Blogging 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.
The 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.”