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Turkey’s Illiberal Seculars

[Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, also available in Albanian] Sunday’s general elections in Turkey were seen by some commentators as the vote that would shape the upcoming decades of this overwhelmingly Muslim and yet resolutely secular republic. While it was widely expected that the incumbent Justice and Development Party, also known by its Turkish initials as AKP, would come out as the strongest party, very few predicted the extent of its victory. The AKP gained 46.6% of the votes and 340 seats in a parliament of 550--an astounding electoral triumph that has many implications for Turkey and even the broader Islamic world. Although the AKP has been in power since 2002 and has carried out a very successful program of political and economic liberalism--in the classic sense--Turkey’s staunchly secular establishment never fully trusted the party that had started as a liberal offshoot of a more radical Muslim thinking. Thus while the AKP leaders defined themselves as “conservatives,” Turkey’s secularists continue calling them “Islamist,” a label designed to tarnish their image, at home and abroad, as some Taliban-style Muslim totalitarians. Therefore the political battle in Turkey, which reached its tipping point when Turkish generals issued a harsh “secularism memorandum” on the night of April 27, has commonly been defined as a power struggle between “Islamists” and “secularists.” And for the uninitiated foreigner, it was easy to presume that the former is bigoted and xenophobic, and the latter is open-minded and pro-Western. Yet the true picture is exactly the opposite. While the AKP is a strong proponent of free markets, civil liberties and Turkey’s European Union bid, the secularist opposition, led by the People’s Republican Party, rejects all these objectives. The secularists actually think that most of the liberal reforms the AKP has spearheaded during the EU process are in fact part of a plot cooked up by Western “imperialists” designed to dilute Turkey’s national sovereignty. A series of recent bestsellers by a die-hard secular conspiracy theorist, Ergun Poyraz, is a good indicator of this zeitgeist. His “investigative” books paranoidly argue that the AKP leaders--and their headscarved wives--are in fact crypto-Jews who collaborate with the “Elders of Zion” to destroy Turkey’s secular system. The correct way of interpreting Turkey’s power struggle would be in fact to define it as a conflict between liberal Muslims and illiberal secularists. The mindset of the latter camp is shaped by a very rigid and outmoded ideology, which is known as “Kemalism.” The term comes from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the hero of Turkey’s war of liberation, and the founder of the modern-day Turkish republic. Although Atatürk was undoubtedly a great leader, he never claimed to be a political theorist. And yet that’s precisely what his followers ascribed to him. After his death, a cult of personality was created around this “Supreme Leader,” and his policies were turned into everlasting principles. One such principle is “statism,” which dictates that the economy should be managed by the state. That’s why most contemporary Kemalists fiercely oppose privatization and foreign direct investment. Turkey’s much debated principle of secularism--which, unlike the First Amendment in the U.S., leaves very little room for religious freedom-- is another sacred pillar of Kemalism that reflects the mood of the early 20th century. At the time, most European thinkers believed that religion is an irrational myth that must be replaced by science during the course of modernization. Hence Kemalists not only want to keep religion out of the state--a principle that the AKP accepts--but out of society altogether. Today many philosophers and social scientists argue that modernity and religiosity are compatible, but the Kemalists neither know of nor care about such novel ideas. For them, all the basic truths that the Turks require have already been decreed by Mustafa Kemal. All the nation needs to do is to safeguard this transmitted wisdom. While the Kemalists have frozen themselves in this unholy scholasticism, Turkey’s more devout Muslims, who have been regarded for decades as the underclass, have caught up with, and even outdone, the secularist nomenclature in terms of modernization. They much better understand and integrate into the globalized world. Additionally, the more they realized that free countries such as the U.S. or Britain give their Muslim citizens all the religious freedom that is absent in Turkey, the more they appreciated Western style democracy. That’s why Turkey’s flourishing Muslim bourgeoisie and the rising Muslim intelligentsia have become defenders of democracy and liberalism. Kemalists oppose both, and, in return, praise “the Republic,” which has become a euphemism for secularist oligarchy. The main argument of the secularist camp is that AKP leaders are Islamic-oriented, and when Islam influences politics in any form, it becomes a tyrannical force. While it is certainly true that the synthesis of Islam and totalitarianism--a lethal blend that has created Al Qaeda and its ilk--is horrific, the synthesis of Islamic values with liberal democracy might well be a blessing. Perhaps that’s why the AKP’s policies on the Kurds is much more tolerant and generous: While the Kemalists still wish to turkify all Kurds--an 80-year-old policy which derives from the cult of Turkishness, the secular alternative to Islam--Mr. Erdoğan’s party respects Kurdish identity and refers to the common Ottoman past of the Turks and the Kurds. No wonder that in Sunday’s elections, the AKP won a great victory in Kurdish cities, and gained more votes than the Kurdish nationalists who ran as independent candidates. Interestingly, when compared to the Kemalists, the AKP is much more tolerant to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, too. That’s why some prominent Turkish Christians, including the Armenian Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan, declared their sympathy for the ruling party before the elections. Once again, the values of the Ottoman/Islamic tradition, which represents the peaceful co-existence of the three monotheistic faiths, seem to be more pluralistic than the Kemalist principles that require a strictly homogeneous nation. In short, the AKP’s election victory is good news for all those who wish a more open and democratic Turkey. It might also be a source of inspiration for other Muslim nations. They have been suppressed throughout the 20th century by either secular autocrats or Islamist tyrannies. Now the AKP proves that a political movement led by devout Muslims can embrace capitalism, democracy and secularity. That’s precisely the example that the Muslim world needs to see.
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