Posts in English

'Erdoğan, Turkey, Muslim!'

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments] Last week, Turkey’s visionary foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, visited Benghazi, the stronghold of the Libyan opposition. Crowds were waiting for him at Tahrir Square, which was quite very reminiscent of its more famous namesake in Cairo. When Davutoğlu merged into the crowd with a smile and a hand in the air, he was welcomed with two interesting slogans. “Thank you, Turkey,” people began to chant, adding, “Erdoğan, Turkey, Muslim!” This is just one of the many signals of the new identity that the New Turkey of the 21st century represents. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Turkey now looks more Muslim than it ever did in the last three quarters of the 20th century. Moreover, it presents a success story based on democratic rule, economic growth, and self-confident foreign policy. Therefore, it looks more and more appealing to other nations of the Muslim world. R.I.P. Secularism? For some, the emergence of this “more Muslim” Turkey is a dangerous retreat from the “progressive” secularism that the country was subjected to since the days of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. For others, including me, it is a “normalization” process, for Turkey’s self-styled secularism was already too excessive. No wonder it was imposed by the barrel of a gun. So, pushing secularism back to where it belongs (to the state), and allowing the religious aspirations of the society to manifest themselves, including in politics, is a part of Turkey’s necessary and ongoing democratization. In that sense, the “Muslimness” of Turkish foreign policy should be seen as a bit like the “Judeo-Christianness” of American foreign policy. Both countries have secular states, but also deeply religious societies who see the world partly through religious lenses and expect their governments to do the same. In America, this means a strong alliance with Israel, not only because of pragmatic reasons, but also because of the “Christian Zionism” that echoes in many American churches. In Turkey, the equivalent of that popular sentiment is the feeling of solidarity with Muslim Palestinians and their aspirations for a sovereign state. In other words, the new visibility of Turkey’s Muslim identity is only normal. Moreover, it is very helpful as well, especially for the rest of the Muslim world. To see the latter point, one has to see the negative impact of Old Turkey in the same world: The excessive secularism of Kemalist Turkey gave a bad name to modernization and created the wrong impression that Muslims have to make a choice between their faith and modernity. That black-and-white picture was one of the key root causes of the rise of Islamism. The middle way In Iran, for example, Reza Shah, who was a big fan of Atatürk, went even more extreme in the latter’s idea of state-enforced modernization. In the 1930s he banned the veiling all women, ordered his police to patrol the streets to tear the veils off, and executed the ayatollahs who protested the regime’s measures. As a response, the first modern Islamist terrorist movement, the Fadayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam), was born, and it began assassinating the Shah’s men. Secular tyranny had created its Islamic mirror image. The Muslim Middle East has seen various examples of this vicious cycle between these two extremes – secular dictators versus radicalizing Muslims. The would-be middle way, a democracy which would welcome the aspirations of the Islamic pious, was squeezed out. What is invaluable about the New Turkey is that it represents that much-needed middle way. Finally, I should say that none of this is flattery to the AKP. It is actually more of a reminder and even a warning. Since their self-declared mission to democratize Turkey is so crucial, they should be very careful to realize it in full. First, they should resist the corrupting effects of power, and stick to modesty rather than hubris. Secondly, they should strive for a truly liberal democracy, in which not the Islamic pious but also secular citizens, Alevis, and religious minorities are also protected and elevated. Only then will the New Turkey be truly admirable.
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