Secularist Turks seek modern vision of state, society, religion

May 27, 2010

Secularists demonstrate at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara on May 17, 2009/Osman Orsal

In the cool hush of the marble mausoleum above Ankara, Turks pay homage as they have for decades to secular state founder Kemal Ataturk. With the advent of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the view from the mausoleum has become confusing and troubling. The secularist opposition, while accusing his AK Party of seeking an Islamist state, has struggled since traditional parties tainted by accusations of corruption crashed to defeat in 2002.

There is a sense amongst many, though, that Ataturk’s own Republican People’s Party (CHP) has become fossilised fighting old battles while the AK Party pushes a modernising agenda of social and economic reform.  Last weekend, the CHP formally jetisoned its hardline leader Deniz Baykal, rejected by voters in 2002 and 2007, and elected former civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu in his place. Hopes are rising of a resurgent party ready to fight 2011 elections.

Secular middle-class Turks — engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats — used to trust the CHP, which claims to guard Ataturk’s legacy. But failure to modernise made it unelectable even for those who distrust Erdogan’s AK Party.

While the AK has won plaudits among markets and in Europe for espousing change, the CHP entrenched itself behind an anti-Western, anti-religious and anti-liberal discourse.

“Turkey has figured out how to be a functioning democracy in the Middle East,” Paul Salem, Middle East director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Turkey’s Zaman newspaper in a recent interview.

“It has figured out how to do economics in the 21st century and has figured out how to have Islam and secularism and science and individuality and community all in the same society in the Middle East.”

Read the full analysis on religion and politics in today’s Turkey here.

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