Turkey beyond Islamism versus secularism

Rami G. Khouri
6 Min Read

The tempestuous current developments in Turkey are historic in their implications for the country and the Middle East. However, they are about much more than a tug-of-war between Islamism and secularism. The constitutional stand-off concerning the election of the next president – pitting the ruling, mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the largely secular opposition backed by the armed forces – is just the pivot of a historic, ongoing Turkish attempt to balance seven different phenomena that have never been fully synthesized into a single state identity: Islam, Turkish nationalism, political secularism, democratic governance, citizenship rights, pluralism in a multiethnic society, and the role of the military with respect to the previous six items. Turkey is the only country in the Middle East where citizens have had the opportunity to define their own national values, ideology, governance system and political alliances. This is not new. Turkey is chronically historic because it has been addressing such issues since the reform-minded Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) initiated significant reforms 200 years ago that continue to play out today. This legacy has included moves towards secularization, citizen equality, affirmation of the rule of law, democratization, political pluralism, economic liberalization and globalization, human rights guarantees, minority cultural and ethnic rights, and repeated interference by the military to stabilize or suspend this process of national and political evolution. Other Middle Eastern and Islamic societies that embarked on similar such reforms a century or more ago – Egypt, Iran, Syria – have faltered, and succumbed, for now, to the rule of strongmen and security agencies. Turkey persists, however, stubbornly embracing modernity while trying to define this modernity for itself and perhaps for other Islamic lands. Since the AKP took power in 2002, when it won two-thirds of parliamentary seats, many Turks have democratically and proudly manifested their Islamic identity and values. Yet the AKP won just one-third of the popular vote, so its explicit Islamist principles do not reflect the views of most citizens. Its economic, social and foreign policies, however, do enjoy majority support, given the AKP’s commitment to continued economic liberalization and steady growth, negotiations to join the European Union, and a selectively judicious distancing from American policy in the region. Many voters who had supported secular parties voted for AKP in 2002 for its political-economic program, rather than its Islamism. Cultural Islamism combined with a newly assertive stratum of middle class business entrepreneurs is challenging the traditional secular establishment from two directions at once; the establishment, naturally, is fighting back. As the Turkish political scientist and columnist Soli Ozel explained to me amidst the dizzying pace of political developments: “The AKP government represents two important constituencies in this country. It defends the interests of a rising provincial entrepreneurial class, fully integrated into the world economy, that is culturally and socially more conservative than the established republican entrepreneurial class. It also serves the interests of the losers of globalization, by catering to their needs, giving them hope of class mobility, and providing basic services. As such it integrates the excluded into the social and political system of the country. In the process inevitably it displaces the establishment. AKP affirms that the distinction between Islamism, secularism, democracy and liberal economic expansion is not always clear-cut. This is why the Islamic-secular dichotomy is too simplistic and narrow to explain events in Turkey today. The process is also as impressive as the basic issues in dispute. This indubitably Islamic society is waging an agenda-setting national political contest peacefully and democratically, in multiple arenas: through street demonstrations, parliamentary and presidential elections, constitutional court rulings, and media exchanges. The role of the military hovers over this process like the hundreds of mosque minarets dominating Istanbul’s skyline – vigilant, indigenous, dominant at times, but ultimately just one element in a rich and varied landscape of power centers and identities. The Turkish citizenry and political system reacted remarkably calmly, even matter-of-factly, 10 days ago when the office of the chief-of-staff of the army posted on its Web site a clear warning that it would step in to preserve the “fundamental values of the Republic of Turkey, especially secularism, and that, as the “definite defender of secularism, it would “show its stance clearly when needed. The AKP government, equally Web-savvy and fortified by its popular mandate, retorted by reminding the generals that they were government employees who were under civilian control and should not play a role in democratic politics. Dueling emails, rather than palace coups, are Turkey’s latest contribution to the business of how political power is exercised and how national identity is defined in the modern Middle East. The contest in Turkey will generate, in due course, a historic and legitimate new balance among the forces of religion, secularism, nationalism, democracy, citizenship rights, ethnic pluralism, and the role of the military, with important lessons for Europe and the Middle East.

Rami G. Khouriis published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

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