Bridging Europe and Asia, Turkey again tests whether Islam can coexist with democracy
ISTANBULWalk down the pedestrian-jammed Istiklal Street in Istanbul's fashionable Beyoglu neighborhood day or night, and you sense the tremendous energy that has been unleashed in Turkey during the past decade. Founded by Italian merchants in Byzantine times, this vibrant district, rising above the northern shore of the Golden Horn, was until recently one of the city's shabbier quarters. But since its conversion into a mostly car-free zone in the late 1990sone of the many shrewd calls made by the city's then Islamist governmentBeyoglu has taken off. The maze of narrow streets branching off the boutique-lined Istiklal buzz with trendy cafes, clubs, and restaurants, while apartments that sell faster than they can be refurbished appreciate at the clip of about 25 percent a year.
If he were alive today, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, would embrace this booming, cosmopolitan neighborhood as the fulfillment of his modernizing dream. And Beyoglu is only contemporary Turkey writ small, a dramatically compressed version of what is happening throughout the rest of the country.
Averaging around a 7 percent GDP growth rate for the past five years, Turkey is flooding the world with exports produced by its "Anatolian Tigers," as the heartland-born (and often religiously conservative) members of the new industrial and commercial elite are called. With inflation and taxes down, and with continuing prosperity expected, what's to complain about?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Grumbling, partisan sniping, and even large public demonstrations have become the order of day ever since Turkey's Supreme Courtnudged by threats of a military coup and a large pro-secularist rally in Istanbulannulled a parliamentary vote that made the candidate from the religiously tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) the likely successor to the presidency. Events surrounding the court's May 1 decision have brought to a head tensions that some analysts say had been building for at least a yeartensions that are bound up with modern Turkey's perennial debate over religion, democracy, and secularism.
Mosque and state. At issue, says an assortment of secularly oriented Turks, including the staunchly Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP), are the efforts of the governing AKP to bring religion into the center of the nation's political and civic life. If unchecked, the critics charge, the AKP would effectively dismantle the mosque-state barriers that Ataturk erected after creating a republic in 1923.
Not surprisingly, AKP leaders object. They deny that they are Islamists or have any designs on creating a religiously governed state. They claim only to be building a clean, open, and vigorously free-market society. If the AKP has an agenda, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly says, it is to prepare Turkey for membership in the European Unionand to do so despite recent rebuffs from Germany and France.
This is one domestic squabble that the whole world is watching, and not only because of the large question mark hovering over Turkey's bid to join the EU. The second-largest provider of troops to NATO after the United States, Turkey offers a much needed alternative to Russia as a passageway for pipelines bringing oil and gas from the Middle East and Central Asia to Europe.
But Turkey's tremendous strategic importance is not limited to tangibles. Fairly or not, Turkey is now seen as the great test of the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and Western liberal values, "the emblematic country in regard to the great challenge today," as Pope Benedict XVI called it on his trip to the country last November. How well Turkey weathers its current crisis will be a crucial measure of how that test is going.
The troubles got started in early spring, when Ankara gossip began to focus on Erdogan as the likely successor to the largely ceremonial presidency. Although popular for his business-friendly economic reforms, Erdogan still aroused fears among secularists who remembered his association with a now banned Islamist party when he was the mayor of Istanbul. In addition to having a head-scarf-wearing wife, he had as prime minister backed legislation that some considered overly religious, including a bill to criminalize adultery and another to accredit theologically oriented high schools.
To defuse rising tensions, the ruling party came up with a compromise candidate, Abdullah Gul, the party's affable foreign minister. But though he won a majority of the votes in the first round of the parliamentary process, the CHP, whose members had boycotted the election, petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the vote for lack of a quorum. Veiled threats from the militarywhich had overthrown four governments during the past 50 years-were posted on the general staff website, and the Supreme Court invalidated the vote the next day.
