The decisive victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the July parliamentary elections, followed by the selection of Abdullah Gul as the next president despite harsh objections by the country’s powerful military leadership and hard-core supporters of the secularist ideology established by Kemal Ataturk, represents a new phase in the history of modern Turkey. Those opposed to these developments claim that Turkey is drifting dangerously toward Islamist rule. They insist that the government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan is following a secret agenda, disguising its true intentions behind a smokescreen of disingenuous endorsements of Turkey’s secular tradition.
I share the contrary view, expressed by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband during a recent state visit to Ankara. “Turkey grew stronger in the eyes of the world,” he said. Miliband was referring not only to the orderly democratic elections but to the military’s willingness to accept a political outcome contrary to its wishes. Its acquiescence was undoubtedly helped by Gul’s inaugural speech, which stressed his commitment to secularism as well as his announced intention to respect the traditions of the presidential palace, which means his wife will be excluded from official ceremonies because she wears a headscarf. As a bright young Turkish journalist, Mustafa Akyol, observed, Gul’s presidency “signals not an ‘end to secularism’… but a bolstering of our democracy.” Gul’s recently announced support for repeal of Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, used to prosecute writers and journalists for “insulting Turkishness,” is a further encouraging straw in the wind.
This smooth transition to unchallenged AKP leadership was greatly aided by the support of the business community, as well as by the party’s grassroots popularity. Clearly, voters were not convinced by the military’s pre-election warnings. Public support stemmed from two achievements during the first phase of the Erdogan leadership: the success of market-friendly reforms in achieving high economic growth rates and Turkish successes in the world economy of a sort that had eluded prior governments; and a government outlook that was comparatively free from corruption and was seen to be genuinely committed to addressing the concerns of the poor, who make up a large percentage of the citizenry. It is a rare achievement in any country for a government to please its business and financial community and also to win over the poor. This double achievement goes a long way toward explaining the AKP’s electoral vindication and the passivity of the army and embittered secularists, whose traditional power seems to be slipping away. Put differently, if the economy had been stagnant, the business leadership restive and the grassroots disappointed, then the election results would likely have been far less supportive of the AKP, and the military would not have been nearly as likely to accept AKP initiatives of which it disapproved.
In many respects the political struggle is misperceived as one of secularism versus religion. This misperception was illustrated by a pre-election cover of Time portraying a young woman wearing a headscarf, which supposedly expressed what was at stake in the elections. A more accurate understanding would have regarded the elections as a clash between two kinds of secularism and two kinds of democracy. The AKP offers Turkey more inclusion for major groups previously neglected, oppressed or victimized by discrimination: the religiously observant, the poor and minorities (especially the Kurds).
This greater inclusiveness is also consistent with the AKP’s effort to gain Turkish membership in the European Union. Those who suspect the motives of the AKP claim that this widening of democracy is just window-dressing to win approval at home or a clever way of keeping the army in the barracks because of the European pressures on Turkey to demonstrate that the control of its government is finally now firmly in the hands of the elected civilian leadership. Such skepticism seems unfounded in view of the consistency with which the AKP has pursued these goals, as well as its pragmatic style. The party seems well aware of the dangers of pushing too hard against the red lines of secularism as guarded by the military. The military may have allowed the election results, but it has not at all relinquished its self-proclaimed role as guarantor of Kemal Ataturk’s conception of government.
Many in Turkey worry that the military, eager to demonstrate its continued hold on power, will stage dangerously disruptive cross-border operations against the country’s Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq, and that the AKP government, whatever its views, would be supportive. Indeed, this month Prime Minister Erdogan announced that he would submit plans to Parliament authorizing an invasion.
The religious card is also being played by the old secular elite in a somewhat desperate effort to reverse their displacement. There are some genuine fears on the part of modern sectors of Turkish society, who worry that their freedoms are being compromised by a social climate so supportive of Islam. In more sophisticated circles, this is really a fear of what might be called “societal Islam” rather than “political Islam.” The difference here is important, although difficult to pin down. Societal Islam refers to societal practices, including the increasing number of young women wearing headscarves, as well as to the establishment of hotels and restaurants that cater to patrons who adhere to strict Islamic rules prohibiting alcohol and unclothed bathing. I heard many secular friends in Istanbul, who were not particularly political, complain that this made them uncomfortable.
