Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

October 30, 2007

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.

Gül and Erdogan started their careers as Islamists critical of secularism, but along the way came to see secularism as the best guarantee of more rights for Muslims. The secular system, they found, pledges to respect individual rights — the problem was that the rigid army-guided secularism of Kemalist Turkey did not allow them. One shorthand way of describing these ex-Islamists is “Muslim Democrats” analogous to the Christian Democrats of post-war Western Europe. Their stress is much more on promoting Muslim values than imposing Muslim laws. This is an important turn in political thinking in the Muslim world. If Turkey continues along the road it’s on, it could become easier to answer the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy.

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in the old city of Istanbul, June 5, 2007De Bellaigue’s “Turkey at the Turning Point?” gives a useful overview of the evolution of the AK party which he says “gives grounds for hope. It is possible that an Islamist movement with a history of intolerance and bigotry will succeed in transforming Turkish politics along genuinely democratic lines”.

One of the factors behind this evolution in Islamist thinking in Turkey is Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher who founded a large and influential movement named after him. He advocates what might be called a “middle class Islam” that advocates a secular state, personal freedom, religious tolerance and an entrepreneurial spirit. The movement has built up a large media and business empire in Turkey and a network of more than 100 schools in Turkey and Central Asia. It is active in international dialogue with other religions.

A three-day conference on Gülen and his movement was held in London last weekend. Its website has posted a massive 755-page PDF with all the papers presented there. Two that are particularly helpful for understanding this movement and the changing relationship between Islam and politics in Turkey are “What Made The Gülen Movement Possible?” by Mustafa Akyol and “Changing Perspectives on Islamism and Secularism in Turkey: The Gülen Movement and the AK Party” by Ahmet T. Kuru.

Akyol makes the interesting point that these Turkish Muslims came to see the West as better than the limited “Westernising” that Turkey’s secularist establishment offered them. He quotes Gülen, who lives in the United States, as saying:

Islam flourishes in American and Europe much better than in many Muslim countries. This means freedom and the rule of law are necessary for personal Islam. Moreover, Islam does not need the state to survive, but rather needs educated and financially rich communities to flourish. In a way, not the state but rather community is needed under a full democratic system.”

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