Islam, Democracy and Reform: The Turkey Example


Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey has been a meeting point of cultures from times immemorial. For close to 500 years, Istanbul was the seat of the Ottoman Empire and its sultan the titular Khalifa of  one fifth of the global population. At its peak the Ottoman Empire symbolised all that was good with the Islamic civilisation. It had an efficient administration, a progressive intellectual class and welcomed all regardless of creed or ethnicity, be it the Jews exiled by Spain or the Circassians fleeing Russian tyranny.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha took over Turkey by abolishing the Sultanate in 1923. It was perhaps just as well because if the Western powers had had their way, they would have dismembered the whole state. Kemal Pasha ensured that Turkey existed as an independent nation. He then embarked on what he called “modernisation”. This included abolishing traditional clothing, adopting the Roman script for Turkish, bringing religion under state control and creating a Turkish identity that was supposed to override everything else. “Kemalism” as these changes were labelled found a small but powerful support group in the Turkish elite. The military in particular anointed itself as the guardian of these “secular, Kemalist virtues” and deposed/hanged any government or Prime Minister that threatened this edifice (The first democratically elected PM, Adnan Menderes being an example). All these so called Islamist governments owed their power to the deeply devout rural poor who voted for these parties owing to their agenda of socialism coupled with tolerance of Islam. By deposing these radical parties, the Military-Secular nexus of Turkey was assured of a firm grip on power and wealth.

The AK Party (Justice and Development Party) is the latest in this long line. Since coming to power, the AK Party with its strong Islamic roots has embarked on a course that set it for a direct collision with the entrenched power establishment. Some of its notable transgressions against Kemalism as defined by its military keepers include licensing the previously unregulated alcohol sale, allowing women to dress as they please, keeping a tab on sale of porn to minors below 16 and so on. A notable supporter of the EU, the AK Party has pledged to make Turkey its member. It has been rebuffed by both the existing EU Members who fear that Turkey will dilute Europe’s Christian character and by the military that claims it is a ploy to strike at the root of Turkishness. The one that caused the most problems for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the lifting of the headscarf ban. A relic of the Kemalist era, the ban on headscarves in Universities has deprived millions of female students of the right to education. While espousing values like freedom of choice and expression, the Turkish secular establishment saw nothing contradictory in not allowing students to cover their hair if they wished to. Erdogan’s measure that promoted true secularism was derided as Islamism by his critics. His choice for the President too was condemned as the future First lady preferred to wear a headscarf. Erdogan resigned in the face of such criticism and called for fresh elections to seek a direct mandate from the people. He returned to power with the greatest margin ever in Turkey. This only served to infuriate the opposition who almost succeeded in having his party disbanded by the Constitutional Court.

Turkey is an interesting case study for precisely these reasons. A deeply religious country with an overwhelming Muslim majority is controlled by a tiny minority that seeks to prevent religion from fomenting dissent against them. In doing so they constantly trample on the very virtues of democracy and secularism that they espouse for their own ilk. While freedom of choice in Turkey includes the right to wear a bikini in public, it does not include covering your hair in a public place! While identification with Islam is wrong, it is perfectly okay to display “nationalist-Turkish” pride in denying the Armenian Genocide! Amazingly the West did nothing except a few words asking the Turkish military to “not take the law in its own hands”. Erdogan is probably lucky that this is 2009 and hanging a democratically elected PM is considerably more difficult than it was for a Zia in 1979.

Turkey is not the only example where Islamic organisations chasing perfectly secular reformist ideals are hampered in their activities by the establishment or foreign powers. Al Muhammadiyah in Indonesia is another such victim, blacklisted by the US State Department for many years due to its Islamic roots. Contrary to what Europe and America may say, there is a wave of reform sweeping the Muslim world and much of the blame for its partial success lies with the West. If Bill Clinton and G.W.B had not haughtily dismissed President Khatami’s peace efforts, Iran would have been a different country. If they had strengthened Arafat’s hands and made Israel keep its promises, Hamas wouldnt have captured the Palestinians’ imagination as it has today. Indeed! The only true dictatorships in the Muslim world today survive on American aid. The Shah of Saudi, a hated figure, is surviving due to America’s unstinted support. Before he became a global terrorist, Usama bin Laden was a campaigner for reform in the Saudi political setup. When peaceful means failed, he picked up guns, stinger missiles and flying-aeroplane-bombs. Hosni Mubarak keeps on winning elections with 98% of the vote because US provides him with aid that rivals its contributions to Israel! Pakistan gets a blank cheque and “non military” aid while the whole world knows what it does with it! Somalia is a mess because the US ally Ethiopia has over run half the country.

The US needs to decide. And decide fast. Does it want a democratic, peaceful Muslim world in the hands of people like Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the status quo with people like King Abdullah and Zardari at the helm? While the latter will assure US profits, the former will lead to world peace. The self declared policeman of the world needs to shed his duplicity and practice what he preaches.

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2 thoughts on “Islam, Democracy and Reform: The Turkey Example

  1. good post,what this proves beyond doubt is when it comes to secularism nehru had it bang on,religion is a private matter and cannot have any nexus with the matters of the state.though a man not so ‘secular’ in his private life(he did not wantt indira to marry a parsi),Nehru was staunchly secular when it came to his public office(i would go to the extent of calling him a fundamentalist secular) remember, he didn’t want the president of a secular country to inaugarate a temple.this is somewhat of a contrast to gandhian secularism and its ‘ishwar allah’ concept.the all religions are equal theory has been tried before but has failed to integrate people of different religions. we must accept with a pinch of salt that people of different religions cannot be integrated with each other till religion remains their identity,if we want secularism to work in this country we must relegate religion to a more personal space than it is now,where it belongs and where it will retain its sanctity.

  2. Anonymous,
    Secularism in Indian/Hindu sense is quite different from secularism in Muslim world or to say precisely Turkey.
    Turkey as explained in this post for centuries was the epitome of Muslim Caliphate. And Muslims all over the world looked upon at it as the keeper of Islamic Caliphate. Secular trends we observe in Turkey not only try to keep the country ethnically diverse but also has to see that this old notion of Muslim World is not lost. Even Gandhi knew this and saw this as an opportunity to appease Muslims in India and there by openly supported what we called Khilafat Movement. If Musthafa Kemal did not play cleverly back then, his regime would have with in no time disintegrated. For one thing I can say is no Muslim Country in the world today has more liberal muslims than Turkey. And by that I do not mean the muslims were always conservative. It is only in the recent past that new governments formed in Mid-east and South of Asia have completely reconditioned their people to adorn the conservatism that we see today. And if you observe clearly most of the upper ruling classes do not really fit into our imagination of orthodox muslim. It is only the downtrodden masses that are lured in to it.
    Every religion imposes some strict code to its followers, but the way people adapt and how externally conditioned to it is what that matters. I bet if given choice everyone would choose a path of reform. But the case is that pseudo fundamentalists in power do not give this choice. And in Turkey we see complete irony that a far right is playing the cards for every one. And it too does not give a choice. Religious freedom is not about how a certain group of people should be allowed to exercise their faith. It is about freedom for each individual to adopt his own faith with in the laws of the land. If the government does not try to amend the situation I fore see a new wave of fundamentalism that would sweep Turkey with in no time.

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