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Turkey: Avoiding a Lame Democracy! - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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When there is disagreement with a certain intellectual trend or a particular political movement, whatever the orientation heralded by this trend or that movement, such disagreement does not mean the elimination and exclusion of the party that is differed with. At least this is what the situation should be – if we were referring to a democracy that is not crippled, or to real liberalism – or even to secularism that is founded upon a sound basis.

The truly liberal attitude is expressed in the famous words of Francois Voltaire to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which he said: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.”

Without such liberalism that equates between all parties in their right to have their own opinions, beliefs and thought, there can be no real democracy – even if voting ballots were readily available and the contending parties were all present. All this means nothing if freedom, which is the essence of liberalism, were absent.

Freedom of the press and transparency in the relationship between the ruler and the governed, as well as the freedom to establish and form political parties and syndicates, freedom of self-expression, whatever the opinion one holds, are nothing but the institutionalization of liberal values – which is the basis of all democracies.

Secularism would be meaningless in the absence of liberal values, and in this case, true democracy would not exist. Secularism ultimately means the separation of religious institutions (not religion itself) from politics, so that politics becomes the art of shaping the world. We are more knowledgeable about our mundane affairs while the religious institutions should be entitled with matters other than these worldly affairs. This does not mean, however, that people affiliated to religious institutions (whether a sheikh, knowledge seeker, priest, rabbi or ascetic) cannot exercise politics – in fact they have every right to do so. However exercising that right must be as a citizen among citizens rather than someone who possesses an absolute truth that all others must heed or else they will be doomed. Within this context, I am reminded of another of Voltaire’s statements in which he said, “A man who tells me today: believe in what I believe or God will punish you, will tell me tomorrow: Believe in what I believe or I will kill you.”

The occasion for this discussion is the events taking place in Turkey today and the political crisis that ensued after Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül was nominated for the presidency of the republic, and the implicit threat that the military establishment could intervene as its duty, in accordance with the Turkish constitution, to protect Turkish secularism and Kamal Ataturk’s legacy.

This crisis should not have risen in a republic where its constitution states upon secularism and democracy. Democracy, as mentioned above, does not stand on one leg and while secularism separates between the religious institution and the political one, it cannot prevent those affiliated to the religious institution, or those who have certain religious tendencies, from practicing politics as citizens who have the right to do so. But when such a person, group or party starts imposing their religious beliefs on the rest of the society and the state the moment that they take hold of the government or assume supreme positions in the state, then it would be a violation of the constitution and the liberal values that constitute the infrastructure of democracy and secularism altogether.

In such a case, their legitimacy is terminated and it becomes inevitable for intervention to take place, in accordance with the constitutional grounds to which all parties are subject. This did not happen in Turkey. Despite the Justice and Development party’s Islamic inclinations (ideologized Islam), it has always stressed upon respecting the constitution and secularism – which constitutes the legitimacy of the modern Turkish state.

The truth is that Turkey’s Islamic political experience is completely different from those in the Arab world specifically, and Muslim countries in general, in terms of accepting the other and emphasizing the fact that the state is comprised of all its citizens regardless of their beliefs and orientations (religion is a relationship between man and God but homeland is for all citizens). This is similar to Christian political parties in Europe, which herald their values and concepts, yet without underestimating the values and outlooks of others and without any denial of the secular foundation of the state, which forms its source of legitimacy and without which this legitimacy would no longer be valid.

When true democracy is put into actual practice, there is no fear of a reversal of the situation. Democracy means the rotation of the elite, which means that there are periodical elections after specified time periods in which the citizens can change the situation if they are not convinced by the selected authority’s performance.

However, if the situation is like that of Arab countries in particular where democracy merely becomes a tool to acquiesce power, then the core of democracy is annihilated and the situation becomes completely different. Whoever enters the political game, must accept the rules of the game, or else they are not eligible to participate. When Arab Islamists make a proposal like such, they are not eligible to participate in the democratic game which they do not acknowledge. And yet the situation is not the same in the Turkish experience – let us cite an example in this regard.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the great supporters of Turkey’s accession to the European Union and one of the people who are very keen on overcoming all the obstacles that stand in the way of this process. He belongs to the Justice and Development party, which has religious orientations. Yet, he does not practice politics from a religious perspective inasmuch as he practices it from a practical and realistic perspective – which is the art of the possible and the pursuit of national interest.

Turkey’s affiliation to the West and the dissolution of the historic bonds with the East entails many benefits for Turkey – regardless of any ideological or emotional talk to placate the wounded parties, which does not satiate the hungry or appease the unemployed. Islamists, of the Arab world in particular, are interested in the wounded entity which can only be mitigated with the return of the past; the Caliphate, the turbans and the imamate, and mainly for religious reasons that have nothing to do with bread or freedom of speech.

The Islamists of Turkey, represented in the Justice and Development Party, have nothing to do with Caliphate system, Imamate or turbans; they look westwards and they believe in all the concepts of politics being the art of giving and receiving, just like other Christian European and American parties, and even the European Communist parties (Universalism combines between Islamism and communism), which had abandoned the values of totalitarianism and truly embraced liberal values even before the fall of the Soviet Union.

I believe that the Turkish Islamic experience is a pioneering one in an Islamic world that lies perplexed between a past that it cannot return to and a modern elusive world. Why shouldn’t they be given the chance to see what might happen? The Turkish military institution, as the protector of the constitution, has the right to intervene if there are practices that violate secularism. However, so long as no violations have been made, I believe it is wrong and an abuse of the fundamentals of democracy in and of itself.

Some believe that a ‘pre-emptive’ move is necessary to prevent what happened when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party won the elections in Germany in 1933 from ever happening again. However this was a completely different situation that had different circumstances. The Weimer Republic was weak to the point where it became an easy target. There were only the Nazis and the Communists, and the Nazis were the fastest in undermining the foundations of an empty republic.

As for the Turkish case; the situation is quite different, secularism was institutionalized in a way that would be difficult to break away from. Personally I do not agree with the Islamists in their political ideology, but that does not mean I would deny them the right to exist or to exercise freedom of opinion and practice – as long as it does not exclude or eliminate others.

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad is a distinguished Saudi Arabian political analyst, journalist and novelist. Mr. Al-Hamad was educated in Saudi Arabia and the United States, where he obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California, later returning to Riyadh to teach political science. He retired in 1995 to take up writing full time.

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