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Turkey: What Remains Of Political Islam?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Political Islam, or Islamism, which is broadly defined as the belief that the Koran and the rules set up by the Prophet Mohammad should govern state and society, is a powerful ideological force in the Muslim world. The victory of the Justice and Development Party, a conservative party with Islamic roots, in Turkey's recent general elections has raised concerns both at home and abroad that the country may reverse decades of secularism. Yet, experts believe the party's political breakthrough testifies to the further evolution of political Islam in a country where state and religion have always maintained a close, though sometimes conflicting, relationship.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Following the victory of Turkey's conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in the 3 November early legislative polls, there has been much debate at home and abroad about the true nature of this untested political group.

Some believe that the AKP, which emerged 19 months ago from a split within Virtue, an Islamic party run behind the scenes by former Prime Minister and former Welfare Party leader Necmettin Erbakan, is the Trojan horse of political Islam in secular Turkey.

Others subscribe to claims made by party leaders that the AKP has no Islamic agenda and represents a new trend in Turkish politics, something they maintain is similar to Western Europe's Christian democracy.

Founded in August 2001 by former Greater Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has made a spectacular breakthrough in Turkish politics. Two months ago, the party captured nearly two-thirds of the Turkish Grand National Assembly's 550 seats with only 34 percent of the vote, thus clearing the way for the first single-party government in 15 years.

The AKP's sweeping, though disproportionate, victory sent most other traditional, secular parties into political oblivion, at least for the time being.

But it also dealt a serious blow to the country's Islamic old guard. The Felicity Party garnered only 2.5 percent of the vote, well below the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament. By comparison, Felicity's predecessor Welfare had won first place in the 1995 polls with more than one-fifth of the votes -- albeit with many of those made in protest against the government's social policy -- making Erbakan the first-ever Islamic prime minister to sit in Ankara.

Turkey's military and judiciary, which see themselves as the guardians of secularism, eventually ousted Erbakan and banned Welfare, which they suspected of drifting toward fundamentalism despite party leaders' claims that they were not a radical Islamic group.

Fortified by this precedent, Turkey's staunchest secularists have accused AKP Chairman Erdogan, who was barred from running in the last polls because of an earlier conviction for alleged religious sedition, of having a hidden Islamic agenda.

Olivier Roy is a specialist on Islam who works with France's National Center for Scientific Research. He said that, although the AKP has an Islamic pedigree, there are fundamental differences between Erdogan and his former mentor Erbakan. "[The AKP] is no longer an ideological party, meaning that it does not rely on a central ideology. [AKP leaders] have given up the idea of an Islamic state and the idea that Islam is an ideology. [AKP] is a conservative party, ethically speaking. It is a nationalist party, as all political parties in Turkey are. It is a party that opposes the existing system and that has attracted a massive protest vote. And it is a religious party in the sense that it focuses on values that are commended by religion -- such as family, for example -- and that are conservative values. But [the AKP] is not an ideological party," Roy said.

AKP leaders have campaigned predominantly on social issues, vowing to help Turkey out of a two-year economic depression and to end corruption in state structures, while carefully avoiding any open reference to religion.

These campaign themes have helped the AKP lure defectors from many secular parties and attract votes from a variety of social groups ranging from Istanbul's middle class to Inner Anatolia's rural nationalists. But a substantial part of Welfare's former supporters have thrown their weight behind the AKP as well.

In addition, Turkey's new leadership has embraced Ankara's European Union membership bid, expressed support for traditional ties with the United States, and pledged to cooperate with the International Monetary Fund, all policies that are anathema to the Islamic old guard.

As opposed to Erbakan, who visited Libya, Iran, and other Muslim countries immediately after his accession to premiership, AKP leaders see as their top priority cultivating relations with the Christian West.

Roy believes the political pragmatism shown by the AKP is not a mere tactical move on the part of its leaders. He said the party's leadership has changed in unison with Turkey's core Islamic constituency, which has turned its back on political radicalism. "If by 'political Islam' one means the longing for an Islamic state and for the Islamization of society by the state, then, clearly, we are facing a failure. And I believe people like Erdogan and [Prime Minister Abdullah] Gul have learned a lesson from this failure. They know that the problem is not only in the army, which is opposed to an Islamic state, but also that it is structurally impossible to establish an Islamic state. In my opinion, this is what makes the AKP different from its predecessors. By contrast, those people who are around Erbakan believe that only pragmatic reasons -- namely, the opposition of the army -- make it impossible to create an Islamic state. They do not want a civil war, but deep down in their hearts they retain nostalgia for an Islamic state. But not Erdogan, not Gul -- they both know that such a concept cannot function [in Turkey]," Roy said.

