Turkey’s ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) nomination of its foreign minister Abdullah Gul to the 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 main cause of concern lies in Mr. Gul’s public display of piety and his wife’s donning Islamic 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 numbers protesting Mr. Gul’s election, with one rally attracting about 1.5 million protesters. These events forced the incumbent Islamist government call an early election, which gave them a resounding new mandate, bagging 47% of the votes (surpassing 34% in 2002), over secular Republican Party’s 20%, which enabled Mr. Gul’s election to Turkey’s presidency on 28th August.
Commentators and pundits almost universally share the notion that Turkey is the sole bastion of secular democracy in the crisis-ridden Islamic world, which may potentially act as the torch-bearer for the rest to follow. Turkey is, thus, an important test-case for Islamic nations to demonstrate that they can be compatible with secular democracy and modernity, and what lies ahead for Turkey will bear profound significance not only for Muslim countries, but also for the world at large ― more so, since Turkey is seeking entry into the European Union.
This victory of ballots in Turkey has elated both Islamist political movements and their secular-democratic opponents all over the world. In the post-9/11 era, discussion about Islam’s likely incompatibility with secularism and democracy has gripped the world, which may potentially lead to a civilizational clash with Islam and the West ― which, many believe, is already underway.
In this context, Turkey’s Islamist party’s adoption of ballots - and its promise to respect the secular constitution - have raised unprecedented optimism worldwide that secularization and democratization of the Islamic world is very much possible. Commentators have emphasized that the victory of the Islamist AK party in a free election in Turkey was an “affirmation of democracy” and proof that “Islam and democracy are compatible.” Others suggested that this signaled victory for Muslim democrats in general and its snowball effect may sweep across Islamic nations. Therefore, the military’s undemocratic interference in the democratic process in Turkey attracted widespread condemnations internationally.
In the midst of these clashing viewpoints, an investigation of the history and nature of the modern Turkish republic – and the rise of the AK Party - is necessary to grasp what may lie ahead for Turkey’s democracy and secularism.
Modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923 by General Kemal Atatürk by dismantling the theocratic Ottoman caliphate. He held Islam responsible for the deplorable state of Muslim countries and instituted secularism as Turkey’s inviolable foundation. Atatürk (d. 1938) and his successors aggressively secularized and westernized Turkey during the 1930s and 1940s, which separated Islam from politics. Turkish military has acted as the guardian of secularism ever since. They have intervened four different times to depose pro-Islam parties from power and safeguard the secular fabric of the republic.
During the era of secularization, the Islamists, under threat from the powerful military, laid low before restarting their political revival in 1970 when Professor Necmettin Ebrakan founded the Party of National Order. It had clear goals for bringing the state in line with Islamic holy laws (Sharia), violating Turkey’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’ and was dissolved in a year.
Prof. Erbakan soon founded the National Salvation Party (NSP), with a carefully worded manifesto, to avoid conflict with the constitution. Behind the overriding force of secularization, the presence of an Islamist undercurrent among the populace soon became evident when the young NSP won 48 parliamentary seats in 1973, bringing it into ruling alliance with the secularist Republican Party, ironically founded by Kemal Atatürk. Prof Erbakan became Deputy PM in January 1974, and his remarks and speeches during his tenure underlined pan-Islamic overtures. Prof Erbakan, along with NSP's media mouthpiece, the Milli Gazette (founded 1973), has since emanated increasingly fanatic verbal tirades against the Jews, Zionism, and Israel. While promoting his Islamist Happiness Party (SP) in the latest election, Erbakan gave interviews in TV channels comparing the Zionists and Jews with 'Bacteria,' and 'Disease'. "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…”
In his election campaign rallies, attracting large crowds, across Turkey, the professor frequently repeated his anti-Semitic messages. Furthermore, Milli Gazette published articles in February and April of 2005 which were virulently anti-Semitic, referring to protoypical anti-Jewish verses (3:112, 2:61 etc.) of the Qur'an. “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…,” read one commentary.
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 were groomed by Ebrakan’s political movements. PM Erdogan and President Gul served as mayoral, ministerial, and parliamentary candidates in Erbakan's parties to hone their political careers.
