UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

May 26, 2008

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

“They are the victims of their own limitations,” Ankara University sociologist Dogu Ergil told me. “They wanted a place in the power system and once they go it, they stopped… They have depleted their reformist arsenal. This is as far as they can go. This was the end of their liberalism and understanding of freedoms.”

Cengiz Aktar, a professor of European studies at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said the process of loosening restrictions on religion was not over, but it was now on hold for what he called a “period of restoration” that would reassert control by the secularist elite. “It’s put on ice. It’s not at its end. They will freeze it for some time. This ‘Turkish best practice’ needs to be rethought during this period of restoration. They will have to come back with a new idea.”

Rusen Cakir, a journalist who has written extensively on faith and politics in Turkey, agreed that efforts to reconcile democracy and Islam would continue but they were not the central issue for Turkish politics. The real issue was political power in Turkey, where the large state role in the economy means “if you control the government, you can control lots of money,” he said. Fears of a “hidden agenda” were unfounded, he said, but the secularist parties used them to mobilise their urban middle class base. “It’s kind of a class struggle. Each side has its own ideological tool — secularism or religion.” Or as Ergil put it, “religion here is a political instrument used by both sides.”

Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew light candles in Istanbul, 29 Nov 2006/poolIn a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, the remaining one percent is not politically significant. But the government’s attitude towards the religious minorities is a good barometer of how it feels about religious liberty. During my stay, I spoke with Catholic and Orthodox churchmen who reported little progress and some backsliding on the question of religious freedom. Their impression was also that Ankara had lost interest in any liberalisation after it got the green light for EU accession talks.

“The minorities were a hot issues for a while, but in the past two years, there has been no movement at all,” said an official at the Istanbul headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of all Orthodox Christians. A Catholic churchman said senior Church officials traveled under guard “and that tells you something.”

“We have to be very careful,” he said. “Some newspapers talk as if there were thousands of (Christian) missionaries in Turkey. We Catholics don’t evangelise. The Orthodox don’t either. Only some Protestant groups do, but they have also become very careful.” Turkish nationalists whippped up the spectre of Christian missionaries trying to “destroy Turkish identity,” he said. “The nationalists are in retreat, and this is a kind of parting shot from them.”

The hand of the statue of Pope Benedict XV under the cross of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, 27 Nov 2006/Fatih SaribasThat said, the Roman Catholic Church in Turkey is quite hopeful that the commemorative year for Saint Paul, who was born 2,000 years ago in Tarsus in today’s southern Turkey, will bring some small gestures of flexibility. The Church wants officials to allow a former church in Tarsus, now used as a museum, to be returned to its original state as a house of worship. The “Pauline Year” starting on June 29 would be the occasion to hand over the building to the Church for the use of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims expected there during the following 12 months. Local officials have been quite helpful with preparations for the visitors, Bishop Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia, told me. But it’s still a big leap from being cooperative to actually handing over the church. Padovese is waiting for a final decision from the government.

In Tarsus, local business people clearly see the interest in the Pauline Year. The Tarsus Chamber of Commerce and Industry has set up the most interesting website Logo for the Pauline Yearabout the commemoration that I’ve found. Among the gems are 360° panoramic views of the Tarsus church, both its interior and its exterior, the story of St. Paul’s life and a detailed account of his missionary travels.

After my quick initial post on this story, an American reader asked what greater religious freedom meant for the average Turk — a very difficult question that I tried to answer in the comments section here. A Turkish reader sent me an email calling my analysis “a piece of scrap,” saying that “latest developments in Turkey” were not a reform and disputing “that people were under pressure on religious matters during the pre-AKP period.” But he declined to elaborate his criticisms when I asked for more detail, so I can’t say more than that this sounds like a critique from a very secularist Turkish point of view, one I do not agree with.

I notice from other blogs that the idea of “post-Islamism” is either new or dubious to many readers out there. What do you think about the idea that “Muslim democrats” are working to reconcile Islam and modern political systems?

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It is tempting to suggest that in a culture in which political violence has publicly triumphed over political compromise, a culture in which recognition of force rather than of persuasion is the accepted definition of consensus, liberalism would fall flat.

However, the good news is that liberal Islam is on the rise, representing the overwhelming majority within the Muslim world today. The bad news is that it is a silent majority, or more accurately, a silenced one.

Despite the fact that in the Muslim world people are systematically silenced by their authoritarian regimes, Muslim communities have responded positively both to democracy and to most aspects of liberalism. This is clearly shown by the World Values Survey, pooled sample 1995-2001. For a summary of this sample go here: http://themiddleeastinterest.wordpress.c om/2008/02/08/liberal-muslims/

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