Turkey: Islamic Secularism or Secular Islam?

Feb 20, 2003

Does the election of an Islamist party in Turkey represent a challenge to the secular Turkish system? Council Fellow Ishan Dagi's take on recent political developments and their implications for U.S.-Turkey relations, EU-Turkey relations, and the human rights situation. 

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (Tony Lang & Mark Pederson): Does the election of an Islamist party in Turkey represent a challenge to the secular Turkish system? Will it lead to another military incursion to return Turkey to a secular order?

IHSAN DAGI: I don’t think the newly elected Justice and Development (AKP) Party is committed to an Islamic notion of politics or state. They take a light approach to the question of Islam and politics, even though they come from an Islamic background. They arose from the tradition established by the Virtue Party, led by Necmettin Erbakan, but they have also been challenging that tradition—by factoring in the domestic power structure, the secular nature of Turkey, and the role of the military in Turkish politics. So in the end, they are political moderates.

But the most important reason why I am not concerned about the future of secularism in Turkey is because the power base of these pro-Islamic parties is not Islamic. Within the Turkish system, vis-a-vis the army and judiciary, the power of the AKP Party lies in its popular support; so if it alienates the masses with pro-Islamic discourse, it will self-destruct. I don’t think the party will take that risk, and as long as it does not, the military should stay out of politics.

Then what makes the AKP party Islamist?

In the Turkish context, an Islamist party is one that acknowledges that Islam plays a role in the lives of most Turks. Parties do not publicly claim to be Islamist simply because in that case they would be banned by our constitutional court. In the last five years, the constitutional court has banned two political parties on the grounds that they opposed the principle of secularism. But even those two parties did not claim to be Islamic or un-secularist. So in Turkey, it is often hard to tell just what is an Islamic party and what is not.

There is a political movement in Turkey, called the Virtue Party Movement, which started as a political organization in 1969 and was heavily influenced by Turkish conceptions of Islam. You could see in their discourse that they favored close cooperation with the Islamic world. They were very critical of the West, the Western alliance, NATO, the European Union, and the United States; they were also anti-Zionist. In addition, they put special emphasis on morality and values; but unlike Islamic parties found elsewhere in the world, they were careful to use the word "national" instead of "Islamic"—which is interesting. They also thought that "modernization" in the Turkish context meant some sort of break from Islam.

A few other Islamic parties were founded in the 1970s, but most of them were closed down after the military intervened in Turkish politics in 1980. However, out of the creation of the various Islamic parties and subsequent bannings, a new political movement emerged. This movement is unique. It emerged from the tradition of having Islamic parties while also questioning the place of Islamic politics in Turkey. The AKP Party springs from this newer tradition.

The Western media attributed much of the recent electoral success of Islamic political groups around the world directly to their unhappiness with U.S. foreign policy. What role did U.S. foreign policy, and the United States in general, play in the last Turkish election? Does the new government share any of the anti-Americanism found in other Islamic movements around the world?

Though there have been anti-U.S. demonstrations within Turkey, the AKP Party was careful not to use any anti-American or anti-Western slogans in the last election. On the contrary, the party campaigned with a platform that strongly favored EU membership. They also campaigned saying they were not against the principle of globalization. They created an image that they were pro-Western, ready to cooperate with both the United States and European powers, and prepared to help the development of capitalism. So they came across as being rather open to the world at large. The United States wasn’t an issue. In this sense, the party provided a contrast to traditional Islamic political identity and discourse.

You are saying this party is pro-Western, but there must be at least a few sources of tension between Turkey and the West. How is Turkey reconciling its Islamic traditions and beliefs with Western values? Will it embrace EU requirements such as legal protections for the Kurdish people and promoting human rights?

The night they won the election, AKP Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "The party will do everything in its capacity to ensure Turkey’s membership in the European Union." Immediately afterwards, during the formation period of the new government, Erdogan visited almost every EU capital in Europe, right before the critical EU Copenhagen Summit, to lobby for Turkey's EU membership He engaged in a tremendous diplomacy effort to persuade the Europeans to give Turkey the green light for membership negotiations. So the AKP Party and the Turkish government were totally committed to EU membership from the very beginning.