Turkish politics as usual? To some extent. But the stakes seemed suddenly higher. The AKP called for a general election on July 22, five months ahead of schedule, and then pushed through a bill to provide for popular election of the president. For their part, the diverse voices of the opposition mounted large urban demonstrations, most recently in the coastal city of Samsun, while some top party leaders set about forging coalitions to counter the influence of the AKP.
Unfair rap? What is really at stake in all this positioning depends, not surprisingly, on which Turks you happen to talk to. "I accept the label Islamist for the AKP," says Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the CHP. "They openly say that you can have a democratic society without secularism, even with Muslim laws." Oymen also objects to the unfair rap that the AKP-friendly media have given to his party, including charges that the CHP is the narrowly self-interested party of the old elite and that it now has even cooled on Turkey's entry into the EU. "We say we are the party that most cherishes European values," Oymen says. "My party was the engine of reforms."
Oymen is confident that his party will pick up more seats in the next election. But that confidence is not supported by recent polling data. Ertan Aydin, president of Pollmark Research in Ankara, says that his newest survey finds 39 percent going for AKP, almost 45 percent after the distribution of undecided voters is factored in. That compares with 16 percent for CHP (20 percent after distribution).
Talk to some of the young Turks who attended the huge pro-secularist demonstrations, and you get an idea of why Ataturk's old party now fails to win them over. "The CHP is a dinosaur," says Gokhon Bolcioglu, 26, a part-time student who works in a popular Beyoglu cafe and attended the Istanbul rally. For him and others, the CHP is a party of arrogant old men who have long exploited their power to secure their wealth and position at the top of Turkish society.
The prospect of a military intervention to rein in the AKP is just as unsavory to most young urban Turks. Erdem Sezer, 20, vice president of the student council at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, believes secularism is just as important as democracy, but he firmly supports the slogan that was shouted at all of the big rallies: "Neither sharia nor coups." Yet Sezer despairs when he thinks about the coming election and the ideological differences that splinter the opposition into small, ineffectual parties: "Which party can we vote?" Sezer asks. "We can't find anything close to our minds."
For a few years after the general election in 2002, the AKP did manage to win the trust of many young, upwardly mobile Turks, even those of a secular bent. Bahcesehir University sociologist Nilufer Narli calls it a "marriage of convenience." The AKP emphasized its free-market reforms to shore up its image as a conservative "center right" party, and urban professionals ignored the religious trappings to embrace the AKP as the party of economic opportunity.
Shifting focus. But the AKP changed its tune after a few years in office. "We don't know what exactly happened in early 2006," says Haluk Tukel, secretary general of Turkey's oldest and most prestigious business association. But Tukel suggests that the AKP's shift in focus might have had something to do with the first signs that key European powersparticularly Germany and Francewere growing cool on the idea of Turkey in the EU. And this was not the only blow to Turkish national pride. The failure of America to crack down on Kurdish terrorists operating out of northern Iraq seemed to be not only a hypocritical betrayal of the global war on terrorism but also a threat to Turkish security. The huge box-office success of a virulently anti-American film, Valley of the Wolves Iraq, captured the rising chauvinistic mood.
As Turkish political parties took a more nationalist turn, the AKP, with its conservative religious base in the provinces, began promoting Islamic principles in legislation and religious symbols in public life. Indeed, the party's growing concern with religious symbolism seemed at times to take precedence over effective governance. When the popular and successful governor of the Turkish central bank was replaced by a deputy governor whose wife wore a head scarf, the motivation, AKP critics charged, was purely religious. "The marriage of convenience collapsed," says Narli.
Leaders of the AKP themselves now admit that mistakes were made, even though they insist that the opposition exaggerates them to polarize the voters. "We will choose more candidates from the center," says Saban Disli, the AKP's deputy chairman for foreign affairs, adding that everybody in the party now knows that "religious issues cannot be legislated." AKP leaders are fully aware that the peculiarities of Turkey's parliamentary system (including a 10 percent threshold for a party to win seats in the parliament) allowed them, with only one third of the popular vote, to claim a legislative majority. "We will seek to reformulate our policies," Disli says. "We will try a more compromising approach to the delicate issues."
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.
This story appears in the June 4, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.