Non-Crisis in Turkey

8 May 2007

Non-Crisis in Turkey

By Gwynne Dyer

It has not been Turkey’s week. Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the French presidency on Sunday, has promised to block the Turkish attempt to join the European Union, and he will be in office until 2013. On Monday the domestic crisis in Turkey ended in a defeat for the ruling AK Party, even though it holds almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Its candidate for the presidency has withdrawn in the face of warnings by the army that nobody whose wife wears a head-scarf should occupy the office, and there will be early general elections in July. But things are not as bad as they seem.

It was already clear that Turkey wasn’t joining the EU any time soon, because the German and Austrian governments are dead set against it. With Turkey’s economy turning in sustained growth three times higher than the average Western European economy, this doesn’t make the Turks lose much sleep any more. They’re angry at what they (quite rightly) see as anti-Muslim discrimination, but most are willing to let the talks on entry continue at a stately pace: they weren’t due to be completed before 2013 anyway.

As for the domestic crisis, that’s about Islam too, except that in this case it is the secular establishment in Turkey itself who don’t trust the Muslims. The ruling AK Party is a moderate Islamic party that accepts pluralism and the secular state — its members often call themselves “Muslim Democrats”, making a conscious link with the “Christian Democratic” parties of Europe — but the army and other self-appointed guardians of secularism simply will not take them at their word.

It’s often about symbols, like the head-scarves worn by the wife and daughter of Abdullah Gul, the current foreign minister and the AK Party’s candidate for the presidency until last Monday. As a legacy of the time when Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was forcing his country to drop its old Ottoman ways and dragging it into Europe, the Turkish legal system is littered with laws that ban displays of Islamic identity, like the one that bars women wearing head-scarves from entering government buildings.

Such laws served a purpose back in the 1920s and 1930s, when people hostile to the republic and the modernity for which it stood wrapped themselves in the symbols of Islam, but they are pointless and demeaning in the 21st century. Close to fifty percent of Turks describe themselves as observant Muslims, and they are just as entitled to their opinions (and their choice of clothing) as the non-observant majority.

It’s not as if the believers are trying to shove religion down everybody’s throat: fewer than ten percent of Turks say that they want an Islamic state with sharia law. It’s really about getting the state to be neutral on religious issues, and not actively anti-religious. In other words, it is about modernisation. It’s the “Muslim Democrats” who are trying to modernise the Turkish state, and the old “republican” establishment in the army, the bureaucracy and the judiciary who are trying to stop them.

Hence the “crisis” of the past few weeks, with the opposition parties boycotting parliament in order to deprive it of the quorum that is needed for the election of a president, and the army muttering about its “solid determination” to uphold the law — meaning, we are left to assume, the law banning head-scarves in government buildings, including the presidential mansion.

It’s only ten years since the army did intervene to remove a government that it thought was too “Islamic,” but Turkey has changed a lot since then. There was absolutely no chance that the tanks would roll again this time. In fact, the military ended up whining that they just wanted to be “one of the sides in this debate.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan simply ignored them, saying that it was “unthinkable” that the armed forces should challenge an elected government.

The AK Party is certain to win the July election, not just because of its economic record but also because of the democratic reforms it has forced through as part of its effort to make Turkey a suitable candidate for EU membership. It has also introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the president to be chosen by direct popular vote, thus getting around the possibility of another boycott of an AK Party candidate in the next parliament.

There is nothing particularly “Islamic” about the struggle that is going on in Turkey now. It has ample precedents in Europe, where a number of countries went through a lengthy period in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries when the governments were strongly anti-clerical, like France under the Third Republic or Germany during the “Kulturkampf.” Then, after the enemies of modernisation had been defeated, they could relax and allow religious parties to re-enter politics.

That is the point that Turkey has now reached. Democracy has taken firm root, prosperity is reaching even the villages, and the economy has been modernised, so it’s time to stop fighting the old battles and let religious people participate openly in politics. What’s happening in Turkey now is not really a crisis; it’s just a transition.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Such laws…majority”;and “It’s only…government”)