Let's Talk Turkey

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How would you describe a government which represents a combination of socially conservative politics, free market economics, genuine improvements in the human rights of ethnic minorities, a strongly pro-Western foreign policy, strong relations with Israel (including active encouragement of Muslim countries to recognise and establish diplomatic relations with Israel), sponsorship of constitutional amendments to keep the military out of politics, greater freedom to express religion in public spaces, and enabling soccer to remain the real religion of civil society?

Well, in some parts of Turkey, this kind of government is described as a threat to democracy, secularism and freedom. It’s also described as a government wishing to introduce sharia (Islamic sacred law) by stealth. Recently, two million people marched in major Turkish cities to protest against this government.

That’s right. Two million.

So exactly how did a Party become so popular as to hold a clear majority of seats in the Turkish Parliament? And why should we, in Australia, give a damn?

In Australia, Turkey has been held up as a model of the separation of Church and State. Last September, Sheik Peter bin Costello issued a fatwa to a national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Sheik Pete declared that Aussie Muslims needed to learn from Turkish secularism if they were to truly feel welcome in Australia.

His message was recently echoed by ACL’s Managing Director, Jim Wallace, on ABC TV’s Difference of Opinion. Wallace referred to tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians being affected by ‘a constant stream of things which attack our sensibility in the West, in terms of the relationship between Islam and/or the Church and State within Islam.’

(Of course, I could dismiss such arguments as pure hypocrisy coming from an organisation whose agenda includes ensuring that our laws reflect conservative interpretations of Christianity. You don’t see many imams trying to impose opposition to embryonic stem cell research on the rest of us. Then again, why should they?)

Image thanks to Emo.

However, recent events in Turkey have shown that, for many Turks, secularism and democracy don’t always go together. Costello may have noticed that his speech praising Turkey coincided with the imprisonment and trial by secular courts of yet another Turkish writer for the charge of ‘insulting Turkishness.’

So how to understand the role of Islam in Turkish politics? Firstly, we need to understand that, although Turkey is a secular country, religion has always played a major role in how Turks define themselves. A Turk is a Muslim Turkish clans in parts of Europe who refused to adopt or who left Islam are not regarded as Turks and secular Turkish nationalism does not disown this link to Islam.

In 1980, Turkish political scientist Binnaz Toprak cited European political scientist Andrew Mango who said as far back as 1967: ‘A reader of the Turkish press could easily get the impression that politics in today’s Turkish Republic is about religion.’

In the introduction to her book Islam and Political Development in Turkey, Toprak claims that ‘one of the observable trends in Turkish political life since the transition from one-Party rule to competitive politics in 1946, is the importance of religion as a political issue.’ Further, as if to undermine Costello’s claims about Turkish secularism, Toprak says that the:

Kemalist version of separating Church and State took a different form from what is generally understood by the term Mustafa Kemal’s program of secularisation defeated its own purpose. Religious institutions were not separated from the State but rather became subservient to it.

Popular Islam in Turkey is heavily influenced by Islamic Sufi mysticism. The Turkish city of Konya, a centre of conservative Islam, is also the city where the Sufi saint Rumi is buried. Turkish Sufi orders historically played a major role in the Ottoman administration.

When Turkey’s Gallipoli hero Mustafa Kemal Pasha carved out a nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, he immediately banned Sufi orders. His successors also sought to keep religious symbols away from Turkish public life. Hence in 1999, a Turkish MP was stripped of her citizenship and thrown out of Parliament for wearing a traditional headscarf. The same headscarf Ataturk’s own mother used to wear.

You’d think that under such difficult circumstances, Turkey’s religious conservatives would have a hard time gaining any support. Think again. Turkey’s Islamists (that is, political activists who use religious symbols) are different to their equivalents in Pakistan and Egypt.

For a start, Arab and South Asian Islamists are heavily influenced by the radical politics and heterodox religion of Arab Salafists like Syed Qutb. They’re busy trying to change the system making lots of noise, violently and loudly agitating, getting arrested, or even blowing themselves and others up.

Turkey ‘s Islamist movements, on the other hand, recognise that the system actually provides them with political and economic opportunities. They also recognise the cultural neutrality of orthodox Islam, thereby avoiding the anti-Western attitudes characterising so much Islamist politics elsewhere.

Many influential Islamists see Europe as the antithesis of everything Islamic. But Turks know better. Turks know from history that Europe has to be engaged with, not fought against all the time. Turks are Muslims who have come to terms with Europe. And let’s be frank about this, most modern Turks have European ancestry anyway.

Turkish Islamists combine realism with spirituality. Turks know about jihad, and they know that modern jihad is to be fought not with swords or huge Ottoman cannons but with dollars and euros. While Arabs and Pakistanis have been shouting slogans and getting themselves arrested, Turkish Islamists have been making truckloads of money. They have gained a veritable stranglehold over huge sectors of the Turkish economy. One group has the largest small goods operation in the world. Another is building huge shopping malls across Europe.

They also know the importance of modern communications they own TV and radio stations.

Business leaders from Turkey’s conservative or ‘green’ sector (green being traditionally regarded as the colour of Islam) are jokingly labelled by their secular opponents as the ‘millennium hocas’ (or imams). Except now, the hocas are having the last laugh.

Millions of Turks flock around these men and women. Why? Because everyone wants to know you when you’re successful. When you feed someone, give them a job, guarantee their livelihood and provide them with a ladder to climb, they’ll support you in just about every way. So, while Islamist politics is associated with sound economic management, Kemalism is asso
ciated with elitism and inefficiency.

At the same time, exposure to democratic politics has softened the hard religious edges of Turkish Islamists. Hence, former firebrands like Turkish PM and former Istanbul Mayor Recep Erdogan have become the Muslim equivalents of mainstream conservative European politicians.

Turkish Foreign Minister and Justice and Development (AK) Party founder Dr Abdullah Gul says he’ll stand for the largely ceremonial position of President. But the Turkish Army, regarded as guardians of Turkey’s secular status quo, threatens to move out of the barracks and stage a coup if he does.

What a strange world Turks live in. The most democratic and pro-Western forces are the Islamists. The anti-democratic forces are the most secular.

Peter Costello should stop talking Turkey!

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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