By Abdulhamit Bilici

Deputy Editor in Chief — Zaman Daily

Supporters of Turkey’s ruling AK Party celebrate the early results of the national elections in front of the party center in Istanbul. (Reuters Photo)

The fast, huge transformation of the Turkish society and the political landscape make it very hard to understand what is really happening in Turkey. It becomes even harder, especially for outsiders, to comprehend the real dynamics behind that change.

When there were massive rallies in the name of the Republic and its secularism during the presidential elections, the organizers of these protests tried to send out a message: The principles of secularism and the Republic itself were under threat.

In fact, this was not the case. Because those organizers were not able to demonstrate a significant proof that the AKP (Adalet Ve Kalkinma Partisi; Turkish for “Justice and Development Party”) is indeed acting against these principles. The only “evidence” for such claims was the fact that the wife of Abdullah Gul, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, wears a headscarf, and that it was dangerous that the country’s three major posts — president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament — are under Islamists’ control.

However, the AKP leadership does not even accept the title “Islamist” to define itself.

Conservatives or Islamists?

Whenever there is a reference to the AKP as “Islamist” in local or international media, the party’s leadership consistently denies this attribution. And even before entering the parliament with a sweeping majority after the 2002 elections, they were careful enough not to define themselves as Islamists.

It is true that the AKP leadership came from former Turkish prime minister, Islamist Necmettin Erbakan’s political line and that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, incumbent Turkish prime minister, can be considered as Erbakan’s pupil in terms of politics. But according to Erdogan and other AKP important figures, the party has changed its perspective on politics in general, and on the relationship between Islam and politics in particular.

Mainly as a result of the lessons learned after the 1997 military intervention, which forced Erbakan’s coalition government to resign, the AKP leadership put a clear distance to Islamist discourse by saying that it would never do politics in the name of Islam.

It was not just a pragmatic attempt to get on well with the secular establishment; it was also because of a new understanding that to make politics in the name of religion in an almost 99-percent Muslim society, is not only divisive but also harmful for religious people in general.

One also should keep in mind the fact that the AKP’s early formation days were also the early days of the post 9/11 era, in which the term “Islamist” was almost synonymous with “Al-Qaeda terrorist,” especially in the United States.

The AKP leaders have been the same people. They are as religious as they used to be — they pray five times a day as usual, and each leader’s wife and daughters still wear headscarves. They have simply changed their political perspective completely. As a result, they started to search for a new concept in order to define this new approach to politics.

What they have found is the concept of “conservative democracy.” It means they respect the Islamic, traditional, and cultural values of the society, but at the same time they are progressive in promoting given political values such as democracy, rule of law, human rights, and free-market economy.

Hence, the AKP leaders reject formal reference to Islam or to the notion of their being “Muslim democrats,” as often suggested in Europe. Instead, they prefer the label of “conservative democracy,” which is less of an ideology, and more of “an organic synthesis” that claims to “give voice to the Turkish people’s values and to bridge the gap between the state and the people.” (Akdogan, Yalç‎in. “AK Parti ve
Muhafazakar Demokrasi.” [Conservative Democracy]. Ankara: AK Party, 2004.)

The party’s ideological manifesto highlights that “It is necessary to accept modernity to its full extent; nevertheless, its philosophical foundations should be first differentiated from their misconceived practices and descriptions, and only then, must be mixed with local values.” This stance implies that modernity and tradition are not perceived to be in conflict.

For practical reasons, the easiest way to describe the party’s political line is to compare it to the Christian democratic parties in a European political context.

AKP Foreign Policy
AKP respects the Islamic values of the society, yet progressively promotes democracy, rule of law, human rights, and free-market economy.

This change in the party’s political perspective resulted in a lot of change in its perception of the world, and hence in its relations with it. A comparison between Erbakan’s and Erdogan’s foreign policy priorities can illustrate the difference. Erbakan completed his years in office (almost two) without visiting any Western country. He started his foreign visits with Iran, and then he visited Malaysia, Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria with the aim of forming an alliance of what he thought were the eight most important Muslim developing countries, and calling them the D-8, as opposed to the G-8.

Erbakan had never felt sympathy toward Turkey’s membership to the European Union (EU). He had the idea of forming an alliance among Muslim countries as he was not that happy with Turkey’s existing links with the West, especially the NATO membership.

