Secular Jihad in Turkey
Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2008
ISTANBUL:Who would you expect to be zealous enemies of "moderate Islam"? Islamic fundamentalists? You bet. From Osama bin Laden & Co. to less violent but equally fanatic groups, Islamist militants abhor their co-religionists who reject tyranny and violence in the name of God. But they are not alone. In this part of the world, there is another group that holds a totally opposite worldview but shares a similar hatred of moderate Islam: Turkey's secular fundamentalists.
This secular hatred comes, most recently, in the form of a stunning attempt by judicial means to shut down the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ban its top 71 members, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from politics for five years. Even President Abdullah Gül, a former AKP minister, is on the to-ban list of the country's chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, who submitted his indictment to the Constitutional Court in Ankara on March 14. The court is expected to decide this week whether to take up the case.
It is, needless to say, the first time that a ruling party, which won 47% of the vote less than a year ago, is threatened with judicial extermination. In the past, pro-Kurdish parties have been closed down due to their links with the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Yet the AKP is under threat simply because of its political views. It's a judicial version of the military coup d'etats that Turkey has experienced four times in the past half century.
Yet what are those political views of the AKP which, according to the chief prosecutor, require its banning? The 53,000-word indictment gives a clear answer: The AKP folks are too religious, they speak about God and religion in the public square, and they want more religious freedom.
The major "crime" of the AKP that is emphasized in the indictment, and which provoked the whole process, is the recent constitutional amendment that opened the way for female students to wear Islamic head scarves in Turkish universities. This ban was enacted in 1989 by a Constitutional Court decision. Since then thousands of young girls have been forced to choose between their beliefs and a university education. Some have gone to European or American colleges. Others have tried to wear wigs on top of their scarves in order to enter Turkish campuses.
The indictment also presents lengthy quotes from Prime Minister Erdogan that demonstrate his "antisecular views and activities." These include his remarks in June 2005 to CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "My daughters can go to American universities with their head scarf. There is religious freedom in your country, and we want to bring the same thing to Turkey." In another "criminal" statement, made in London in September 2005, Mr. Erdogan said, "my dream is a Turkey in which veiled and unveiled girls will go to the campus hand in hand." During a February 2005 interview with Germany's Welt am Sonntag, his "crime" was to note, "We Turks prefer the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism to the French one" -- for the former grants more religious freedom to its citizens. For the chief prosecutor, these all prove that Mr. Erdogan and his party aim to dilute and then overthrow secularism.
Actually there is some truth to this claim, because Turkey's official secularism is fiercely illiberal and shows limited respect for religious freedom. Any religious expression or symbol in the public square is considered an infringement of secular principles. For Ankara's old guard, the public square should be dominated by what former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer proudly defined as "the state ideology."
According to Princeton historian Sükrü Hanioglu, this ideology is rooted in the "vulgar materialism" of late 19th-century Germany, which heralded a postreligious age of "science and reason." This philosophy, which was emulated by some of the Young Turks and inherited by most of their Kemalist successors, has been openly endorsed by the Constitutional Court. "The secularism principle," Turkey's top judicial body argued in a 1989 decision, "requires that the society should be kept away from thoughts and judgments that are not based on science and reason."
A similar secular fundamentalism is propagated in the West by popular thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens -- but there it is one of many competing ideas. In Turkey secular fundamentalism is the official ideology, and it is eager to crush any alternative.
Besides their ideology, Turkish secularists also use a seemingly realist argument. If religion is given even a little bit of space in public, they argue, it will soon dominate the whole system. This doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance guides, and misleads, Ankara's establishment on virtually every issue. If we allow the Kurds to speak in their mother tongue, the establishment has argued for seven decades, we will have a Kurdish problem. But today they have a much bigger problem precisely because they have suppressed the Kurdish language and culture. Despite their presumptions, it is repression, not freedom, that feeds political radicalism.
Turkish secularists also portray the AKP as part of the radical Islamist movement. For them, there is no difference between the Gucci-wearing, head-scarved woman in Istanbul who wants to study business and the chador-wearing woman in Tehran who cries, "Death to capitalism!"
But the Muslim-democrat AKP is quite different from the Islamists of the Middle East. That's simply because Turkish Islam is a unique interpretation of the global faith. Since the Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, Turkey's observant Muslims have been widely favorable toward democracy. And since the 1980s, thanks to their engagement in globalization and capitalism, they have become much more Western-oriented than much of the secular elite. That's why the secularists constantly accuse the AKP and the supporting "Muslim bourgeoisie" of serving "American imperialism" and "Zionism." The same paranoia is reflected in the chief prosecutor's indictment. In it he notes, apparently in all seriousness, that Colin Powell and other U.S. officials have praised "moderate Islam," and he connects Prime Minister Erdogan to "the American Broader Middle East Project which aims at ruling countries via moderate Islamic regimes."
The U.S. should indeed encourage Turkey not to enact a "moderate Islamic regime" -- a project that exists only in the fantasies of Turkish secularists -- but to achieve a real democracy in which the sovereignty of the people overrides the ideology of its bureaucrats and army officers. What the latter threatens these days is not only the most popular and successful political party of Turkey, but also this country's democracy.
Mr. Akyol is deputy editor of Turkish Daily News.