The so-called Turkish model, in which an Islamist party heads an ostensible
democracy, has been posited in recent weeks as a likely outcome in
postauthoritarian Arab countries. Likely, maybe; but Turkey’s experience under
the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, suggests that such a path may also be
a slippery slope.
The AKP does not aim to create a fundamentalist state
in Turkey, but the ruling party’s conservative policies might inadvertently lead
to just that. For several years the AKP has been transforming Turkish society by
making religion the moral compass of the country’s body politic.
does not mean that the AKP wants to turn Turkey into a theocracy.
problem is that once narrowly-defined faith becomes a guiding principle in
policy, fundamentalists claiming ideological purity become more competitive
politically. Their demands for an even stricter implementation of religion-based
rules and values are triggering an ideological purity race and risk pushing
Turkish society toward radicalization.
History teaches us that
fundamentalists always defeat conservatives in any competition for ideological
IN THE 11th century, the religiously conservative Almoravid
movement swept the Muslim kingdom of Andalusia in reaction to its liberal ways,
especially its embrace of progressive thought and acceptance of non- Muslims.
Upon taking over Andalusia, the Almoravids enshrined their illiberal
interpretation of Islam as the moral compass of society.
Almoravids’ brand of conservatism was soon seen as too lax by even more
The Almohads emerged to protest what they
considered the Almoravids’ “tolerance,” and their takeover of Andalusia
radicalized the society, leading to the persecution of non-Muslims and to
Turkey’s Islamization under the AKP threatens to
follow a similar, if more gradual, trajectory. The AKP’s embrace of religious
values is not Turkish secularists’ biggest problem.
The larger threat is
that, now that the AKP has centered religion within Turkish society,
fundamentalists will gain carte blanche to challenge the AKP as “not Muslim
Already last November, the AKP was moved to fire Ali Bardakoglu,
the liberal head of Diyanet, Turkey’s official religious authority, which has
historically checked fanaticism by building mosques and training imams while
promoting a liberal understanding of Islam. The AKP replaced Bardakoglu with
another well-known scholar, Mehmet Gormez, who has an avowedly more conservative
take on Islam.
The new Diyanet chief’s first act was to fire Ayse Sucu,
who headed the organization’s women’s branch. Sucu’s initiatives had included
suggesting that women should be able to decide for themselves whether to cover
their hair. Fundamentalist media and pundits were ecstatic at her ouster,
claiming that it signalled that there is no room for a personal interpretation
Internally, the AKP has promoted socially conservative values,
such as wearing the Islamic head scarf for women and a disdain for alcohol.
Turkish bureaucrats and businesspeople complain that embracing these practices
to prove that one is a “good Muslim” has become a precondition for getting
government promotions and contracts.
Meanwhile, the AKP-run media
watchdog recently scolded a television station for broadcasting a program about
Suleyman the Magnificent that truthfully depicted the famously cosmopolitan
Ottoman sultan drinking alcohol. The official warning followed an outcry led by
AKP leaders and fundamentalists alike, who demanded that the show be banned.
Radicals now have the upper hand to slowly end Turkey’s centuries-old drinking
Or take the AKP’s new Kurdish policy. In an effort to expand its
base among the Kurds before June polls, the party has emphasized Islam as a
common denominator between Kurds and Turks to undermine the secular Kurdish
The plan may well help the AKP win its upcoming
However, it will also invite competition from religious
radicals, such as from Kurdish Hezbollah – a violent Sunni group not linked to
the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah, which already boasts a wide grassroots network
in the southeast of Turkey.
Recently, Hezbollah’s leadership, in jail
since a crackdown in the late 1990s, was released from prison due to a legal
loophole. The AKP’s emphasis on Islam may help replace the secular-nationalist
Kurdish movement with a religious-nationalist one. Expect Kurdish Hezbollah to
suggest that neither the AKP nor Diyanet are “Muslim enough” to represent
TURKEY’S SHIFT is also bad news for the US and Europe.
potential radicalization of the Turkish population is an especially pressing
concern given that Turkey recently eliminated visa restrictions for a number of
Muslim countries – including Iran, Syria, Jordan and Libya. Whatever happens in
those countries, the move will facilitate crossfertilization among radical
groups in Turkey. Washington should make contingency plans now to deal with
radicals who will challenge the AKP’s cooperation with the US, particularly in
Turkey’s emboldened radicals will also no doubt take issue
with Ankara’s European Union policy, as if Turkey’s EU accession plans did not
already face enough problems.
Given the large number of Turkish
immigrants in Europe, the radicalization of the Turkish population, especially
its Kurdish segment, will likely replicate itself in Europe.
religious bent, disconcerting in itself, can easily spin out of control. The
lesson of the AKP experience for the Arab world and likely Muslim Brotherhood
governments there is that religious orthodoxy is an ideological beauty contest,
in which the winner is always the ugly guy.The writer is a senior fellow
at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This column originally
The Wall Street Journal.