In contrast, Erdogan started to travel to Western capitals before even becoming a prime minister, as he wanted to lobby for a favorable decision on Turkey’s EU bid, which was the main topic of the European Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the last month of 2002.

Erdogan did not neglect good relations with Muslim countries, even with those that have very tense relations with the West, like Iran and Syria. But he was not supportive of the idea of taking Turkey away from the West to the Muslim club.

For him, it was not reasonable to isolate Turkey from the world, taking into account the fact that more than half of Turkey’s foreign trade is with the EU and that globalization sweeps all boundaries. Instead, he saw an important chance for Turkey to bridge huge civilizational gaps as a country that has a democratic system and a Muslim population.

This attitude has received a very positive reaction from the Muslim world, and this reaction has been demonstrated concretely by giving the leadership position of the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to a Turkish figure for the first time. With this new approach, Turkey was made one of the cochairmen of the UN that led the Alliance of Civilizations together with Spain.

With the same token, Turkey has started to play a very active role in regional and international peace initiatives. It tried to bring together Afghan and Pakistani leaders and helped in the participation of Iraq’s Sunnis in the December 2005 elections. It also invited Hamas leaders to help stop their isolation and tried to initiate peace talks between Israel and Syria, and between Iran and the West.

Triumph of Democracy

Without taking these points into account, it would be simplistic to claim that the AKP’s victory is a victory of Islamism. Because the party’s leadership itself does not even accept this term to describe its political course.

It may be seen as a success of Islamists, but if this concept implies a religious meaning in a democratic environment, aiming at upholding democratic standards, rule of law, transparency, and human rights, it would be easily interpreted in line with the ultimate aims of Islam.

In fact, there are two very important characteristics of Turkey’s democracy.
First, after the introduction of the multi-party system in Turkey, there has always been an important basis of power among Turkish people who seek real democracy and a liberal interpretation of secularism. This trend was represented by Menderes’s Democratic Party in the 1950s, by Demirel’s Justice Party in the 1960s, and by the Motherland Party in the1980s.

Second, whenever there is an anti-democratic intervention against the liberal interpretation of secularism, people show their reaction by overwhelmingly supporting the victim to punish the misbehavior in the nearest elections. In the Muslim world, Turkish Islam is wrongly assumed to be represented just by the political Islamist line of Erbakan that entered into Turkey’s politics in the 1970s. In fact, it never represented all Turkish people who have Islamic awareness.

Turkish Islam is a much broader category, which has been in support of the center-right democratic forces that are unhappy with Islam being used as a political tool. Even some saw political Islam as an attempt to divide the strong center-right democratic ground in politics.

The AKP leadership’s ability to question itself led it to make peace with both: the Turkish society and devoted Muslims who were skeptical about the authenticity and political philosophy of political Islamists. Hence, it would be wrong to equalize the support the AKP got in the last elections with the level of sympathy toward Islamism.

Just for Reform
Turkey has started to play a very active role in regional and international peace initiatives.

As a sign of wake-up, Erdogan associated himself not with Erbakan but with Menderes, Demirel, and Ozal as the main leaders of the democratic center-right before the 2002 elections. He became famous for his success as a mayor of Istanbul. He repeated that with his 5-year performance in Ankara.

The AKP proved that it is not just a superficial, synthetic change, but a real one in line with the social and economic transformation of the Turkish society. It focused on delivering goods and services instead of propagating an ideology. It almost doubled the per capita income. Turkey, for the first time in history, has been among the top 10 countries attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). Some say that the amount of the country’s FDI is more than that of all the Arab countries combined. Economy grew with an average of seven percentage each year.

However, the party has never attempted to market its economic success in order to get more votes. The AKP leadership has not only concentrated on religious education, but it has also tried to solve the main problems of public education. It managed to make many reforms in the health sector too. In the field of economy and investment, it managed to open Turkey’s economy further to the world. It has respected the Turkish people’s desire to join the EU and made whatever was necessary to fulfill this aim.

In a history of more than 50 years of the Turkish-EU relations, the Turkish side left the EU with no valid excuse, hence they were obliged to look for some biased or subjective criteria to stop Turkey from joining the European club.