The AKP Party also calls for fundamental political reforms: they claim to be for freedom of thought, the elimination of torture, tolerance of ethnic differences, and so on. Indeed, the party's platform—to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—appears to overlap with the demands of the European Union.

The new government is already meeting with some domestic resistance, which they are trying to overcome by referencing the EU membership process. They are saying: "Look, we have to do these reforms to join the EU, and they require full freedom of expression, the elimination of torture, fair trials for all, etc." They remain enthusiastic supporters of EU membership because it will help them achieve their reform agenda.

Where does the AKP Party stand on the Kurdish issue?

The Kurdish question has been framed in the context of political freedom and political rights. The AKP Party does not object to enlarging the freedom of expression for the Kurdish people or to strengthening Kurdish identity, because this can be classified as part of their initiative to broaden the freedom of expression for Islamic groups. The AKP Party would like to broaden the space for identity politics.

Many Islamists in Turkey are upset that women are not allowed to wear head scarves in a government workplace, the argument being that it would inject religion into what should be a secular environment. Where does the new government stand on this issue?

This government knows the headscarf issue is very thorny, not just for Turkey-EU relations but for the AKP Party’s relations with the nation's secular forces—in particular with the army. The AKP Party says they should be able to resolve the headscarf issue through a “social consensus,Ebut so far they haven’t taken any steps to do so. They also say they won't force the issue through the parliament, where they have an outright majority. In other words, they are being very cautious, avoiding taking a public stand.

After the election, the new government was given lots of credit for their win, even by the secular forces and the army, and I don’t think they want to expend that credit on the issue of whether or not head scarves should be banned.

As you are one of the Carnegie Council's human rights fellows, let us ask you a human rights question. Do you think progress on human rights in Turkey is a result of pressure from the EU membership process, pressure from internal groups, or both?

That is an absolutely great question. I have been writing about this issue for almost ten years, talking about how the EU international dynamics have been forcing the Turkish government to take reformist steps. In my view, the EU factor been a tremendous catalyst for change.

I did a public opinion survey last month, in which we asked that question to 3,000 people throughout Turkey. Sixty-five percent responded that the Turkish government’s reforms took place because of the EU membership process. In other words, the public at large feels the EU membership process has been contributing to the betterment of human rights in Turkey.

Likewise, the EU membership process has been strengthening civil society in Turkey. Human rights groups in Turkey now have the support of the EU and European countries, with the result that their demands are gaining legitimacy. Overall, the more Turkey is integrated into the European Union, the more human rights will improve. I have no doubt about that.

Why is Turkey supporting the United States against Iraq? And what has been the public reaction in Turkey to the split in NATO over whether to deploy forces preemptively to Turkey?

I don’t think Turkey supports the United States out of fear or hatred of Saddam Hussein, although most Turkish people wouldn’t mind seeing him go. For the most part, Turkey is very concerned that a war in Iraq could destabilize northern Iraq, and they want to be part of the decisionmaking process on what to do about post-conflict Iraq. The establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be against Turkey’s interests. So they are supporting the United States to influence what will happen in northern Iraq during and after the war.

A second reason relates to economic circumstances. Turkey has gone through several economic crises and now needs U.S. support at international financial institutions. This is a very significant reason for Turkey's support of the United States. Put simply, Turkey doesn’t want to be abandoned by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, so it needs U.S. support at those two institutions.

Now to answer your second question about NATO. I think the Turkish public was disappointed by the split in NATO. In Turkey there is a widespread sense that we did so many things for the Western allies during the Cold War—we were a front state against the Soviet Union, we contributed to NATO and to the security of Western Europe at large—so we should be paid back. Most people think that NATO should do something for Turkey.

There is particular disappointment with France and Germany, compounding the feelings the Turkish public had when France and Germany objected, during the recent EU summit, to Turkey’s starting negotiations for EU membership. These two countries were seen as being directly responsible for blocking Turkey's negotiation process with the EU, and now they are blocking its security umbrella. The upshot of all this may be a strengthening of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, and on the other hand, an estrangement between Turkey and certain European countries.

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