False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey

by Nora Onar
Istanbul - When Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—a party with Islamic roots—nominated one of its own as president, millions of protesters took to the streets. The rallies were the latest act in a drama which began when Turkey's founding fathers adopted, in addition to a commitment to eventual democratisation, the then-prevalent European view that Islam is a source of backwardness. But despite measures to purge Islam from the public sphere, it has proven resilient as both a faith and cultural anchor. And since the multiparty era, political Islam of various stripes has challenged the state line.

The AKP, arguing in the name of greater freedoms, says it can bring Turkey closer to resolving its foundational dilemma of reconciling secularism, democracy and Islam. The party stands especially for pious Muslims who wish to be observant without facing humiliation or censure. Criticised for attempts to criminalise adultery and introduce halal labelling, AKP pundits cite studies showing only a small fraction of supporters favour an Islamic state. It has also been suggested that the best insurance against party traditionalists and radical grassroots elements is the empowerment of a moderate leadership.

But many are unconvinced. Sceptics include political rivals who seek to capitalise on the anti-AKP rallies ahead of upcoming elections. Many are concerned with the concentration of parliamentary, prime ministerial and presidential power in the hands of a single party. Numerous women fear that even a sincere AKP stands for a more conservative Turkey in which they may be disempowered. Alevis—a large community of non-Sunni Muslims—are also worried.

Contradictory slogans heard at the rallies reflect the range of scepticism. Some chanted "no to shari'a, no to a coup, yes to democracy" referring to an army memorandum hinting it might act if the AKP does not do more to preserve the country's secular tradition. Many others unfurled anti-EU, anti-US slogans rooted in broader disconcertion with reforms taken to advance membership into the European Union and American Middle East policies.

And then there is the class dimension. Urban middle and upper classes, with their Westernised habits, have long been the ruling elite. In recent years, this position has been challenged by socially conservative urban migrants who have become entrepreneurs, intellectuals and politicians. They demand, like any rising middle class, a voice in governance. Pro-AKP commentators hail their dynamism and argue the recent demonstrations reflect the hysteria of a crumbling ancient regime.

But the situation is closer to one of stalemate, with the AK party commanding the largest share of the vote—but by no means a majority—and a rising share of the economy, while the old elite remains ensconced in the private sector, bureaucracy, judiciary and military. This means that mutual accommodation is the only reasonable course of action. It behoves the old elite to acknowledge that the newcomers are running the country well on many counts, from the municipal to the national level. And AKP supporters must understand that the preferences and fears of significant swathes of the population cannot be dismissed.

The class and identity struggles obscure remarkably convergent real interests. Consumption patterns of the two camps mirror one another, and both have been doing considerably more consuming in recent years thanks to reforms put in place by an IMF-affiliated technocrat which the AKP has safeguarded. Foreign investment has soared and Turkey's credibility is such that international capital appears unperturbed by recent tensions. But those gains can only be guaranteed by strengthening Turkish democracy. Here, too, the current crisis obscures common ground: there is broad consensus that illiberal elements of the 1980 constitution must go. And regardless of the EU process, most Turks agree that institutions which safeguard economic and political stability are in the interest of all.

With such incentives to cooperation, why the polarisation? The answer is lack of communication. Political leadership and grassroots organisations on both sides need to build bridges. The short-term formula must focus on averting collective disaster. Both camps should do their utmost to forestall further military intervention, which would spell economic and political disaster.

The middle- and long-term focus should be on fostering the glue of social capital: trust. One step may be simply to recognise that both sides in effect yearn for guarantee of the freedom to act according to their conscience. Recognition of this common desire may make it possible to negotiate, in time, a social bargain for each group without one impinging upon the other.

There are real philosophical and practical difficulties in reconciling secularism, democracy and Islamic religiosity. But if anyone can do it, the Turks can.


* Nora Onar is research associate at the European Studies Centre, St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 June 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Other articles in this series

What is it about Western secularism? by Jorgen S. Nielsen
What words can mean by Javed Anand
Envisioning Islamic democracy by Jocelyne Cesari
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin
Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues? by Dalia Mogahed