Turkey's model of 'moderate' Islamism can be misleading
What do we learn from Turkey about building democracy in a Muslim society? When an unworthy movie mocking Prophet Mohammed provoked deadly protests in many Muslim nations, only peaceful protests occurred in Turkey. What makes it different?
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken credit on behalf of his moderate Islamist AKP, which helped to calm many Islamists. It is also true that a major chapter in the relative success story of Turkish democracy and modernisation has been the moderation of political Islamism during the 1990s from an ideological and state-orientated brand into the AKP's pragmatic and business-orientated brand.
However, without telling the remaining chapters, this would be a misleading story from which to learn. Turkey's model became a relative success because it managed to build relatively secular, relatively democratic, and rule-based social and political institutions. And it failed when these institutions were flawed, or were not improved upon through cooperation between religious and secular actors.
Turkey didn't succeed because of moderate Islamists; moderate Islamists succeeded because of Turkey's partially working secular and democratic institutions.
In recent years, the AKP has capitalised on the flaws in Turkey's secular democracy instead of fixing them. Paradoxically, the democratic winds of the Arab Spring have accelerated this trend.
Modern Turkey was founded in the 1920s by top-down, radical secularisation. The downside was a deeply complicated historical-cultural legacy, and the resentment of Islamist elites who were oppressed. On the upside were three crucial achievements: building an overarching national identity; limiting antipathy towards westernisation and de-linking socioeconomic modernisation and Islamic orthodoxy; and generating relatively robust secular and impersonal institutions.
Nevertheless, this would not have distinguished Turkey from authoritarian secular republics of the Arab world, if Turkey's secular elites had not moderated and allowed real multiparty elections after 1950. Additionally, Turkey built more inclusive and competitive economic institutions through liberalisation after 1980, and more accountable ones through IMF-guided reforms after its 2000-2001 financial crises.
The AKP is a product of these accomplishments. Although secularist institutions had severely sanctioned political Islamists, free and fair elections gave them a chance to moderate and come to power. Relatively liberal economic institutions gave the AKP the tools to run the economy and foster a Muslim-conservative middle class.
But Turkey's secular-democratic institutions were flawed. Although secularists allowed the rotation of government through real elections, they left the ultimate power in the hands of the military and colossal state apparatus. While Turkey developed a strong national identity and relatively impartial institutions, there was discrimination against minorities, most notably Kurds. Under the disguise of separating state and religion, supposedly secular institutions controlled religion, promoted Sunni Islam, discriminated against Alevis, and violated both secular and religious freedoms. Governments retained tremendous powers to restrict economic freedoms and discriminate among business actors for political purposes.
Supporters hoped the AKP would fix these flaws. The party did a lot. Most importantly, it tamed military praetorianism. Last week, a civilian court unprecedentedly sentenced three former top generals to 20 years in jail for planning a 2003 coup. In its first two terms, the AKP pursued a highly reformist agenda guided by EU criteria.
Recently, however, the AKP has taken a religious-conservative, nationalist and authoritarian turn. Rather than making the political system more accountable, Mr Erdogan has centralised decision-making and wants a presidential system. Abandoning a "Kurdish opening", Ankara has returned to military-based policies. Political, religious and opportunistic favouritism is rampant in government recruitments, promotions and tenders.
Paradoxically, the region's post-Arab Spring troubles exacerbate these trends. The policy of "zero problems with neighbours" has given way to tensions with Syria, Iran, Iraq and Israel. Foreign policy troubles have compelled the government to move closer to Sunni political forces in the region, and made it less tolerant of criticism.
The mainstream discourse is becoming increasingly religious, sectarian and anti-western. There were no violent rallies against the recent Islamophobic film trailer, but "experts" with academic titles popped up saying things such as: "Westerners always need 'hateful others' to build their own identity"; "'We easterners' are different, we don't need that and are tolerant of ethnic and religious others."
The AKP cannot be blamed for all of this. Turkey is still an electoral democracy and the AKP would be compelled to reform itself if there were a viable alternative. But the pro-secular Republican People's Party (CHP) has yet to offer feasible alternative policies to resolve the Kurdish conflict, reform secularism, run the economy and provide services.
Turkey can still be a positive example. Its comparative advantages were based on partially working secular and democratic institutions. The present, multiparty process drafting a new constitution can help to make these institutions truly secular and democratic.
For this to happen, however, Turkey's elites should not repeat the mistakes of the past. All stakeholders should have a say, including Turks and Kurds, men and women, haves and have-nots, and religious and secular actors.
The main lesson from the Turkish experience is not how the AKP won elections, or moderated its Islamist ideology and discourse. The party may change again. Nor is the lesson to ignore ethnicity and religion. The challenge is to try to build ethnically and religiously neutral, impersonal and inclusive democratic institutions through cooperation and compromise.
Murat Somer is an associate professor at Koç University in Istanbul
Updated: October 1, 2012 04:00 AM