If the magic behind the victory of the AKP had been its leadership’s Islamist line, Erbakan’s still existing Felicity Party, whose ranks the AKP emerged from, would have got more votes than Erdogan’s AKP. The Turkish people had enough chances to listen to Erbakan’s views on many issues during the last elections campaign. He was given momentum and a great media opportunity by hard line, secular media to weaken Erdogan.

When you combine those clear and concrete success stories with the military’s midnight e-memorandum on April 27, 2007, which prevented the AKP to send Abdullah Gul to the presidential palace, it becomes very easy to explain why the party did get almost half of the votes. The same people who used to support Menderes, Demirel, and Ozal, gave their full backing this time to Erdogan.

Two months before that quasi-military intervention, Erdogan had made a statement arguing that the AKP’s support was below 30 percent, according to public polls conducted by the party.

Turks’ Religious Behavior
The AKP’s agenda was proven not to be superficial or synthetic, but a real one in line with the social and economic transformation of the Turkish society.

Before concluding the description of the Turkish society’s journey, it would be stimulating to draw your attention to the findings of a study on religious behavior in Turkey. The study, conducted by professors of Bosporus University found that the Turkish society is more religious than they expected. And by all measures, it is astonishingly tolerant. Being aware of the fact that scholars have very conflicting views about reliability of statistics in social science, I like to summarize some significant findings of that study to see what really Turkish Islam is all about in figures:

72 percent of Turkish people think that it is not healthy for the religion to interfere in the political system. Similarly, 77 percent believe that Kemalist revolutions of the Turkish Republic helped Turkey in its development. Support for replacing civil law with Shari`ah law is only 10 percent among Turkish people. And similarly, support to punish adultery as described in Shari`ah law is less than 2 percent.

However, the same study shows that the same Turkish people who do not support religion’s interference in state and politics, are also not happy with the state’s interference in their religion, belief, or worship.

In line with that tendency, 42.5 percent believes that the Turkish state suppresses freedom of religion. When asked to give an example, they underlined the ban on wearing headscarf by female university students and civil servants. 66 percent of them say that the Turkish state should respect its citizens’ choices and let women wear the headscarf if they like to.

Findings of the study support the characteristics of Turkish Islam (if such a concept exists): About 89 percent of Turks believe that there can be good people among other religious groups, while 42 percent think that followers of other religions can go to Paradise if they abstain from sins. Even as a reminder of the most famous Turkish Sufi, Celaladdin-i Rumi, 53 percent accept that there can be good people even among non-believers.

In terms of foreign policy, 65 percent of Turks think that Islam is not an obstacle to democracy in the Middle East, but only 31 percent of them believe that the region can be more democratic.

As regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the study shows that 77 percent of Turks see that the Palestinian side is the right one. When asked if Turkey should be with the East or the West, the majority preferred the West, but support for the East is not that low, as the percentage was 53 percent in favor of being with he West, compared to 29 percent in favor of remaining with the East.

Seeking Democracy

As a conclusion, what do all these figures mean for the Turkish society and for Islam in Turkey? In my view, with the co-influence of its historical, cultural, social, political, diplomatic, and economic environment, Turkey is witnessing the emergence of an original synthesis that may be a source of inspiration, not just for the Muslim countries, but also for the whole world.

It is true that there are still many problems and many challenges ahead, but these should not prevent journalists, politicians, and academics — especially from Muslim countries — from trying to understand the dynamics of the Turkish experience. The civic nature of the political system is seen by religious Muslims as the most adequate environment to influence others for the better.

Turkish religious people are very active in education, in culture, and in the media without being in need of the government’s favor. They have been strong in the society not as a result of the AKP-led government, but as a result of democracy.

What they expect from any government is to act according to democratic principles and not to restrict the freedom of religious people to contribute to the society. By deeds, not words, religious foundations and leaders like Erdogan and Gul can be so helpful in bridging the internal divisions between the religious and the hard line secular people, all of whom are Muslims.

Abdulhamit Bilici is deputy editor in chief of the Zaman daily, one of Turkey’s leading, mass-circulating newspapers. He is also a columnist at Zaman and at Today’s Zaman, a daily newspaper published in English. He served as the foreign news editor of the Zaman and Aksiyon weekly newsmagazine. Bilici writes mainly about Turkish foreign policy and world politics, especially the European Union and the Middle East. He edited the book Why Turkey?, which focuses on Turkish-European relations.

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