The political history of Turkey has been dominated from the turn of the century by one powerful figure—Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (For some reason, the “g” in his family name is not pronounced, so the name is actually “Erdohan”—my knowledge of Turkish is nil, but I have discovered that people who do speak the language certify their cultural expertise by omitting the “g”. So there.) This g-deprived individual grew up in a rough neighborhood in Istanbul. He played semi-professional football until, early on, he entered politics. In 2001 he founded the Justice and Development Party (usually known by its Turkish acronym, AKP). His political rise has been meteoric. He was elected mayor of Istanbul, served as prime minister 2003-2014, then was elected to the presidency. The AKP is generally referred to as being “moderate Islamist”. It is true that its core constituency consists of moderately observant Muslims, especially in eastern Anatolia, where the party rejects the term “Islamist”, and describes itself as “conservative democratic”. However, from early on it has pushed for a legitimate role of Islam in the public sphere, which had been previously suppressed by the militant secularism of the republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. A party spokesperson had expressed this position eloquently: “We don’t want an Islamic state. We want to be good Muslims in a secular republic.”Both great fears and great hopes were invested in the rise of the AKP, and particularly in the ideological posture of Erdogan. His religious and moral conservatism appealed to many Muslims; it frightened the Kemalist elite in the metropolitan centers, who suspected that the AKP had a secret agenda of establishing a sharia state. Erdogan reined in the power of the military and the bureaucracy, which was perceived as democratizing within the country and abroad. In the beginning, the AKP presented itself as pro-NATO (of which Turkey has long been a member), and eager to join the European Union. Its economic policies were frankly pro-capitalist, which particularly responded to the interests of a new provincial business class (half-seriously described as “Anatolian Calvinists”—shades of Max Weber!). Also, Erdogan entered into serious conversation with the Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the country, and made concessions to their demands for language rights. Steps in the direction of “Islamization” were modest, though of symbolic significance. Most visible was the lifting of the ban on kerchiefs for women in public places, the positive support for explicitly Muslim schools, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. As far as I know, the proposal to make adultery an offense under the criminal code was effectively dropped. (A big sigh of relief went through café society of Istanbul and Ankara.) As the AKP withstood some murmurs of rebellion in coup-inclined officer clubs, and its power became more entrenched, someone quipped: “We were worried that Erdogan wanted to become the Ayatollah Khomeini; we should worry that he wants to become Suleiman the Magnificent.”As the AKP continued in power, the worries deepened. Domestically, Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian, in foreign policy increasingly erratic. The government sought to intimidate critics and gain controls over the media. There were allegations of conspiracy on the part of military officers and others, leading to trials widely regarded as illegal. The government also took measures against another movement identified as “moderately Islamist”, that of a Fethulah Gülen, who had been a strong supporter of Erdogan some time ago. Gülen, who lives in exile in America, created an international network of educationally innovative schools. He was accused of plotting against Erdogan with the help of organized supporters in the bureaucracy. Journalists have been particularly targeted with legally dubious charges of subversion (it has been alleged that more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in China). It should also be mentioned that the Turkish government has continued to deny that the murders of massive numbers of Armenians during World War I constituted the crime of genocide. (In this, the AKP regime continued a tradition that goes back to the early days of the republic.) Erdogan had announced that he would seek to change the constitution by giving more power to the president (the office he now occupies); this project has been at least delayed by sharp losses of the AKP in the election of June 2015.Erdogan has also markedly changed the course of Turkish foreign policy. He has emphasized the independence of Turkey from its Western allies and muted the quest for membership in the European Union—partly, I would think, in reaction to widespread reluctance within the EU to embrace Turkish membership. In response to the so-called “Arab spring”, Erdogan has expressed an affinity with the wider Middle East, even making friendly gestures toward the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey did little to stop large numbers of would-be jihadists from Europe from going through its territory to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Erdogan ended what previously had been a close relationship with Israel and allowed a flotilla of ships to be launched from Turkey to attempt a breach of the blockade of Gaza. The Turkish crew resisted when Israeli forces tried to board and several were killed in the ensuing skirmish.All of this has led to the idea that the old quip about Erdogan wanting to restore the Ottoman Empire may not be far off the mark (though he himself has vigorously denied such an intention). In an article in The Atlantic on April 5, 2013, Cinar Kiper, a Turkish writer living in Istanbul, discussed this matter in great detail. There is indeed some evidence for such “Ottomania”: the popular TV show “Magnificent Century”, actually dealing with Suleiman the Magnificent; the film “Conquest 1453” about the capture of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed; the popularity of Ottoman fashions (including colorful kerchiefs), extending to the uniforms of flight attendants of Turkish Airlines, and perhaps most convincingly Erdogan’s building of an extravagant presidential palace of truly Ottoman