Islam, Secularism, and the Turkish Presidential Elections

Shireen Hunter

For decades, the West has held Turkey to Muslim countries as an example to be followed, largely because of its success in establishing a secular social and political system. Indeed, there is much in Turkey’s experience in building a multi-party democracy and modern economy that can benefit other Muslim states as they try to build lasting political institutions and advance economically.

Until recently, however -- to be exact, until the last Turkish presidential elections, which after a period of tension between the Parliament on the one hand and the incumbent president and the military on the other which after three rounds of inconclusive voting brought to power Abdullah Gul of the Justice and Development Party (Idalat Va Kalkinma Partisi)as Turkey’s first president with an Islamist background, there were aspects of Turkish experience less worthy of emulation. One of these aspects was the overwhelming influence of the military, which saw itself as the guardian of Turkish statehood and its secular system, and which frequently interfered in the normal functioning of Turkish democracy. Another aspect was the dogmatic and ideological definition of secularism.

The consequence of this situation was that a considerable segment of Turkey’s population which had remained loyal to their religious beliefs, especially the religious women, was discriminated against in matters of education and employment. For example, Turkish women wearing the Islamic head cover are still banned from attending university or appearing in government offices and official functions. Moreover, in the last two decades, the Turkish secular elite also tended to use the secularist ideology to retard the advancement of the new and more religiously-oriented economic and political elite that was emerging.

Meanwhile, despite their participation in politics and even in coalition governments with secular parties, Turkey’s Islamist parties were not totally committed to the secular character of the state and society and harbored hopes of establishing an Islamic state. This ambivalence on the part of Islamist parties was one reason why, before the emergence of Justice and Development Party (JDP) from the ashes of the Virtue ( Fazilat ) which itself was a successor to the Welfare (Refah) party never garnered more than twenty per cent of the votes in any national elections. This inability to obtain an absolute majority in the parliament had meant that Islamists could no form an independent government although they did take part in coalition governments once as the senior partner. 
The emergence of the JDP, its catapulting to the position of ruling party and now to the presidency demonstrate both the maturing of Turkey’s Islamists and its democracy. Turkey’s Islamist have realized that they can best participate in politics and contribute to the welfare of their country and their fellow citizens within a democratic and secular system which respected the rights of all its citizens. They have also realized that Turkey’s interests are best served by a policy of integration in the global economic and political system, hence their unrelenting efforts to ease Turkey’s passage into the European Union.

Meanwhile, most Turks, while remaining loyal to the country’s secular system, have come to resent the excessive role of the military in politics and the abuse of secularism in order to serve the interests of traditional economic and political elites and to both prevent the advance of the new and more religiously oriented economic and political elites and restrict freedom of choice, including in matters of religious attire.

The victory of the JDP in the Turkish parliamentary elections in June and the election of Abdullah Gül as president in August 2007, despite strong resistance from secularist diehards and the military, testify to this new mood of the Turkish electorate. Even the Turkish military seems to have understood this new mood, as evidenced by the visit of the head of the Turkish General Staff to the presidential palace of Caikana, after having been absent from the inaugural ceremony.

Turkey’s recent experience is thus a giant step toward the establishment of true democracy in an Islamic state, within the context of a non-dogmatic secular system. This is indeed worthy of emulation by other Muslim countries’ Islamists and secularists alike. Already, a number of commentators in other Muslim countries have noted Turkey’s experience and compared their own systems and those of their neighbors unfavorably with that of Turkey. In Iran, for example, the reformist Ayatullah Abtahi compared Turkey with Iran and Pakistan, concluding that a democratic system within which everyone enjoyed equal rights of citizenship and where governments came and went through proper elections was the most conducive to stability and progress. And in Lebanon, Sheikh Fadlullah the prominent Shi’a religious leader praised the Turkish experience and argued that it showed that Islam and democracy can be reconciled.

Admittedly, Turkey’s history, especially its modern drive to become part of Europe, along with its special position astride Europe and Asia, have played important roles in its current position. Many other Muslim states lack these advantages. Turkey’s experience, however, shows that neither militant or utopian Islamism, nor what the Iranian reformist thinker Abdulkarim Soroush recently called “Militant Secularism,” will provide the right basis for an effective and stable political system in the Muslim world. Instead, the answers lies in an inclusive democracy, within which the market place of ideas and unhindered and fair competition, rather than either religious or secular dogmatism or military tutelage determines the outcome of politics and sets the rules of governance.

Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.