Such concerns are not unwarranted, but to address them through regulations would be impractical, and it would go against any reasonable interpretation of freedom of religion. It also overlooks the far greater degree to which the religiously observant have borne the burdens of the exclusivist, almost militant secularism that dominated Turkey for so long. This discomfort includes outright discrimination that has prevented women wearing headscarves from enjoying the benefits of public education or pursuing a variety of careers. But it has also involved bias of the sort that makes those wearing headscarves feel unwelcome in many public spaces and at cultural events. The most extreme secular objectors to societal Islam are quite prepared to sacrifice democracy, if necessary, to re-establish the social atmosphere that existed in pre-AKP Turkey.
Not surprisingly, those threatened by societal Islam are also fearful of political Islam. Such opponents of the AKP, found especially among supporters of the old, nominally socialist Republican People’s Party, seem to believe that the Erdogan/Gul leadership intends at an opportune moment to introduce Sharia law and move Turkey toward the sort of theocratic state that exists in Iran, or at least in the direction of Malaysia, where the state is intolerant toward nonobservant Muslims, punishing failures to fast during Ramadan and denying Muslims access to Malaysian casinos. These critics distrust everything about the AKP, contending that its commitment to democracy is purely tactical, nothing more than “a bus we can ride until we reach our station.” In my view these anxieties border on paranoia, but they also reflect a rather cynical effort by displaced secularists to scare the masses and pave the way for a return to power by nondemocratic means. The AKP leadership is too moderate and realistic to embrace political Islam, although among the party faithful, a small minority undoubtedly favor such goals.
There are good reasons to view Turkey as one of the bright spots on the horizon of Middle East politics. Yet it would be a mistake to minimize its problems. Turkish society is harmed by cleavages between the old secular establishment and the new AKP elite, leading to misunderstandings and deep distrust. It will be important to build social bridges as well as governmental links to produce sustainable democracy. Beyond this, relations with the Kurdish minority, some 20 percent of a population of more than 70 million, raise questions about the scope of Turkish democracy. The AKP has done better than its predecessors in giving hope to moderate Kurdish aspirations, but the party must still find a path to sufficient autonomy, so Kurds do not feel victimized and dependent on a secessionist solution.
On an international level, neither the Turkish government nor the people seem ready to tackle the Armenian problem in a constructive spirit. Decades of educational brainwashing have left all sectors of Turkish society extremely defensive about facing up to the genocide against Armenians carried out during World War I; for the rather substantial far right, the refusal to admit responsibility is a life-or-death issue. Also the long-simmering dispute over the governance of Cyprus is seemingly intractable and obstructs Turkey’s efforts to join the EU. Here, though, the Turkish side has done its best to resolve the conflict. Ankara and Turkish Cyprus agreed to accept the very balanced Annan Plan developed under UN auspices, but it was rejected by the Greek side.
A big challenge and opportunity for the AKP is building a consensus in support of a more liberal Constitution. Turkey continues to operate under the 1982 Constitution imposed on the country by the military, which is definitely inconsistent with the ideals of a modern liberal democracy, especially insofar as the military is explicitly given extraordinary privileges, including exemptions from legal accountability. Encouragingly, a draft of a more progressive Constitution has been prepared under the direction of an academic commission headed by an internationally respected expert, Ergun Ozbudun.
There are some dark clouds hovering over Turkey’s future, but there are also bright patches of sky. If Turkey can continue to maintain a robust economy and reduce the plight of the poor, it will likely enjoy a period of stability and emerge as a positive, and possibly inspirational, example of a secular democracy sinking its roots deep into an Islamic society. But it is highly implausible that Turkey will serve as a model of moderate Islamic governance. This will not happen, because the AKP is genuinely secular, although in a post-Kemalist spirit, and anyway the military would intervene long before any government in Ankara were to embody an Islamic identity. There are other uncertainties, including the continuing struggle with the Kurdish guerrillas, strategic relations with the United States and Israel and the backlash that might follow from an EU rejection of the Turkish application for membership. Despite this array of potential problems, there is a fair chance that Turkey will turn out to be the only success story in the region, with respect to democracy, human rights and economic development. This favorable outlook would be enhanced by encouragement from Washington and the EU. These developments in Turkey deserve our attention, both for their promise and their possible peril.