splendor. Nevertheless, Kiper suggests that, rather than playing up Ottoman themes, Erdogan had best be compared with the Meiji emperor, who presided over the synthesis of tradition and modernization in Japan in the second half of the 19th century. I think a more fruitful analogy is with the Putin regime in Russia, which has very directly wrapped itself in the traditional symbolism of imperial Russia. (There actually appears to exist some personal empathy between Putin as tsar and Erdogan as sultan).It seems as if the turmoil on Turkey’s doorstep in Syria is going to have an impact on the further course of the Erdogan era. The online Religion and Geopolitics (a very useful publication of the British Tony Blair Faith Foundation), in its issue of July 23, 2015, has described the dilemma posed by Syria to Turkey’s foreign policy. Three forces are locked in a complicated battle in northern Syria: the Assad regime in Damascus (weakened but still hanging on); the self-styled caliphate of the Islamic State/IS, holding sway over a large stretch of territory straddling the by-now meaningless frontier between Syria and Iraq [I will forego here the silly convention of always referring to this nightmare regime as “IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL or Daesh”]; and the de-facto Kurdish state carved out of Iraqi territory and now spilling over into Syria. Turkey has been working hard to overthrow Assad, probably because of his links with Iran, a rival of Turkey for regional power. IS, at first seemed no direct threat to Turkey, but increasingly does. The Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq is run by two factions, one of which has a long history of violent conflict with the Turkish state. This regional government is perceived as a serious threat because of the encouragement it gives to the political aspirations of its fellow-ethnics within Turkey.Very recent events have sharpened these contradictions. On July 20, 2015, ISIS bombed Suruc, a town just inside Turkey, which reacted fiercely to this violation of its sovereignty. Turkish forces bombarded ISIS targets inside Syria (a first—until then Turkey had strictly kept away from getting directly embroiled in the Syrian quagmire). It then allowed U.S. planes to use two Turkish airbases to launch bombing raids in Syria (another first—Turkey had not given this permission before, to the extreme annoyance of the Pentagon, which had to use airbases much farther away). On July 24 Presidents Obama and Erdogan had an extended telephone conversation about security cooperation in the Middle East (I don’t know who called whom—Erdogan was on a state visit in Romania). Since then, there have been daily reports of Turkey bombing ISIS targets inside Syria, but also targeting Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, and vowing not support Kurdish forces in Syria as ISIS gets pushed back. If all the reports are true, Ankara appears to not have yet figured out just who its most dangerous enemies are! (Has the Obama administration?)What of the future? Could it be that Turkey may yet supply the key prototype for a successful synthesis of Islam and democracy?I spent quite some time writing this post (frankly, because I myself followed the trajectory of hope and disappointment in the unfolding Erdogan story). In the current volume 18 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology (a series published by the Hudson Institute) an article titled “The Prospects for Reform in Islam”, by Raza Rumi (a Pakistani scholar), gives a surprisingly optimistic picture of these prospects. The author proposes that there is a growing number of Islamic voices in different Muslim-majority countries favoring the application of ijtihad (independent reasoning) in Islamic jurisprudence. If correct, this would also affect the approach to the Quran and hadith (the body of traditions about the Prophet). It would certainly augur well for the relation between Islam and democracy (and indeed with modernity in general).Clearly this is a matter that will have to be argued out within the Muslim community. Yet if one looks for promising centers within that world, one inevitably comes to consider Turkey. Who else? Fragile Egypt, tottering between fundamentalism and military dictatorship? Iran and Saudi Arabia, hopelessly embroiled in the intellectually sterile Shi’a/Sunni conflict? Indonesia? The Muslim diaspora in the West (or in India!)? Turkey has the required intellectual class, a rich culture of popular piety, strong economic resources, and—last not least—the most effective military power in the region. (Often in history the fate of ideas, religious or other, is decided—may I say this?—by “boots on the ground”.)I may as well admit to a prejudice here. If I think of a center in Turkey, Istanbul first comes to mind—Ankara, that artificial place in the middle of nowhere, hardly ever. Hardly provincial Konya, even though it was the town of Jalaluddin Rumi, arguably the most profound Muslim mystic. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities, even though I have to imagine how it was before the various ethnic cleansings of the 20th century, of Armenians, Greeks, Sephardic Jews. This rich cosmopolitan past still hovers over what is the most beautiful boat rides in the world—on the Golden Horn, past the majestic skyline of mosques on the right, toward the Hellespont, on which one can turn right toward the Mediterranean or left toward the Black Sea. The Hellespont, that narrow waterway between Europe and Asia—a border often enough marked in blood, but also a border across which there were bridges of yearning, as when Leander yearned for Hero (the infinitely desired priestess of Aphrodite). I must stop myself before I become lyrical. But having come that far in disclosure of prejudice, I may as well turn back for a moment to one of these monumental edifices on the Golden Horn, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, in which some years ago I found myself alone in that vast empty space (and had one of my few experiences of tangible transcendence).
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Published on: July 29, 2015
Islam and DemocracyIs Turkey the Key?
Despite recent authoritarian backsliding, could Turkey supply the prototype for a successful synthesis of Islam and democracy?