Turkish Elections: Important Reminders about Secularism, Democracy, and Islam

John O. Voll

The July national elections in Turkey should serve as a reminder that some influential stereotypes about “Islamically-oriented” movements are problematic if not directly wrong. The election results continue to confirm that a number of important items in what is thought of as “common knowledge” about Islamic movements among American policy gurus are incorrect.

One problem posed by the Turkish elections is that the winning party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP; Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), does not fit into the Western stereotypes about political parties that might be described as “Islamically oriented.” The competition in Turkey has been between an “Islamically oriented” political movement and the old Turkish political elite who might be thought of as reformist “fundamentalists,” supporting old-style programs of “Westernization” and secularism. The leading representatives of this old-style Westernizing secularist approach are the military commanders and the leaders of the old party of Ataturk, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP; Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi).

People in the United States normally assume that the advocates of old-style programs of Westernization and secularism are the strongest supporters of democracy in the Islamic world. However, in Turkey, a major threat to democracy comes from the Westernizing-secularist military, who maintain that if democracy appears to threaten Turkish secularism, the military has the responsibility to suspend and circumvent democracy in order to maintain secularism. The Turkish election campaign is the reminder that old-style secularists are not necessarily supporters of democracy. Modernizing military dictators actively have worked to separate religious groups from political processes because democracy might threaten their vision of secular society. While the Turkish military leadership is clearly not at all similar to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it is worth remembering that Saddam’s authoritarian regime was thoroughly secularist in its emphasis on keeping religious movements from being involved in politics.

In Turkey, the contest has NOT been between advocates of theocracy and advocates of democracy. The real political contest involves an issue that is important in American politics as well. An important and fundamental issue involves the understanding of what “secularism” itself really is. Both the AKP and the CHP maintain that they are supporting a secularist political system, but there is a basic difference in defining what “secularism” really involves. The “bottom line” question is whether or not someone can both be a firm public practitioner of a religious tradition and, at the same time, be an authentic supporter of a secular political system in which religious institutions are kept separate from state structures. This issue is addressed in the American Constitution. In the United States, the separation of Church and State, as defined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, guarantees both this separation and also the exercise of religious practice free from restrictions by the State. The First Amendment (and “secularism”) assumes that people can be both believers and secularists. In Turkey, the election results affirm that most Turks also accept this affirmation: that a person can be both a believer and a secularist.

Increasingly in recent years, “secularism” has come to be identified with non-belief or agnosticism. This makes it difficult to understand positions like those taken by the AKP in Turkey in which “believers” affirm the importance of the separation of religious institutions from the State. In North America, early advocates of the separation of Church and State – what might be called “institutional secularism” – were frequently strong religious believers. The common current assumption that “secularists” are non-believers or agnostics is recent, even in the United States. This assumption creates problems for people trying to understand Turkish politics, especially in recent years. Most Turks, whether supporters of the AKP or groups opposed to the AKP, identify themselves as Muslims and affirm that it is possible to be both a secularist and a believer.

The basic problem comes with the question: do the AKP leaders and supporters “really” mean what they say? Are they simply participating in the democratic process in order to gain control of the state and, once in control, impose a “fundamentalist” Islamic regime in Turkey? One common slogan is that Islamist parties support a democratic platform that involves “one man, one vote, one time.” In Turkey, it has been the Westernizing-secularists, not the Islamists, who have been willing to bring an end to democratic processes in order to impose their particular version of secularism on Turkish politics. It was the threat of a secularist military intervention in politics that forced the early elections in Turkey.

The AKP, in other words, does not fit into conventional Western patterns of what an “Islamically-oriented” political party is. The AKP represents Turks who support the tradition of Kemalist secularism but also affirm that “secularism” means that the state should not impose restrictions on religious practices of the citizens. In terms of political traditions of the United States, the July elections in Turkey might be viewed as an affirmations of both parts of the “secularism” of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitutions – not only is it necessary to keep the institutions of religion and state separate but it is also necessary to keep the state from restricting the free exercise of religious faith by activities like wearing religiously identifiable clothing in public spaces.

John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.