Pushing the Secularist Envelope


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The following article is taken from the Oxford Business Group's latest publication, Emerging Turkey 2004. For more information on how to order a copy of the most comprehensive review of the Turkish economy to date, please write to us at mail@oxfordbusinessgroup.com, or click on the link to Printed Publications on the right-hand side of the page.

Pushing the Secularist Envelope

When the most ambitious pro-European reforms to come out of Ankara in decades are passed by a religious party and secularists seem more dictatorial than democratic, it is time for a rethink of conventional beliefs about Turkey's political system.

As soon as the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power after the November 2002 elections, talk of an imminent coup began. Pundits differed only on how it would happen or how long it would take before the military would overthrow the government, as it has in each of the past four decades.

There are, however, two important differences this time around. First, the AKP was the clear choice of the people, securing more than a third of votes cast and 363 of 550 parliamentary seats. Second, the European Union is watching events in Turkey closely, and has made clear that it prefers freely elected governments to ones designated by the military, particularly in a country seeking membership of the EU.

Much of the AKP's support comes from rural dwellers and among recent migrants to cities like Istanbul and Ankara, many of whom had previously been isolated from the state's rigorously enforced secularism. The opening of Turkey's economy in the 1980s led to greater social inequality, and political Islam established itself as the mouthpiece for a growing number of Turks.

One year into its term, the AKP not only remains in power, but has won over many secular sceptics. Somehow, the AKP manages still to benefit from its self-promoted image as an outsider - outside the corruption and ineffectiveness that had marred previous governments, that is. For most Turks, religious and secular alike, that is a welcome change.

Although Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, convincing them that an openly Muslim party should lead them is no small feat. Standing in the AKP's way is a deep-rooted secularist tradition that is a cornerstone in modern Turkey's state ideology.

The emergence of political Islam in the Middle East has raised concern in Turkey, where post-revolutionary Iran is often cited as a worst-case scenario should Turkey's secularism be allowed to bend. Many remain wary of the AKP, fearing a "creeping Islamisation" and pointing to AKP plans to hire 15 000 new imams to staff the General Directorate of Religious Affairs as a foreshadowing of the party's future intentions. They see in party leader and current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a wolf in sheep's clothing and suspect that once he has consolidated his position, isolated the military and secured EU protection, Erdogan will unfurl his real banners. This is, after all, the same man who, whilst running for Istanbul mayor in 1994, declared that "people are either secular or Muslim, not both."

In fact, the centre-right party AKP is not an extremist party and remains characteristically nationalist, observing most, if not all, of the tenets of Turkish nationalism, including secularism.

But the principles deemed to have shaped the early republic are not open to debate or interpretation. Deviations from the official line are dealt with swiftly, as was the case in the 1997 "post-modern" coup. As self-ordained guarantor of that tradition, the military ousted the Welfare Party (RP) - a predecessor of AKP - after it was deemed to have threatened the secular nature of the state. RP was later disbanded by order of the Constitutional Court for violating constitutional obligations to respect Turkey 's strict secular principles. Erdogan appeared as if he might be sidelined as well, after the State Security Court sentenced him to prison for "inciting religious hatred," during a 1997 speech in which he read from a poem that ran: "Our mosques are our barracks, our domes our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets and our believers our soldiers" (ironically, the poem was written during the early Republican period by a prominent nationalist, Ziya Gokalp, who supported Ataturk's secularist principles.)

The prison sentence had kept Erdogan from running in the 2002 elections. Abdullah Gul, currently deputy prime minister and foreign minister, first served as prime minister, keeping the seat warm for Erdogan, who remained the head of the party and de facto premier.

However, the new parliament quickly amended the constitution, allowing Erdogan to stand for election. Then, after cancelling the election of three MPs in a December 2 election in Siirt province, the High Electoral Council (YSK) held a by-election in which Erdogan was elected to parliament. On March 11, he was appointed prime minister and asked by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to form a new government.

This time around, Erdogan is careful to avoid metaphors the state might deem anti-secularist and AKP members speak of religious freedom within the context of human rights. The AKP appears less Islamist and decidedly more sophisticated than its predecessors. In fact, Erdogan first gained notoriety in the mid-1990s as the leader of the self-designated "modernizers" within the AKP's predecessors, the Refah (Welfare) Party, who called for a more nuanced take on Islam and its role in governance.

A majority of Turks still vote for secular parties, but with municipal elections scheduled for the summer of 2004 and no sign that Turkey's secular establishment is rallying around a single party, AKP appears likely to secure even more support.

For most of Turkey's Republican history, any non-secular force was deemed anathema to democracy. Most European observers now remark that the pride of the secular establishment, the military, is in fact the least democratic institution in Turkey.

The European Commission has praised the recent reforms, but has stressed the need for implementation. Brussels' decision last December regarding Turkey's candidacy might very well present Turkey's secular establishment with an even starker choice between integration with Europe and a strict, overbearing enforcement of secularism.

Secularism will, no doubt, remain a central pillar of Turkey's definition of democracy, but new and interesting questions are being posed about how the two should interact. The answers Turkey provides are being closely watched, both from within and without.

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