World — June 7, 2010 12:10 pm

Secularism vs. Sharia

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The threat of Islamism in Turkey is overblown

On Feb. 25, 2010, some 40 top Turkish military officers were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP). The Islamic party had recently exacerbated its already strained relations with the military, which has long seen itself as the defender of Turkey’s secular traditions.

Some see the weakening power of the military, evidenced by the failure of its coup, as the harbinger of a genuinely strong Islamist movement in Turkey. However, the declining military does not foretell the renunciation of Turkish secularism, but instead signals Turkey’s maturation as a democracy. It seems increasingly likely that Islam and Turkish secular democracy will find a way to coexist, and that Turkey will continue to develop into a vital bridge between the West and the Muslim world.

Managing the Military

Ever since Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, established the secular state, the military has seen itself as its guarantor against theocratic encroachment. In the past, the military gave itself the authority to depose regimes which it found too Islamist, an action it has taken or threatened four times since 1960. As Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative, told the HPR, “What we really have is trouble over Turkey dealing with its authoritarian legacy,” represented by the outsized role of the military. “The military has intervened directly, by threatening coups, arresting politicians, and giving itself the legal powers and mandates to intervene at will in most aspects of Turkish political life,” Knaus explained.

Since the start of Turkey’s intensive campaign to gain admission to the European Union, it has taken steps to reform the role of the military in accordance with European standards. For instance, there has been an attempt to impose civilian control of the military’s National Security Council, a move heavily resisted by the military establishment and other Turkish conservatives.

The Turkish electorate seems to support limiting the influence of the military in politics. Stephen Kinzer, author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, told the HPR, “People have lost faith in whether they need a guarantor of democracy. Turkish democracy is maturing.” He continued, “The idea that [the people] need some superior will from above is no longer true.” As such, the AKP crackdown on the military is more of an anti-authoritarian reform movement than an assault on the Turkish tradition of secularism.

Islamic Culture, Secular State

In fact, faith in both Islam and secular governance has always been widespread in Turkey. Baskin Oran, professor emeritus at the University of Ankara, told the HPR, “To be a Turk you have got to be a Muslim,” and the strict separation of religion from politics is a myth. In Turkey, Islam is and always will be an integral part of society. But that fact has not led easily or inevitably to theocracy.

The AKP’s agenda, for instance, is far from Islamist. Knaus noted, “Turkey has adopted under the current government a more progressive penal code reflecting Western practices. There has been no trend at all that would suggest that secularism is under threat.” Though the AKP did form from the remnants of the banned Islamist party Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party), Knaus said that today “there is no political force to introduce Sharia or Islamic law.” Turkey has finally found a comfortable equilibrium, accommodating both its long secular political tradition and its Islamic culture.

Moreover, Oran added, “As these people are getting rich, their sons will become bourgeois. Money has no ideology besides the maximization of profit.” The Turkish people already recognize that their secular government has allowed them to flourish economically. Kinzer said that while “the new elite is more devout than the old elite it is replacing … nevertheless, Turks are aware of how much success they’ve had with their [secular] government.”

As Turkey implements its Western-style reforms and tries to banish military authoritarianism, we see signs that its democracy is maturing. Turkey’s geographic location and its position as the most secular and democratic Islamic nation have lent it international influence as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world. Turkey will fine-tune its balance between secularist government and Islamic culture for years to come, but its flourishing democracy sets an example for Islamic governments in Iraq and elsewhere.

Jimmy Wu ’13 is Circulation Manager.

Photo Credits: flickr (Let Ideas Compete, chrisschuepp)

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