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.
De 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”.