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Turkish Secularism and the Current Political Stalemate - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Turkey has recently experienced a new shock similar to the successive tremors that the Turkish model witnessed with the emergence of the secular republic in 1923.

Although the army had confined itself to using threats this time and did not intervene to disrupt constitutional institutions, as was the case on previous occasions (1960, 1971, 1980, 1998), the country has actually entered an acute crisis after the collapse of the fragile coalition between the ruling conservative party that is a branch of the Islamic current (Justice and Development Party) on one hand and the military institution which is the guarantor of the secular identity of the state.

For the past four years, the coalition had maintained an extensive state of stability in the country, had achieved significant economic growth and saved the country from the negative effects of the violent upheavals that the region had witnessed after the war on Iraq recently.

It seemed clear to observers of the Turkish affair that the Turkish secular model has matured. It is no longer threatened by Islamic trends that reject its legitimacy, especially after the Refah Partisi or Welfare Party failed in its short experiment of governance and so did its successor of the moderate wing which has turned into a type of conservative, right-wing party similar to Christian democratic parties in Europe.

The military institution itself had become more practical in its acceptance of a moderate Islamic current as an undeniable element of the political spectrum, after futile confrontations with groups that raised Islamic slogans.

The paradox here is that the Turkish democracy, which was ideologically founded on a secular perspective, is now in need of including some of its ideological extremities including the conservative Islamic current, which constitutes the leading power in the Turkish public (holding 34% of the seats in the current parliament). At the same time, this current could not take full advantage of its democratic legitimacy in the decision making process which is substantially taken over by the forces that adopt a secular approach, namely the profound Turkish state made up of the army, diplomacy, police, judiciary and academic institution.

Does this internal crisis mean that the balances that had maintained a state of stability for the Turkish model in recent years have collapsed and that the country is heading towards an open clash between the successor trend to the Islamic current on one hand and the military institution and affiliated secular wing on the other hand?

To find an answer to this question is not easy. However all indicators suggest that this clash is not inevitable. The military institution is no longer capable of direct intervention against democratic legitimacy, owing to clear domestic and international reasons on top of which is the pressuring European stance that is sensitive towards any coup against the constitutional status.

Perhaps the greatest diplomatic success achieved by the government of Erdogan is its emergence as the party that is entitled with defending Turkey’s European identity. Nevertheless its assumption of power had reinforced fears of currents that are hostile to Turkey’s accession to the European Union for fear that it would export the tragedies of the Islamic East to the old continent.

There is widespread belief amongst researchers in the Turkish affair that Turkish society has already achieved a true balance between the secular identity of the state and the state’s civilization status after the failure of oppressive westernization policies that aimed to strip the country of its religious and cultural roots. In the past few years, there had been a state of reconsideration of systems and legislations of religious institutions and the teaching of Islamic curricula so as to implement it in a flexible manner in accordance with the choices of civil society. In addition, the Turkish political elite has become aware of the need to diversify its strategic options through opening up to the Islamic system, after it became clear that the project of Turkey’s accession to the European Union is obstructed by real obstacles that makes it unattainable in the near future.

The new generation of Turkish Islamists is not an extension of its predecessor. Rather, it had adopted an actual separation from the discourse of the Refah Partisi or Welfare Party that was founded by Necmettin Erbakan in the 1960s. It is known that this discourse was not far from the ideology of Arab Islamic movements, particularly the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood despite the peculiarity of the Turkish status and the need for the accommodation with a secular system. Intellectual and political discourse of the ruling Justice and Development Party contains the secular vision with ease. It leans on Islam as a cultural and valuable reference yet without building a political legitimacy upon it. According to published opinion polls, half of the female members of the party do not wear headscarves, besides that the overwhelming majority of its members do not have a basis for religious education. However, they were drawn in by the party’s social policies and successful experience in the management of municipal affairs of many major cities, including Istanbul.

Turgut Ozal, the political leader who presided over Turkey from 1989 until 1993, said, “It is now time for Turkey to break away from its holy war for the sake of imposing secularism on society in an attempt to reconcile between secularism and society. This should be done whilst taking into account all the sacrifices that this reconciliation would entitle, which is the price of political stability and civil peace.” Has this reconciliation been achieved in the era of Erdogan? And is Erdogan himself willing to play his role in this deal?