and moderrnisers in Turkey that has had a profoundly negative influence on the evolution of democracy in other Muslim states. In Turkey, the so-called ‘Kemalist’ principles, including an intolerant army-backed ‘secularism’, have been the basis of the Turkish state from that day to this. What is breaking the deadlock now is the EU on one hand, and the AK Party on the other.

Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union for a long time, but only recently has it really looked possible. Entry talks start late next year, but first Turkey must pass a human rights review. Last August the previous Turkish government amended the constitution to abolish the death penalty, give language and other rights to the Kurdish minority, and end restrictions on the press, all in order to meet EU norms, but the biggest stumbling block remained the army’s entrenched role in politics — which exists mainly to keep the Islamists out.

In 2001 Recep Tayyib Erdogan, once a fiery Islamist who declared that it was impossible “to be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time,” created the AK Party from the wreckage of two previous Islamic parties that were banned for their open hostility to secularism. This one, however, is different. Erdogan, now an older and wiser politician, argues that genuine secularism is not an assault on religion but a pluralist principle that could end the long war between Kemalist’ democracy and Islam.

AK’s election manifesto last year said it plainly: “The basic idea of secularism is the impartiality of the state towards all religious beliefs….It restricts and limits not the individual but the state.” That is the kind of secularism which is actually practised in the European Union and the United States, where parties with a strong religious base like the Republicans and the various Christian Democratic parties are entirely legitimate so long as they respect the rights of their fellow-citizens of other religions or none. We are ‘Muslim Democrats’, Erdogan said, and we can be trusted too.

His argument has largely convinced the army, which is particularly keen to join the EU. The electorate, fed up with the incompetence and corruption of the established parties, was ready to give its votes to any new party that looked trustworthy. AK got a third of the votes, and ended up with 363 seats out of 550. Nine months later, it is more popular than ever at home. More importantly, it is offering an example for how to end the long war between secularists and Islamic parties across the Muslim world in such a way that neither side loses and democracy wins.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Ataturk…other”)