Can secular Turkey survive democracy?
How reformists can stop the Islamists who have chipped away at Turkey’s
Los Angeles Times
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
AYAAN HIRSI ALI, a former Dutch legislator and women’s activist who now
lives in the U.S., recently published her memoir, "Infidel."
May 9, 2007
SECULAR AND LIBERAL Turks have had a rude awakening from years of deep
slumber. Kemal Ataturk’s heritage is about to be destroyed – not by an
invading power but from within, by fellow Turks who yearn for an Islamic
Ever since Ataturk, Turkey has been divided into those who want to run state
affairs on Islamic principles and those who want to keep Allah’s will from
the public space.
The proponents of Islam in government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development
Party, have been remarkably successful. They have exploited the fact that
you can use democratic means to erode democracy, employing a powerful
Three pillars of that strategy are worth discussion.
The first is Dawa, a tactic inspired by Islam’s founder, Muhammad. Dawa
means to preach Islam as a way of life, including a way of government,
perpetually and with conviction. Every convert is obligated to preach Islam
to others, creating a grass-roots movement.
The secularists in Turkey underestimated this pillar and thus neglected
competing with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Polls suggest that 70% of voters might still elect Gul president if Erdogan
succeeds in changing the constitution so that the president can be elected
directly. Any protest from the secularists against this evident popular will
sounds irrational and undemocratic.
The second pillar is the improvement of the economy. No one can deny that
when the secular parties were in power, the Turkish economy was in tatters.
Since Erdogan took office, growth has been strong, with inflation down and
foreign investment high.
The third pillar is taking control of two types of institutions in a
democracy: those designed to educate civilians (education and media) and
those designed to keep law and order (police, justice and the secret
After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997, when the
military engineered a "soft coup" against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his
party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power. They surely
realize that Islamizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain
control of the army and the Constitutional Court, the two institutions that
have helped preserve Turkey’s secular state.
The recent Constitutional Court ruling annulling the nomination of Gul for
the presidency, after the military warned that it is the guardian of
secularism, is only a temporary setback for the Islamists. Erdogan and Gul
have another trick up their sleeves.
If they show the same restraint and patience that have brought them this
far, they may achieve their aim by continuing to court membership in the
European Union. Well-meaning but naive European leaders were manipulated by
the ruling Islamists into saying that Turkey’s army should be placed under
civil control, like all armies in EU member states.
In hindsight, Turkey’s secular liberals have only themselves to blame. They
underestimated the power of Dawa, they failed at growing the economy and
they have not realized that members of the EU have been manipulated.
An important trait of liberalism, however, is the opportunity to learn by
trial and error. Turkish secular liberals must start their own grass-roots
movement, one with the message of individual freedom. They must restore the
confidence of the electorate in entrusting Turkey’s economy to them, and
they must reconquer the institutions of education, information, police and
They must also make EU leaders understand and respect the fact that the army
and the Constitutional Court – besides defending the country and the
constitution – are also, and maybe even more important, designed to protect
Turkish democracy from Islam.
Bringing back true secularism does not mean just any secularism. It means
secularism that protects individual freedoms and rights, not the
ultra-nationalist kind that breeds an environment in which Adolf Hitler’s
"Mein Kampf" is a bestseller, the Armenian genocide is denied and minorities
are persecuted. Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor, was murdered by such a
It is this mix of virulent nationalism and predatory Islam in Turkey that
makes the challenge for Turkish secular liberals greater than for any other
liberal movement today.