As reported in The New York Times on November 1, 2013, a rather dramatic scene occurred in the Turkish parliament in Ankara on the day before. Four female members of the parliament took their seats wearing Muslim head scarfs. Mind you, this is the most moderate form of this type of religiously mandated garb; it only covers the hair, leaving the face open. Nevertheless, its appearance in this place is a very visible sign of a big change in Turkish public life.
It comes after about a decade of government by the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP), which has repealed the ban on the public display of all sartorial symbols of Islam enforced under the secularist regime established in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk for both women and men (no turban, no fez…). The last time that a woman parliamentarian appeared in parliament thus garbed, she was loudly taunted and expelled from her seat. Thus the recent event was plausibly seen as a landmark—but a landmark of what? Supporters of the AKP saw it as a sign of democratization, specifically as an expression of greater religious freedom. Those still adhering to the Kemalist ideal of a secular republic interpreted the event as another step in the Islamization of society, which they had suspected all along was the hidden agenda of the AKP.
The AKP came to power after winning a landslide victory in the 2002 election, which gave it two thirds of the seats in parliament. The 2011 election further increased the party’s majority. The AKP had only been founded in 2001, after several earlier attempts to form parties with Islamic roots were squelched by interventions from the military (which, under the Kemalist constitution, was assigned the mission of defending the secular republic). Since 2003 Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been prime minister. While the AKP does have Islamic roots, especially in its core constituency in conservative Anatolia, it has officially declared its acceptance of the secular republic. As one of its early statements put it succinctly: “We do not want an Islamic state. We want to be Muslims in a secular republic”. Represenatives of the party have repeatedly repudiated the designation of “Islamic”, “Islamist”, or even “moderate Islamist”. Rather the party describes itself as advocating “conservative democracy”. The former adjective is to refer to social and cultural values”, which, in a Muslim-majority country, will inevitably include some that emanate from Islam.
The AKP has sought an affiliation with other conservative parties in Europe (which form an official bloc in the European Parliament, in which Turkey is not, or not yet, represented). Many of these parties still contain the label “Christian Democratic”, which suggests that the AKP would relate to Islam about the way Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union relates to Christianity (that is, not an awful lot). But if the AKP favors conservative values, its economic policies are anything but conservative: Turkey now has vigorous pro-market policies, which have led (not surprisingly) to remarkable economic growth. It is no accident that an important element of the AKP’s constituency has been the so-called “Anatolian Calvinists”: This of course does not mean conversion to Protestantism, but an economic culture, curiously reminiscent of Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic”, adhered to by vigorously capitalist and immensely successful entrepreneurs—who also happen to be religiously Muslim and morally conservative. (Makes one think of the American Bible Belt?) While the AKP has been clearly right-of-center in its domestic policies, it has not questioned Turkey’s membership in NATO and formally sought admission to the European Union; indeed, it has generally been pro-Western and pro-American in its foreign policy. This may now be changing.
In June 2013 there were widespread anti-government demonstrations. They were triggered by a project to tear up a popular park in the center of Istanbul and to replace it with a mall (which, perhaps significantly, was to include a replica of Ottoman military barracks). The unrest spread to other cities. Long-festering tensions between secular and religious populations did surface in these demonstrations, but this was just one part of the anti-government sentiments. There was more general dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of governing and with his inclination toward conservative interferences in private life. Did the latter add up to an agenda of Islamization? If so, they were a rather mild form of it. There were restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and an as yet unrealized proposal to make adultery some sort of criminal offence. (There was no discussion of a penalty of public stoning, the omission no doubt causing relief in urbane coffeehouses.)
The AKP did of course lift the ban on head scarfs, but this act was legitimated in terms of religious freedom rather than Muslim morals. Surveys showed that more than 70% of all Turks approved of this measure. Did the AKP democratize the political system? To some degree, yes. It opened up the system to groups that had previously been marginalized, notably people in rural areas and small towns in the Anatolian hinterland. Turkey today is more of a democracy than it was in the heyday of Kemalist rule. The power of the military has been greatly diminished; it is now quite firmly under civilian control. On the other hand, a number of generals were put on trial on charges that many objective observers regarded as flimsy. Laws remain on the books that have allowed many journalists to be jailed on similarly dubious grounds.
Foreign policy has been erratic. Erdogan has made an effort to become popular on the (probably mythic) “Arab street”. He has engaged in increasingly strident anti-Israeli rhetoric, publicly insulted Shimon Peres (the president of Israel who has been a steady advocate of peace with the Palestinians) as someone who “knows how to kill”. In 2011 Turkey allowed a flotilla to sail from its shores to break the blockade of Gaza; when the Israeli navy moved to stop it and a number of Turkish citizens were killed in the resulting melee, relations between the two countries were virtually frozen. The common interests between Turkey and Israel have surfaced once more as the “Arab spring” has turned into a nightmare and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran looms over the region. A few months ago President Obama cajoled Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to phone Erdogan and apologize for the Turkish lives lost in the flotilla incident. The apology was reluctantly given and just as reluctantly accepted; it seems, however, that serious talks between the two governments have resumed. Even more recently, Erdogan has urged military assistance to the Syrian rebels, then (after Obama handed over American policy toward Syria to Vladimir Putin ) Erdogan began a rapprochement with Iran. Some of these gyrations can perhaps be ascribed to Erdogan’s volatile temperament. But there is one constant theme: the ambition, in the best Ottoman tradition, to restore Turkey as a significant power in the Middle East. In sum: When Erdogan became head of the Turkish government, there was widespread fear that he wanted to emulate the Ayatollah Khomeini. This fear is probably groundless. Rather, Erdogan wants to become Suleyman the Magnificent!
Back to those head scarfs in the Ankara parliament: The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is home to the most militant secularists, of course continues to oppose the public display of this piece of women’s attire, as well as oppose any move than can be interpreted as a step toward Islamization. On the same day on which the four women appeared in parliament with their scarfs, a female CHP lawmaker ostentatiously wore a figure-hugging T-shirt with a picture of Kemal Ataturk. The Times story quotes Saban Kardas, a professor at the University of Economics and Technology in Ankara: “It’s an unnecessary and useless debate… Last week, I was at a wedding and the bride was wearing a head scarf and the witness was wearing modern dress and a short skirt… This is modern Turkey”.
For years now, ever since the AKP came into power, there has been talk of a “Turkish model”—a successful democracy in a Muslim culture. The spreading disaster engulfing the Greater Middle East in the wake of two intertwined developments—the fiasco of the “Arab spring” in one country after another, and the precipitous withdrawal of American power from the region—has given further impetus to this talk. Yes, it would be very helpful if Turkey could yet serve as a model for others who want to somehow combine Islam and democracy. I think it is fair to say that the jury is still out on the prospects of the Turkish experiment. Much hangs on its success, far beyond its borders.
[Photo of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]