Tolerance and Tradition in Turkey

Turkey, the first secular republic with a majority Muslim population, is expected to soon have a president who prays in public and whose wife wears a headscarf as a manifestation of her religious convictions. Anti-religious secularists in the Muslim world see this development as a threat to Turkey’s laicism. But it could also be 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 secularization with renunciation of Islamic symbols and practices. This rejection of traditional religion was initially a reaction to the efforts of Muslim clerics to enforce Islam by law. But the radical secularism of authoritarian regimes, such as that of the shah of Iran, has contributed to the rise and expansion of Islamist radicalism. Islamists portray their religion as being in danger; the exclusion of practicing Muslims from the power structure in majority Muslim states helps the Islamists build that argument.

The threat to secularism in the Muslim world comes from religious intolerance, not from individual acts of piety. Turkey’s election of a conservative Muslim president need not be seen as a deviation from its secular ideals. It is a much-needed embrace of a path different from that of radical Islam as well as radical secularism.

The Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AK), led by Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, won parliamentary polls in July with 47 percent of the popular vote and a clear majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly. This was a significant improvement over the 34 percent share of the vote it won in 2002 – an election that first brought the conservative party with Islamist roots to power.

The elections last month were called earlier than scheduled because of an inconclusive presidential vote in April, when, the AK Party’s nominee for president, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, faced severe opposition from Turkey’s secular establishment led by the military. Gul’s election was blocked by technical maneuvers backed by the outgoing president and top army generals, notwithstanding the AK Party’s majority in Parliament.

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

Although the AK Party 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 Shariah 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, maintained close ties with the United States and Israel, and attained new levels of economic prosperity.

The AK Party government has not curtailed civil liberties and continues to observe the basic tenets of secularism by keeping religion out of its political decisions. In the post-9/11 world, Islamist parties and leaders in several countries have become instant converts to moderation. The AK Party’s critics insist that it has changed only strategically and that it would revert to demanding Shariah rule if and when it gets a chance.

Such fears must be weighed only in light of available evidence, and so far the evidence favors AK Party’s credentials as a religiously conservative party willing to operate within the broad principles of secularism.

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

This polarization cannot come to an end without secularists tolerating the practice of religion and Islamists moving away from radical Islam to a middle where individuals can be Islamic even though the state is secular.

As in the West, Muslims need to be able to fuse faith and enlightenment while also accepting the rights of unbelievers.

Under a Gul presidency, Turkey will hopefully continue to combine tolerance with tradition. This would open the way for secularism in the Islamic world that concerns itself with protecting individual freedom and pluralism instead of being preoccupied with debates over issues such as headscarves.

 This op-ed originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune.