Turkey's Dilemma

How Secularism Is Threatening Democracy

Even if one cares little about Turkey per se, one should still pay close attention to the recent dramatic events in that nation, as they may play a key role in the development of a new approach to the Islamic world by the West. The Turkish drama is usually depicted as a conflict between military-backed secularists and Islamists. The conflict’s most recent round played out in Turkey’s Constitutional Court last month, when it ruled that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would not be banned—at least for now. (The party’s members include Turkey’s president, its prime minister, all the cabinet members, and 341 out of 550 members of Parliament.) But the court imposed a major financial penalty on the AKP and warned the party to desist from violating the state’s secularist constitution.

The political futures of about seventy key AKP members (including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) hung in the balance. If the court had ruled in favor of the prosecution, these elected officials would have been banned from holding office for five years, so that they could not form another party. Those who wonder if a court would dare declare the majority party—the governing government—unconstitutional, should note that since 1963 twenty-four parties have been disbanded in Turkey. The court’s previous ruling that the current government’s lifting of the ban on wearing headscarves on campus was unconstitutional reveals the direction in which the court leans. At issue in the headscarves case was not a requirement to display what amounts to a public symbol indicating one’s religious commitment—the kind of requirement that Iran and Saudi Arabia impose—but the right to practice one’s religion if one freely chooses to do so.

Many in the West are highly ambivalent about this struggle. On the one hand, they believe in democracy and feel that they ought to support the AKP against the secularist generals who have tried to undermine the government. On the other hand, many Westerners fear that Islamist parties will impose Shari’ah (Islamic law) and provide support for terrorists. (The AKP denies that it is a religious party, claiming to be merely a conservative one, like Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.) More deeply, many Europeans side with the secularists because they hold, as many intellectuals in Istanbul do, that religious commitments are part of a drive to “take us backward” to oppressive traditionalist societies. Secularism, modernity, democratization, and enlightenment, many liberals believe, must come in one package.

Turkey, in contrast to the conventional wisdom, is an Islamic country—not because it says so in its constitution, but because 99 percent of its population is Muslim and because its culture and institutions have strong Muslim elements. Turkey’s national flag is centered around an Islamic religious symbol, the same crest that is found on the top of many mosques. Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, a government office that reports directly to the prime minister, is responsible for employing local and provincial imams, for maintaining local mosques, and for preparing the texts for Friday sermons. In every city, town, and village in this allegedly secular country, citizens are called to prayer before sunrise, after sunset, and three times in between.

Moreover, Turkish schools teach what are, in effect, Muslim values. When it comes to personal behavior, although weddings must be performed by civilian authorities, many Turks supplement them with religious ceremonies, conducted at home by imams and overlooked by the government. Burials are performed exclusively by religious functionaries. All this is not to deny that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the father of modern Turkey, reduced the role of religion, but there is a world of difference between secularizing a country and making it into a secular one. Indeed, Atatürk opened the first session of the Parliament he helped create, surrounded by imams and with a prayer. As one Turk told me during a recent visit, “You cannot secularize Turkey without being legitimated by Islam.”

In short, although the secularist-military coalition claims that if female students are allowed to wear headscarves in universities, this would violate the purity of the secular state and open it to all kinds of religious behavior, a more accurate understanding of Turkey’s religious status reveals such claims to be deeply miscast. Turkey is already a religious country in which the current majority favors a limited tilt toward more Islamism. This is reflected both in the growing popularity of the AKP and in the very issue that ignited the current constitutional crisis: allowing women to don headscarves in universities—if they so desire. Thus, disbanding the governing party as an attempt (a vain one, I am sure) to stop this tilt amounts to a sacrifice of democratic principles for no valid reason or gain.

The good news for the global relationship between Islam and the West is that Turkish Muslims are, by and large, moderate. Far from imposing the harsher, monolithic version of Islam associated with support of terrorism and coercive religious dictates, most Turkish Muslims keep a personally adjusted profile of religious practices and are highly tolerant of those who choose different ones. What is sometimes called the new Islam stresses women’s rights. For instance, it rules that the old Islamic precept that women must be accompanied by a male relative when they travel was suitable only for an earlier, more dangerous period. Great emphasis is put on the way the Prophet dealt with women—that is, with great respect.

True, there seems to be some increase in communal pressures to adhere to some forms of religious expression, but such social pressures are part of social nature. If courts set out to disband political parties that ride the wave of change in the direction of these pressures, few would be left standing.

Although the very moderate nature of most Turkish Muslims is widely known, the global importance of this moderation is not often taken into account, especially by those who are ambivalent about the AKP because of its religious elements. At issue is finding the best way for the West to approach Islam. Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington (at least until recently), and sadly quite a few others treat all Muslims as if they were members of one violent sect. They hold that Islam is inherently an intolerant belief system. As Huntington once put it, “Some Westerners...have argued that the West does not have a problem with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise.”

Actually, there is no clash of civilizations but a clash within each civilization between the moderates who reject violence and those who legitimate it. It is the division within Christianity between those who see Christ as a prince of peace and those who see him as the sword; within Judaism between rabbis who interpret “an eye for and eye” as a call for compensation and those who interpret the text as a call for revenge. Islam is no different; there are Muslims who see Jihad as a spiritual journey of self-development, and those who view it as a war on all infidels. Many religious and politically moderate Muslims do not favor the full plethora of human rights and Western democracy, but they can and do serve as reliable partners in peace, working against terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. Turkey’s Muslim community is a strong case in point.

The West would be extremely ill-served by pushing all Muslims (or even those who do not support a secular, liberal, democratic regime) into the enemy camp. The West should view all Muslims who reject violence as at least potential allies and the best antidote to radical Islam. Numerous public-opinion polls show that the majority of Muslims worldwide are of the moderate kind. Hence the West ought to support the AKP and similar parties in Indonesia, Morocco, and elsewhere. Defining these moderate Muslims as “dangerous” only serves the Osama bin Ladens of the world. Instead, the West should support what the majority of the Turkish people, and a large part of the world, favor: a moderate Islam.

Published in the 2008-08-15 issue: 

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and the author of The New Golden Rule, The Moral Dimension, and The Active Society.

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