Turkey’s Veiled Democracy

November 26, 2007

The Rome trip’s over and it’s back to other interesting religion topics — like Islam in Turkey.

Mustafa AkyolThe evolution of Islam and politics in Turkey is one of the most interesting recent developments in the Muslim world. One of the most interesting writers following this is Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul journalist who is deputy editor of the English-language Turkish Daily News and regularly posts his TDN columns on his blog The White Path. Some of his articles require familiarity with today’s Turkish political scene, but his latest is an informative stand-back guide to how “Turkey now nurtures an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with modern values such as democracy, liberalism and capitalism.

Akyol’s blog flags the article as “Turkey’s Veiled Democracy [A Must-Read Article].” It’s published in the November/December issue of The American Interest (here it is in PDF). In it, Akyol surveys the emergence of modernising trends in Islam during the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the secularist Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the rise of modern “neo-orthodox” Muslims who formed the governing AKP party.

A fascinating aspect is the changing place of religion in Turkish politics in recent years:

… a survey entitled “Religion, Society and Politics in a Changing Turkey”, carried out in 2006 by political scientists Binnaz Toprak and Ali Çarkoglu, revealed that not only is religiosity thriving in Turkey; it is also moving away from political Islam. In response to the question, “Should there be political parties based on religion?” the percentage of respondents answering “yes” has dropped from 41 to 25 percent in the past seven years. Moreover, demand for “a religious state based on sharia” has dropped dramatically from 21 percent to 9 percent. Only 2 percent support harsh sharia measures such as stoning. Turkish Islam is flourishing, but not as an obscurantist or anti-modern movement—just the reverse.

IstanbulAnother point he makes is the influence of a Muslim middle class in Turkey. Many militant Islamists combine Muslim religious thought and Third World liberation politics. The religious vocabulary might be from the Koran, but the political vision owes much to the anti-colonialist theorist Frantz Fanon and his 1961 classic The Wretched of the Earth. Akyol notes the socialist slant of political thinking in the Islamic world in the 20th century and then writes:

“The rise of an Islamic entrepreneurial class is a remarkable phenomenon, marking the beginning of a new stage for Islamic civilization. Most people understand religion not only according to its textual teachings, but also according to its function within their everyday social environment. Islam’s social environment has been feudal, imperial and bureaucratic in the past and present for the most part. Now, in Turkey and in a few other Muslim counties such as Malaysia, Islam is being transformed into a religion of the middle class and its rational, independent, individualist ethos. Anyone who thinks this social transformation won’t change religion knows nothing about the sociology of religion.”

A frequent argument about Islam in western countries is that it cannot reform and is not compatible with democracy. Akyol makes a strong case for the opposite. Are the people arguing that Islam is inherently undemocratic watching what is happening in Turkey? Do you think it shows there are more options within Islam than the ones usually seen in the news?

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