A new Turkey?
The no-alternative secular ideology of Ataturk appears shattered at last in Turkey, writes Hassan Nafaa*
Current political developments in Turkey are significant in more than one way. On Thursday 28 August, Abdullah Gul walked into the presidential palace. He did not do so as a guest who, by secular laws, cannot bring his veiled wife along, but rather as president of the state. Army commanders refused to give him the due military salute for a new president, but this hardly dampened his victory. For the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has an Islamic-leaning president.
The "secular" regime established by Ataturk following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was unusual in that it didn't evolve from a democratic process. Secularism in Turkey was a tool of denigrating and expunging religion, not just enforcing a separation between church and state. Initially, Ataturk contemplated keeping the caliphate as a religious institution with Vatican-style status, but the power struggle that developed during the liberation stage finally prompted him to dissolve the caliphate and its affiliate institutions, ban Sufi chapters, and strike out the constitutional provision stating that Islam was the official religion of the state.
Because such measures were taken in the absence of political pluralism and under a one party system, Turkish secularism became imbued with a tyrannical streak and got more obstinate as time went by. But despite the initial insistence of the ruling party on uprooting religion altogether, Islamic traditions managed to creep back for cultural as well as political reasons.
A few years before he died, Ataturk formed the Academy of History and Social Science in order to promote nationalist ideas. But this research institution soon found itself delving into an Ottoman past that cannot be examined in isolation from Islam, eventually becoming a bastion for the preservation of Islamic culture. When Ataturk died, the political system allowed some restricted pluralism to develop, and that provided a chance for the expression of Islamic sentiments. When a liberal group led by Adnan Menderes split from the ruling party, it advocated an end to anti-Islamic measures and to all legal restrictions on Muslim rituals.
The authoritarian implementation of secular slogans lasted in Turkey for a long time, creating a mood of cultural alienation as well as an identity crisis among various social groups, especially the middle and working classes. Public pressure for greater religious freedom encouraged the creation of Islamic- leaning political parties. The first such party was Necmeddin Erbakan's National Order Party, established in 1970.
Political Islam is more recent in Turkey than in other Arab and Islamic countries and yet more successful. Why is that? One can think of a few reasons. First, the harshness with which the army dealt with Islamists boosted their popularity. The army, which acts as a guardian of secular values, carried out four military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. The first coup brought down the government of Menderes, who was then executed for violation of secular laws. In 1997, the army deposed the government of Erbakan and disbanded his Refah Party. This excessive use of force, along with the ineptness and corruption of secular parties, increased public sympathy for the Islamists.
Second, Turkey's Islamists exhibited credible moderation, refusing to resort to violence or impose their opinion on others. The political and intellectual discourse of the Islamists became more moderate with time, and with every crisis the Islamists came out stronger. The policies of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) are a case in point. The JDP made a serious attempt to reconcile the Islamic heritage of Turkey with its European affiliations. Internally, the JDP adopted a modernist approach that accommodated religious sentiments. Externally, it maintained an independent approach without antagonising anyone. So although Turkey is a NATO member, the JDP refused to let US troops go into Iraq from Turkish territories in 2003. The strategic cooperation agreement Turkey has with Israel didn't prevent the JDP from forging close relations with Palestinian and Arab parties. And while defending Turkey's vital interests in Cyprus, the JDP pressed for membership in the EU.
Third, Turkey's Islamists maintained their unity in the face of hardship. Each time their parties awere banned, they created new ones. So the National Order Party became the Salvation Party, then Refah, then Virtue, and finally Justice and Development. Those constant changes didn't lead to a split within the ranks of the Islamists. Add to this the decay of secular parties due to corruption or stagnation and you'll see why the Islamists grew in popularity over time. In the 1973 election, Erbakan won 12 per cent of the vote with his Salvation Party. In 2002, Erdogan won 34 per cent of the vote with his JDP, then 47 per cent in the recent elections. Now the JDP is the main party in Turkey and for the first time ever it controls both the legislative and executive branches.
Can the JDP use its current political and constitutional power to rebuild Turkey's political and social life? Can the JDP make Turkey a solid and modern democracy? Can it help Turkey come to terms with its history and get over the political schizophrenia of the past? Or will its adversaries, especially the army, succeed in turning back the clock?
I believe that the JDP has a fair chance of succeeding, for the following reasons. First, the army has lost much of its credibility and is therefore unable to intervene in politics in the same way it did before. A reform process that started under Ecevit and continued under Erbakan saw the National Security Council (NSC) restructured and its power curbed. The NSC is now made up of nine civilians (instead of four) and five officers. Its secretary-general is a civilian who answers to the prime minister. NSC decisions are no longer binding on the government and can be challenged by parliament.
Second, secular Turkish parties, including leftist ones, have lost much of their popularity due to their opportunism and flagrant support for despotism and fascist nationalism. Ironically, the JDP seems to be the one political power that can be trusted to defend both liberal democracy and social justice in Turkey.
Third, there is a growing need, both regionally and internationally, to build up the Turkish model of Islamic moderation as an alternative to Iranian fundamentalism and so-called Sunni extremism. Many in Europe and the US believe that an assault on the Turkish model would ignite Islamic militancy in the region. Look at how France's Sarkozy changed his mind about Turkey's joining the EU after the recent Turkish elections.
This doesn't mean that a new, modern, stable and democratic Turkey is around the corner. There are many external factors that can change the situation drastically in Turkey, including President Bush ordering a strike on Iran. Should this happen, the Turkish army may regroup and try to reclaim its lost power, throwing the entire country into the realm of the unknown.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.