When Ataturk proclaimed the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923, he embarked on an ambitious program of reforms that aimed at modernizing and secularizing the former Ottoman society. He notably abolished the Caliphate (Islamic religious leadership), banned Shariah Islamic law, and ordered the closure of religious shrines and schools. He also outlawed head scarves for women.

Ataturk and his successors, however, failed to fully secularize Turkey's society, and religion has always played an important role in domestic politics -- a trend reinforced by the ambiguous relations the state leadership has always maintained with predominantly Sunni Islam.

In the 1980s, the secular establishment became increasingly influenced by the so-called Turkish-Islamic synthesis, an ideology that imparted to the country a quasi-messianic mission against socialism and communism. In line with this policy, religious teaching became mandatory in public schools and hundreds of mosques were built throughout the country.

Secular authorities tried to keep religion under strict state control, placing preachers, pious foundations, religious faculties, and secondary schools under close scrutiny. Yet, by courting Islam, the state also gave a major boost to various forms of Islamic militancy ranging from Refah to the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Amir Taheri is a London-based writer who specializes in Islam and Middle East affairs. He said that, despite the emergence of radical religious groups in recent years, fundamentalism has always been alien to Turkish Islam, which is rich in mystical Sufi traditions. "Turkish Islam is sustained by Sufi organizations, the Alevi movement, and so on, which are moderate and secular in outlook. From the 1980s onwards, largely because Turkey was a neighbor of Iran and also because of the activities of Iranians, they tried to create a radical, revolutionary, violent brand of Islam that has failed in Turkey. But it does not mean that political Islam as a whole has failed. It shows that the Turkish system is strong enough to absorb all currents, including the Islamic current," Taheri said.

Other experts agree that the nature of Turkish Islam makes it impervious to fundamentalism.

Soner Cagaptay runs the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He told RFE/RL that, in his view, political Islam -- "understood as the solidarity of the international Muslim community and as a movement of looking at the world from a religious perspective" -- remains fairly limited in scope in Turkey. This, Cagaptay argued, is due to a long tradition of tying religion to national identity. "Although [political Islam] did grow in size in the 1980s and 1990s, I think that, relatively speaking, it is still a weak movement when you compare it to other political-Islam movements in different countries in the region. I think one of the reasons why political Islam has been weak in Turkey is that the Turkish understanding of Islam is, first and predominantly, national, and then religious. What I mean by that is the fact that the Turks, among the Muslim people, are one of the first who met with the idea of nationalism and adapted it, going all the way back to the late 19th century. [It] has given them this feeling of national identity, which is very strong. And this, in a way, makes most Turks feel that they are Turks first, and Muslims next. This, I think, is contrary to the picture you would see in some other countries where the Muslim identity comes before the national identity," Cagaptay said.

Cagaptay also said another factor that has prevented political Islam from gaining too great an influence are the traditional relations between state and religion, which in Turkey strongly differs from other Muslim countries, and not only because of Ataturk's secularizing policy. "Turkish Islam has a traditional and historical tendency, going back to the Ottoman times, to recognize the secular authority as the supreme power and not to defy that or fight against that. Turkish Islam in general does not have a tradition of either controlling the state or dictating policies to the state. For that reason, I think that the infrastructural elements of the establishment of a religious state in Turkey are not there, neither in the body of Islam, nor in the body of the political life of the country," Cagaptay said.

AKP leaders have so far carefully avoided antagonizing the country's staunchest secularists, notably on the delicate issue of allowing women to wear Islamic head scarves in public buildings.

In sharp contrast to Erbakan's confrontational style, Erdogan has said that the AKP-dominated parliament will not press for legalizing Islamic-style head wear until a "broad social consensus" is reached on the issue.

The military has signaled that it is willing to respect the choice of Turkish voters. But it has nevertheless set up a line it clearly believes the new government should not cross. On 8 January, Army General Chief of Staff Hilmi Ozkok cautioned Gul against encouraging religious fundamentalism by publicly protesting a decision to expel a group of officers suspected of Islamic ties. He also said the military would not tolerate the intrusion of the head scarf in the public space.

Political Islam may have changed in nature in Turkey, but there may be some distance to travel before peaceful coexistence with the Kemalist secular establishment is achieved.