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The Future of Secularism in Turkey

By       Message Muhammad Hussain       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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Turkey’s ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gul to country’s presidency to replace a secular incumbent in April set off a political standoff with the secular military. The staunchly secular army, apprehensive that Mr. Gul’s election may undermine Turkey’s secular and democratic principles, issued a veiled threat of coup. Their concern lies in Mr. Gul’s public display of piety and his wife’s donning headscarf. The same applies to Gul’s more religious boss, Prime Minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his wife.

The Worried secular citizens, including women, the likely worst victim of Islamization of Turkey, also took to the street in large number protesting Mr. Gul’s election, with one rally attracting about 1.5 million protesters. Confronted by these events, the incumbent Islamist government called early election, which gave them a resounding new mandate, bagging 47 percent of the votes (surpassing 34 percent in 2002), over secular Republican Party’s 20 percent. This enabled Mr. Gul’s election to Turkey’s presidency on 28th August.

In the post-9/11 era, the world is gripped with discussion about Islam’s likely incompatibility with secularism and democracy, which may potentially lead to a civilizational clash between Islam and the West ― which, many believe, is already underway. Commentators and pundits almost universally share the notion that Turkey is the sole bastion of secular-democracy in crisis-ridden Islamic world, which may potentially act as the torch-bearer for the rest to follow. In this context, Turkey’s Islamist party’s adoption of ballots and its promise to respect secular constitution, have raised unprecedented optimism worldwide that secular-democratization of the Islamic world is very much possible. Pundits have asserted that it signaled a new beginning for Muslim democrats of wider Islamic world. Therefore, military’s undemocratic interference in democratic process in Turkey attracted widespread condemnations internationally.

However, it necessary to investigate the history and nature of modern Turkish republic, and the rise of AKP, to grasp what potentially lies ahead for Turkey’s secularism and democracy. Modern Turkish republic was founded by General Kemal Ataturk in 1923 by dismantling the theocratic Ottoman caliphate. He held Islam responsible for Muslim world’s deplorable condition and instituted secularism as Turkey’s inviolable foundation. Kemal Ataturk (d. 1938) and his successors aggressively secularized and westernized Turkey during 1930s and 1940s, which separated Islam from politics. The military has acted as the guardian of Turkish secularism ever since, and to protect it, has intervened four times to depose pro-Islam parties from power.

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During the era of secularization, the Islamists lied low before restarting their political revival in 1970 when Professor Necmettin Ebrakan founded the Party of National Order, having clear goals for bringing the state in line with Islamic holy laws (Sharia). Turkish court dissolved it in a year for violating country’s constitution, which prohibits any organization from influencing the ‘basic social, economic, political or judicial orders of the State (according) to religious principles and beliefs.’

Prof Erbakan soon founded the National Salvation Party (NSP), with a carefully worded manifesto, which soon won 48 parliamentary seats in 1973, suggesting the presence of a popular Islamist undercurrent behind overriding secularization in Turkey. NSP joined the ruling alliance with secularist Republican Party, ironically founded by Kemal Ataturk. Prof Erbakan became Deputy PM in January 1974. His remarks and speeches, during his tenure, underlined pan-Islamic overtures. Prof Ebrakan and the Milli Gazette, NSP’s media mouthpiece, have since emanated increasingly fanatic verbal tirades against the Jews, Zionism, and Israel. In promoting his Islamist Happiness Party (SP) in the latest election, he compared the Zionists and Jews with 'Bacteria,' and 'Disease' in TV interviews. "Do you know what the safety of Israel means? It means that they will rule the 28 countries from Morocco to Indonesia. Since all the Crusades were organized by the Zionists…,” said he. In election rallies, attracting large crowds, across Turkey, he frequently repeated his anti-Semitic messages. In February and April 2005, Milli Gazette published virulently anti-Semitic articles, referring to protoypical anti-Jewish Quranic verses (3:112/2:61). One commentary read: “In fact, no amount of pages or lines would be sufficient to explain the Qur'anic chapters and our Lord Prophet's [Muhammad's] words that tell us of the betrayals of the Jews... The prophets sent to them, such as Zachariah and Isaiah, were murdered by the Jews...”

