Turkey's identity crisis

As Turkey prepares for early elections, it is interesting to watch an intense political drama unfolding.

turkey protest 88 (photo credit: AP)
turkey protest 88
(photo credit: AP)
Turkey is a fascinating country with beautiful landscapes, a rich history and warm people passionately debating the future of their country. Self-described as a bridge between Asia and Europe and between Islam and Christianity, Turkey is diverse and colorful. Most importantly, it is a country of great strategic importance. As Turkey prepares for early general elections in July, it is interesting to watch an intense political drama unfolding before our eyes. Last weekend my work brought me again to the region, but this time the atmosphere was highly charged. While among Turkish friends, I watched as more than a million secular Turks demonstrated in the Aegean port city of Izmir against the proto-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since November 2002. Almost everyone in my company - professors, students, and businessmen involved in supporting the university - was extremely pleased with the great numbers of their countrymen that participated in this rally. This event was another major show of strength against the AKP before the Turks go to the polls. The demonstrations against the AKP government reflect the rooted suspicions that the party wants to change the secular character of the Turkish political system by inserting greater Islamic content into Turkish society. The recent crisis was prompted by the failed attempt of the AKP to elect a new president, Abdullah Gul, the current foreign minister. Gul stirs controversy because his wife wears a headscarf. For the secularists, who insist on banning the headscarf on the premises of public institutions, Gul and his wife would be an affront to the long-standing secular Kemalist tradition. In the past, despite the vehement Kemalist secularization campaign which displayed a streak of Jacobin intolerance, large parts of Turkish society remained traditional and a natural constituency for the AKP. HOWEVER, my friends' views reflect the recent anti-AKP demonstrators with their slogan, "no to Shari'a, no to a military coup." Interestingly, this statement captures the dilemma of their predicament. They want a secular democracy, rejecting military intervention, but are reluctant to accept the verdict of the voters if it leads to greater political influence of Islamist circles. While they understand that democracies can introduce changes in the public sphere, they object to demands to end a ban on headscarves, or to limit alcohol sales, seeing them as Islamic encroachment. As a result of the political successes of the AKP and the uncertainty concerning its long-range political goals on the one hand, and the anti-clerical rigidity of most secularists on the other hand, Turkey is in the middle of a political crisis over identity. The AKP recently called for the upcoming elections to prevent a military coup. The elections are seen as a critical test for both sides of the polarized society. Secular political parties are frantically attempting to forge coalitions in order to surpass the 10 percent electoral threshold that they failed to reach in the 2002 elections, allowing the AKP to secure a comfortable majority in parliament. The chance to lower the influence of the AKP has galvanized bystanders into action, adding newcomers into the political game. Similarly, AKP supporters, buoyant about the successes of their party's governance and speaking in the name of democracy are also mobilized into action. Some of my interlocutors in Turkey, whose sympathies lie with AKP, expressed confidence that their party will attain a great electoral victory in July. The passionate activism by demonstrators both for and against the AKP creates a highly-charged political atmosphere. WHILE THE distant goals of the AKP are not clear, it has played by the democratic rules, has favored accession to the EU and has implemented important reforms to facilitate such a process. Under the AKP rule the government was also successful in saving the Turkish economy from rampant inflation and attracting foreign investment. Moreover, the AKP has provided an alternative to a fragmented party system and corrupt politicians. In this way the party could become a template for how to integrate Islam and modernity throughout the Muslim world. All this is not enough to convince many of the old secular elites that the AKP is nothing but a wolf in sheep's clothing, sophisticatedly pushing an Islamist agenda. For many of my secular friends the term "moderate Islam" is totally unacceptable, as they reject any Muslim content in public life. They refuse to contemplate that the AKP could accept the model of the Christian democratic parties of Europe. In the next parliament, three to four parties will probably attain the 10-percent threshold, forcing the emergence of a coalition government. Thus far, no party has announced that it will boycott the AKP, allowing for pragmatic politics to prevail. Much of Turkey's future depends on the ability of its political system to build an inclusive atmosphere that fosters cooperation between fervent secularists and fervent Muslims, and to ensure that everybody, including the military, abides by the democratic rules. The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.