New Kemalism: Religious but not conservative

For 1st time since '02, AKP faces challenge from renewed opposition that is forward-looking, with a vision of new liberal, pro-Western Turkey.

Child holding Turkish flag 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Child holding Turkish flag 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Can the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition movement and the inheritor of Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of a Western and secular country, challenge the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the upcoming June 2011 elections?
Ever since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has successfully injected social conservatism and anti-Western values into the country’s social life and foreign policy, and done so with growing popular support. So, can the CHP hope to defeat the AKP?
Until last year, the answer was no, for the outdated and tired CHP was unable to put forth a convincing vision of how Turkey should evolve, as opposed to the AKP’s moving model.
Now things are different: first, in May, the CHP elected a new charismatic leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Then, recently, he won enough support from the CHP delegates to form a new party assembly composed of fresh new faces, including a 26-year-old woman with a recent PhD, diplomats from Turkey’s pro-Western Foreign Ministry and businesswomen, union leaders, liberal college professors and economists.
Despite earlier predictions that the CHP old guard would prevent Kilicdaroglu from getting people representing his vision of “New Kemalism” – a liberal and updated version of modern Turkey’s founding ideology – elected to the party assembly, he has succeeded in changing the CHP’s top echelons.
Since Turkish political parties are top-down structures, this means the CHP will now change from the top down in the run up to the 2011 elections. For the first time since 2002, the AKP faces a real challenge from a renewed opposition that, unlike its predecessor, is forward-looking, with a vision to create a new liberal and pro-Western Turkey.
THIS IS good news for democracy in Turkey.
Ever since the AKP assumed power, analysts had been worried by two problems in the political system: an increasingly authoritarian ruling party that tramples over democratic checks and balances, for instance punishing independent media with tax fines, and an ineffective opposition that is unable to define its vision of where Turkey should go if not along the AKP path.
Now, the second problem seems to be alleviated, at least in part until the new CHP defines a new relationship between religion, conservatism and a secular polity to compete against the AKP’s working model of a socially conservative society in which religiosity is a growing source of political legitimacy.
A fact that is missing to most observers of politics in Muslim countries – and in fact to most Muslims and Turks – is that conservatism and religiosity are not Siamese twins. One can be religious and not conservative, or conservative but not religious.
Yet the AKP defines the two as interchangeable in the Turkish context. Take for instance, the story of a young woman in Istanbul of mixed Muslim/Greek Orthodox heritage. This woman told me she had applied for a job with a branch of the AKP-controlled Istanbul city government. In her job interview the woman was told the AKP government would hire her if she agreed to wear an Islamic style head scarf.
When she responded that she was also Greek Orthodox, she was told, “You don’t need to convert; all you have to do is cover your head.”
This exhibits just how the AKP is successfully juxtaposing religiosity with social conservatism.
And through this strategy, the party is gaining legitimacy in a mostly religious society, while driving conservatism across the board.
To challenge this strategy and set up a serious alternative to the AKP in the polls, the CHP must delink social conservatism and religiosity, also ending the AKP’s monopoly over the “the party of religion” brand.
This way, Kilicdaroglu’s New Kemalism can uphold the separation of religion and government, while taking advantage of the distinction between social conservatism and religiosity.
Turks are by definition a religious people; opinion polls show that more than 90 percent believe in God. The CHP has to make peace with this fact, adjusting its vision of secularism to accommodate religious practice.
Yet, at the same time, New Kemalism ought to be clear on social conservatism. While there is nothing wrong with it per se, social conservatism imposed by a government, as demonstrated by the experience of the aforementioned Greek Orthodox/Muslim woman, is incompatible with the idea of a liberal Western society that New Kemalism wishes to represent.
In other words, the CHP has to reinvent its identity as the party of secularism, to find a place where it can be at peace with religion, but also promote socially liberal values. Then, Kilicdaroglu cannot only hope to challenge the AKP, but also bask in the glory of achieving a first for a political party in any Muslim society, unhitching religiosity and social conservatism.
With this, Kilicdaroglu’s New Kemalism would also open the path for a liberal-religious polity in a predominantly Muslim society. This is indeed a tall order, but it is the only way that the CHP can win.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and coauthor (with Scott Carpenter) of Nuanced Gestures: Regenerating the US-Turkey Partnership (2010).