Why the World Must Look at Turkey

Indian Express , August 22, 2007

Turkey’s forthcoming presidential election offers an opportunity to define secularism in the Muslim world as a political system ensuring separation of theology and state rather than as an anti-religious ideology.

For almost a century, secular elites in Muslim countries have equated progress and modernity with renunciation of Islamic symbols and practices. Now Turkey, the first secular republic with a majority Muslim population, is expected to elect a president who prays in public and whose wife wears a headscarf as a manifestation of her religious convictions.

Anti-religious secularists see this development as a threat to Turkey’s laicite. Those who realise that separating religion from matters of state does not necessarily mean taking religion out of people’s lives, see Turkey as choosing a path away from radical Islam as well as radical secularism.

The Adalat va Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) or Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, won July’s parliamentary polls with 47 per cent of the popular vote and a clear majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly. This was a significant improvement on AKP’s 34 per cent vote share in 2002 that first brought the conservative party with Islamist roots to power.

The polls were called earlier than scheduled because of an inconclusive presidential election in April. Then, AKP’s nominee for president, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, faced severe opposition from Turkey’s secular establishment led by the country’s army. Gul’s election was blocked by technical maneouvres backed by the outgoing president and top army generals, notwithstanding AKP’s majority in Parliament.

This time around, AKP has again nominated Gul for president and, given the recent resounding popular mandate for AKP, the army might not be able to block his election short of an improbable military coup.

Although AKP grew out of a succession of Islamist parties banned by Turkish courts, it describes itself as a moderate conservative party rather than an Islamist one. It does not seek the enforcement of Islamic law, and its performance in office during its first term confirms its claims.

Although both Erdogan and Gul are practicing Muslims who were once active in the Islamist movement, their first stint in office reflected an effort to distance themselves from Islamist politics. Under Erdogan, Turkey pursued European Union membership, kept close ties with the US and Israel, and attained new levels of economic prosperity.

The AKP government did not curtail civil liberties and observed secularism by keeping religion out of its political decisions. But in the post-9/11 world, Islamist parties and leaders in several countries have become instant converts to pluralism, tolerance and moderation.

AKP’s critics insist that the Turkish party, too, has changed its direction only strategically and that it would revert to demanding Sharia rule if and when it gets a chance. Such fears must be weighed only in light of available evidence and so far the evidence favours AKP’s credentials as a religiously conservative party willing to operate within the broad principles of secularism. Gul’s personal observance of Islam and his wife’s wearing a headscarf as a symbol of piety does not necessarily threaten the ideal of separation between faith and state.

For too long the Muslim world has been polarised between secularists who want all public manifestations of Islamic religion banished from their countries and Islamists who insist on reverting to obscurantist theocracy.

This polarisation cannot come to an end without at least some secularists becoming more tolerant of religious practices and some Islamists moving away from radical Islam to a middle where the individual remains Islamic but the state is secular.

If the conversion of every former Islamist to believing in separation between religion and state is looked upon with suspicion, even in the absence of evidence of dissimulation, there would be no hope of finding a middle ground for the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. The election of a born-again or Church-going Christian as president of the US or prime minister of Britain does not raise the kind of spectre that the prospect of Gul’s election as president has done in the case of Muslim-majority Turkey.

Unlike the US, where secularism evolved from a commitment to religious tolerance, secularists in the Muslim world were interested in westernising their nations in a hurry and were not particularly bothered by niceties of individual freedom. In Muslim states — from Morocco to Indonesia — westernised elites have denied democratic change, arguing that it would compromise secularism. These fears are based on the history of attempts by religious groups to impose their narrow version of Islam by force.

But in reality, religious intolerance, and not individual piety, is the enemy of secularism. If governments in the Muslim world open themselves to democratic change, there might be other political movements like AKP, which combine tolerance with tradition. Otherwise, the Islamic world will remain embroiled in the power struggle between authoritarian westernisers and retrogressive Islamists.