Bridging Europe and Asia, Turkey again tests whether Islam can coexist with democracy
Those delicate issues will continue to include Islam and the question of how much religion is permissible in the public sphere. Mustafa Akyol, a bright young columnist for the English-language Turkish Daily News, makes a very convincing case for the moderate traditional religiosity that most AKP supporters embrace. This is very far from the totalitarian variety of political Islam that Islamists promote. It does not seek to impose religious sharia law on society. It does not go in for the fundamentalist simplicities of the Saudi Wahhabis. Some religiously minded Turks were attracted to political Islam after Iran's 1979 revolution, Akyol explains, but Islamism largely disappeared when the military dissolved the Welfare Party-led government in 1997.
AKP's brand of Islamic religiosity derives, Akyol says, from the rich Ottoman traditions, which include a strong admixture of philosophically broad-minded Sufism. The party's religious inspirations are not Islamists like Sayyid Qutb but Said Nursi (1879-1960), whose apolitical writings on faith and morality sparked a popular movement. More recently, Fethullah Gulen's teachings on interfaith dialogue and the compatibility of belief and secularism have inspired followers to found schools, publishing houses, and even a newspaper to spread his message.
But there are many Turks who argue that not even Gulen can be trusted. They say his followers in government eventually attempt to legislate Islamic morality. "The secularists' argument is that if you let a little religion in the public sphere, you will ultimately have a big problem," Akyol counters. "My argument is that if you don't, then you will have a bigger problem."
In a working democracy, the amount of religion that is admitted into public life is an ongoing political negotiation. But the trouble with Turkey today is that it lacks a vibrant opposition party that would offer a more secularly grounded political philosophy and a progressive social agenda to counter the social and religious conservatism of the AKP. Turkey, in American terms, has no Democratic Party to stand up to its Republican Party. And that is a problem.
One person who fully appreciates the problem is the grand old man of Turkish politics, Suleyman Demirel, the nation's ninth president and seven-time prime minister. The pragmatic centrist has lived through enough military coups to be able to joke about them. But he grew serious in a recent talk in Istanbul when he chided his audience for not participating more actively in the political system.
"People should not look for means beyond the system," Demirel said. Instead, he said, Turks should insist that opposition leaders unite so that votes are not repeatedly thrown away on tiny, ideologically irrelevant splinter parties that never meet the 10 percent threshold. "If citizens are the owners of the countryand they arethey cannot behave like visitors," Demirel warned. "If they do, they will lose their country."
And, he might have added, the world will lose its greatest hope for a successful liberal democracy in a predominantly Muslim land.