Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Turkey's Islamic landslide

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a political climate more reflective of a wider issue than what’s going on in Turkey right now. The conflict between the Islamic-rooted party and the secularist party resulted in the calling of an election on Sunday that saw the Islamic party receive a solid victory, more than anyone could have imagined last week. What will this mean for Turkey’s future, and its relations with Europe?

The situation is enormously complicated and requires a bit of explaining. Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, which stretched at various times from Morocco in North Africa to Hungary in Europe. It literally had territory on three different continents and therefore acted as a bridge between many different cultures. By World War I the empire was antiquated and ailing, and following the sultan’s disastrous decision to join with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in World War I, a group of “young Turks” in the army led by a man who came to be known as Ataturk (or “father of the Turks”) seized power and completely reformed Turkey, giving up its non-Turkish possessions and developing a fiercely secular, Western-oriented nation. Ataturk was an avowed enemy of religion and felt that the state must take safeguards to keep it firmly out of the government. For this reason, Turkey and the rest of the Middle East took very divergent paths in the remainder of the 20th century.

For decades the country was ruled by Ataturk’s heirs, the secularist army. But in the last ten years Islam has been becoming steadily more popular in the country, as evidenced by the rising number of women in Ankara and Istanbul wearing headscarves. This is worrying to much of the country, who fear that Turkey could slide toward the kind of governments seen in the rest of the Middle East. Even a moderately Islamic government, comparable say to the degree that the US government is Christian, would be extremely worrying to many Turks.

So when the Islamic-rooted party Justice and Development was voted into power five years ago, the army stood up and prepared to take up their traditional role of defending the secularist Turkish state, through force if necessary. When the party nominated the current foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to be president. Gul’s wife wears a headscarf, and this fact was so unacceptable to the army that they not only derailed the nomination but demanded that the government hold new elections. But this move backfired and now Justice and Development is even more powerful than before, although they have pledged to nominate a new compromise candidate for president, presumably one who’s never even seen a head scarf.

So it’s a simple story of a pro-Western army trying to keep an Islamic fundamentalist party out of power right? Not even close. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance. For instance, it could be argued that Justice and Development is Islamic in the same way that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany are Christian (i.e., a historic root in the religion but not strongly religious). What’s more, it can’t really be said that the party is anti-Western, because they’ve made a number of economic and social reforms in an effort to get Turkey admitted to the EU. They’ve actually presided over an economic boom time in Turkey, and the reality is this is probably the reason they received such an overwhelming result on Sunday. People weren’t voting for an Islamic party, they were voting for a party that had presided over successful times.

What’s more, the secularist army’s party, the Republican People’s Party, is “pro-Western” really just in its opposition to Islam and its promotion of Western lifestyles and values. The reality is this is an autocratic party that wants to stifle democracy, and this is one of the biggest obstacles to Turkey’s joining the EU. As long as the RPP remains so powerful, the country could never join the European Union.

It’s also not as clear-cut as religious people versus secular people, in many ways the religion issue is a mask for an urban-rural divide. As Mark Mardell pointed out this week, the conflict is as much about the educated, secular, urban elite of Istanbul and Ankara, who control the army and the beaurocracy, fearing the uneducated, religious mob of the rural interior. Writes Mardell:

This is a battle of different classes, as well as of religion and ideas. Anyone think of any other countries with an urban and coastal liberal elite that feels under threat from the religious politics of the rural hinterland? The big difference is that the Pentagon wouldn’t even dream of putting tanks on the White House lawn if George W held a prayer meeting.
I thought this was an interesting analogy. It would be as if the urban elites of the East and West coast controlled the army and the rural red state voters controlled the government (of course the opposite is true, the rural red staters control both!). But if this were the case in the US, the conflict wouldn’t just be about religion versus secularism, although that would be a big part of it. That conflict would just be part of a larger class conflict, and this is the case in Turkey today.

I thought Mardell’s story about a conversation he had with some Turkish generals was even more interesting. Writes Mardell:

I had an early morning drive across the Bosphorous to talk to a couple of retired senior military men, three-star generals. They argued Turkey was not a democracy, despite the fact it goes to the polls on Sunday in what appear to be free and fair elections, with multiple political parties and a free-ish and vociferous press. Their arguments strike me as rather Leninist. The masses are uneducated and illiterate so can be deceived by unscrupulous politicians. Only when they are better educated will Turkey be a real democracy. It is the army’s job to intervene if there is any deviation on the path to this true democracy.

They make a similar argument about "ethnic issues"... which means the Kurds. Poverty and bad education is the problem. The solution may need a tough military component but it's really about developing the south-east of Turkey until people stop worrying about issues of identity.
Turkey is really a very interesting country, and I’m curious to see how this unfolds over the next several years. One is really unsure who to side with in this debate.

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