Prof Erbakan is the de facto spiritual leader of Islamic politics in modern Turkey, since all Islamist parties, including AKP, are off-shoots of his political movement, launched in 1970. Top AKP leaders, including PM Erdogan and President Gul, hone their political careers serving as mayoral, ministerial, and parliamentary candidates in Erbakan's parties.

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This anti-democratic and anti-secular past of AKP leadership raises concerns among secular citizens. To reassure skeptics that they have distanced themselves from their past Islamist aspirations, Erdogan said in 2003 that "A political party cannot have a religion, only individuals can." Such assurances have led many western leaders and commentators to believe that AKP is an Islamic equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties.

PM Erdogan’s various statements and actions in recent years, however, raise questions about the mindset and ideals of AKP leadership. He has embraced the militant Islamist Hamas movement of Palestine over the secular Fatah party. Between 1994 and 1996, he made statements seeking to turn all secular schools into religious ones and to inaugurate the parliament by reciting the Quran. “I am a servant of the Sharia" and “the imam of Istanbul," said he.

PM Erdogan derided Kemal Ataturk's commemoration events in 1994 demonstrating his dislikes for secularism. He disapproved liberal life-style and individual liberty by expressing opposition to New Year's celebrations, seeking to ban alcohol, and comparing swimsuit commercials with lustful exploitations. During his mayoral tenure of Istanbul (1994-1998), he consistently pushed for Islamist agendas, including ban on alcohol.

AKP’s leaders have cut down such theology-inspired statements during their latest tenure in power. But their occasional statements suggest an Islamist undercurrent still alive. For example, PM Erdogan reaffirmed his desire to turn the secular schools into religious ones again last year. Despite Turkey’s many pressing problems, the ban on headscarf in government institutions has remained AKP’s major concern. Both PM Gul and President Erdogan have, at the earliest opportunity, started work on a new constitution to reverse the ban. Moreover, despite serving as the ruling party since 2003, AKP leaders have never condemned their mentor Prof Ebrakan’s continued spewing of anti-Semitic hatred and bigotry.

Over recent decades, both political and cultural fabric of all Islamic countries, including Muslim communities of the West, has been undergoing steady Islamization. Pakistan, for example, emerged in 1947 as a secular nation, but now stands as one of world’s most fanatic theocratic Muslim state. The triumph of the Islamists in Turkey, despite serious effort by the secular army and judiciary to keep them at bay, is simply a manifestation of this Islamization trend.

Turkey has also failed to shield itself from the increasingly violent trend of Islamization in Muslim countries. A fanatic Turkish Muslim shot Pope John Paul II in 1981. Al-Qaeda allied Islamic terrorists conducted double suicide bombings against the British consulate and HSBC bank headquarters in Istanbul in one week in November 2003 killing 50 people and injuring 400. A week earlier, two synagogues were bombed in Istanbul as men, women, and children gathered for prayers. Last February, an Islamic fanatic shot a Catholic priest to death, while three Christians were murdered by fanatics in April by cutting their throats for publishing the Bible.

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Moreover, Muslim leaders, keen to maintain secular fabric of their nations, are losing grip to rising Islamizing pressures from among Muslim masses and extremist elements. AKP election for their Islamist credentials will make it harder for them to ignore the popular Islamizing pressures, even if they truly want so.

Although Turkish military is not democratic in the true sense of it, AKP’s triumph in democratic election should be readily seen the victory of Islamic world first truely secular democracy. Recent triumphs of theocrats in Iraq, and the militant Islamist Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon in free-and-fair elections suggest that democracy acts as a tool for Islamization, not for secularization, in Islamic countries. From Egypt to Pakistan to Bangladesh, democratic elections have been strengthening the hands of Islamist hardliner. AKP’s victory in Turkey only reflects a parallel phenomenon of what has happened in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

Regarding secularist Turkish citizens’ concern about whether the ruling AKP will manifest their past Islamist color; it is unlikely, even if they truly want, as long as the army remains secular and powerful. Their true intentions will be reflected in how they seek to reform the secular military and judiciary over the coming years.

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Muhammad Hussain is a researcher and freelance writer.

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