This anti-democratic and anti-secular past of AKP leadership raises concerns among secular Turks. AKP’s leaders seek to reassure the skeptics that they have distanced themselves from their past Islamist aspirations. "A political party cannot have a religion, only individuals can," said Erdogan in 2003. 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 and has supported an al-Qaeda financier. His theocratic aspiration can be gauged from a series of statements between 1994 and 1996. He sought to turn all secular schools into religious ones and to inaugurate the parliament by reciting the Qur'an. He further claimed that he was “a servant of the Sharia" and “the Imam of Istanbul."
PM Erdogan expressed his dislikes for secularism by deriding Kemal Atatürk's commemoration events in 1994. He disapproved of a liberal lifestyle and individual freedom by expressing opposition to New Year's celebrations, seeking to ban alcohol, and saying that "swimsuit commercials are lustful exploitations". During his tenure as the mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998), he consistently pushed for Islamist agendas, including a ban on alcohol.
AKP’s leaders have cut down such theology-inspired statements during their latest tenure in power. But their occasional statements suggest that an undercurrent of Islamism is 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 hatred against the Jews and Israel.
The development in Turkey must also be taken in the context of developments in the wider Islamic world. Since the European colonizers evacuated, free Muslim nations have 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. A parallel Islamization of both political and cultural fabric has been occurring in all Islamic countries, including among Muslim communities of the West. 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 that Islamization trend.
Islamization is taking an increasingly violent trend in last couple of decades in Muslim countries, from which Turkey has failed to shield itself, too. A Turkish Muslim fanatic 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 a 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.
Moreover, under current trends in Islamic countries, Muslim leaders, keen to maintain secular fabric of their nations, are losing grip to the rising tide of Islamizing pressures from among the common masses and extremist elements. When AKP is elected for their Islamist credentials, it will be doubly harder for them to ignore the popular Islamizing pressures, even if they want so.
The Turkish military is not democratic in the true sense of it. Hence, many commentators hope that AKP’s triumph in recent standoff with the military may enable them to institute Muslim world’s first true secular democracy in Turkey. But they ignore the obvious fact that democracy has consistently acted as a tool for Islamization, not for secularization.
For example, free-and-fair democratic elections in Palestine brought militant Hamas to power, while in Lebanon, Hezbollah became the true winner. The same applies to Iraq. AKP’s victory in Turkey only reflects a parallel phenomenon of what has happened in Palestine and Lebanon. Furthermore, many Muslim countries emerged as secular democracies after achieving independence from European colonial powers, but have lost much of their secular credentials during last few decades of often-democratic self-rule.
To the question of whether the ruling AKP will manifest their past Islamist color; it is unlikely that they will do so, 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.
However, a few developments since the latest victory of AKP suggest that an Islamizing trend and pressure is already underway in Turkey. Economist reports that a public bus had to stop at a mosque for prayer upon demand from passengers on 2nd October. Such demands are now reportedly coming from all over Turkey. In another incident, a 28-year-old divorcee woman was detained by Istanbul police on “indecent exposure” charges for wearing a knee-length tunic and leggings.
These incidents, along with AKP’s rushing to work on reversing the headscarf ban as the top priority, are making Turkey's secularists concerned that Atatürk's secular republic may be becoming another theocratic Iran. But PM Erdogan once said, “Democracy was a train, from which you could alight once you reached your destination.” The democracy-train has brought AKP to their destination. Will they now alight from it as Erdogan promised remains to be seen?
Economist sees President Gul as an “undoubted democrat” in the ruling Islamist party, who, it believes, will bolster AK's secular credentials. If president Gul is the one to maintain Turkey’s secular credentials, he may have to step out of his boss Erdogan’s footsteps and may even have to confront the latter. Will Mr. Gul do so? It needs to be seen as well, although all emerging indications point to the contrary.
Veteran American journalist Eric S. Margolis, who disapproves of the military’s undemocratic interference in Turkey’s politics, opined that “AK’s victory likely means the end of the cult of Kemalism.” By ‘cult of Kemalism’ he undoubtedly meant Turkey’s staunch French-style secularism. The on-going developments in the Islamic world suggest that Turkey probably has two ways ahead: keep in the path of Kemalism, or join the rest of its Islamic brethren.
If Margolis is correct, Turkey’s eight decades of secular legacy will progressively be eroded and may eventually cease to exist. The obsessive democracyphilia in the post-9/11 era may render the Turkish military incapable to take actions for safeguarding secularism as in the past. In a few decades, Turkey may well be left with the kind of democracy seen in Iran, Palestine, or Sudan.