FLAGS, VEILS AND SHARIA
>From The Economist
Jul 17th 2008
Behind the court case against Turkey’s ruling party lies an existential
question: how Islamist has the country become?
EPA A MARBLE fountain held up by bare-breasted maidens in the
eastern city of Kars is a source of pride for the city’s mayor,
Naif Alibeyoglu. Yet last November the sculpture vanished a few days
before a planned visit to Kars by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. Fearful of incurring the wrath of Mr Erdogan and
his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the mayor
(himself an AKP man) reportedly arranged for its removal.
In the event, the prime minister never arrived–and the fountain came
back. The incident may be testimony to the prudery of Mr Erdogan, and
of the AKP more broadly. But could it also be evidence of their desire
to steer Turkey towards sharia law? The country’s chief prosecutor,
Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, might say so. In March he petitioned the
constitutional court to ban the AKP and to bar Mr Erdogan and 70
other named AKP officials, including the president, Abdullah Gul, from
politics, on the ground that they are covertly seeking to establish
an Islamist theocracy.
Turkey has been in upheaval ever since. After hearings earlier this
month, a verdict is expected soon, maybe in early August. Most
observers expect it to go against t he AKP. Turkey has banned no
fewer than 24 parties in the past 50 years, including the AKP’s two
forerunners. In 23 of these cases, the European Court of Human Rights
ruled that the bans violated its charter.
Yet Mr Yalcinkaya’s indictment lacks hard evidence to show that the
AKP is working to reverse secular rule. Much of his case rests on the
words, not the actions, of Mr Erdogan and his lieutenants. Among
Mr Erdogan’s listed "crimes" is his opinion that "Turkey as a
modern Muslim nation can serve as an example for the harmony of
civilisations." That is hardly a call for jihad. The AKP has promoted
Islamic values, but it has never attempted to pass laws inspired by
None of this seems to impress Turkey’s meddlesome generals, who are
widely believed to be the driving force behind the "judicial coup"
against the AKP. This follows the "e-coup" they threatened last year by
issuing a warning on the internet against making Mr Gul president. Some
renegade generals are also involved in the so-called Ergenekon group;
86 members were charged this week with plotting a coup (see article).
The generals and their allies believe that nothing less than the
future of Ataturk’s secular republic is at stake. Similar rumblings
were heard when the now defunct pro-Islamic Welfare party first came
to power in 1996.
It was ejected a yea r later in a bloodless "velvet coup" and banned
on similar charges to those now levelled at the AKP. But with each
intervention the Islamists come back stronger.
Unlike their pro-secular rivals, Islamists have been able to reinvent
themselves to appeal to a growing base of voters. Nobody has done this
more successfully than Mr Erdogan with the AKP. An Islamic cleric
by training, Mr Erdogan became Istanbul’s mayor when Welfare won a
municipal election in 1994. He was booted out in 1997, and jailed
briefly a year later for reciting a nationalist poem in public that
was deemed to incite "religious hatred".
It was a turning-point. Mr Erdogan defected from Welfare with fellow
moderates to found the AKP in 2001. He and his friends said that they
no longer believed in mixing religion with politics and that Turkish
membership of the European Union was the AKP’s chief goal. And when the
AKP won the general election of November 2002, it formed a single-party
government that did something unusual for Turkey: it kept its word.
The death penalty was abolished; the army’s powers were trimmed;
women were given more rights than at any time since Kemal Ataturk,
the founder of the secular Turkish state, made both sexes equal before
the law. Despite Mr Erdogan’s calls for women to have "at least three
children", abortion remains legal and easy. This silent revolution
=0 Aeventually shamed the EU into opening formal membership talks
with Turkey in 2005, an achievement that had eluded all the AKP’s
predecessors in government.
The government’s economic record was impressive, too. The economy
bounced back from its nadir in 2001, growing by a steady average
annual rate of 6% or more. Inflation was tamed (though it has crept
back up recently).
Above all, foreign direct investment, previously paltry, hit record
For a while, Turkey seemed to have become a stable and prosperous
sort of place. That is surely why 47% of voters backed the AKP in
July 2007, a big jump from only 34% in 2002.
Many see the campaign to topple the AKP as part of a long battle
pitting an old guard, used to monopolising wealth and power, against
a rising class of pious Anatolians symbolised by the AKP. Others
say it is mostly about an army that believes soldiers, not elected
politicians, should have the final say over how the country is run.
Yet the real struggle "is between Islam and modernity", says Ismail
Kara, a respected Islamic theologian. Adapting to the modern world
without compromising their religious values is a dilemma that has long
vexed Muslims. For Turkey the challenge is also to craft an identity
that can embrace all its citizens, whether devout Muslims, hard-core
secularists, Alevis or Kurds. If the generals had their way, everyone
would be happy to call himself a Turk, all would refrain from public
displays of piety and nobody would ever challenge their authority. But
the Kemalist straitjacket no longer fits the modern country. Opinion
polls suggest that most Turks now identify themselves primarily as
Muslims, not as Turks. The AKP did not create this mindset: rather,
it was born from it.
The caliph of Istanbul Islam has been intertwined with Turkishness ever
since the Ottoman Sultan adopted the title of "Caliph", or spiritual
leader, of the world’s Muslims almost six centuries ago. When Ataturk
abolished the caliphate in 1924 and launched his secular revolution,
he did not efface piety; he drove it underground. Turkey’s brand
of secularism is not about separating religion from the state, as
in France. It is about subordinating religion to the state. This is
done through the diyanet, the state-run body that appoints imams to
Turkey’s 77,000 mosques and tells them what to preach, even sometimes
writing their sermons.
In the early days of Ataturk’s republic, the facade of modernity was
propped up by zealous Kemalists, who fanned out on civilising missions
across Anatolia. They would drink wine and dance the Charleston at
officers’ clubs in places like Kars. "My grandmother, she told me
about the balls, the beautiful dresses. Kars was such a modern place
then," sighs Arzu Orhankazi, a feminist activist. In truth, life
outside=2 0the cities continued much as before: deeply traditional
and desperately poor.
A big reason why Anatolia seemed less Islamist in the old days is
because it was home to a large and vibrant community of Christians. But
this demographic balance was brutally overturned by the mass killings
and expulsions of Armenians and Greeks in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. Take Tokat, a leafy northern Anatolian town where Armenians
made up nearly a third of the population before 1915. The only trace
that remains of a once thriving Armenian community is a derelict
cemetery overgrown with weeds and desecrated by treasure-hunting
Much of this history is overlooked by the secular elite. Pressed
for evidence of creeping Islamisation under the AKP, they point
to the growing number of women who wear the headscarf, which is
proscribed as a symbol of Islamic militancy in state-run institutions
and schools. Mr Erdogan’s attempt to lift the ban for universities,
which was later overturned by the constitutional court, is a big part
of Mr Yalcinkaya’s case against him and the AKP.
Yet surveys suggest that, except for a small group of militant
pro-secularists, most Turks do not oppose Islamic headgear, least of
all in universities. Its proliferation probably has little to do with
Islamist fervour, but is linked to the influx of rural Anatolians into
towns and cities. The exodus from the countryside accelerated under=2
0 Turgut Ozal, a former prime minister who liberalised the economy in
the early 1980s. For conservative families, covering their daughters’
heads became a way of protecting them in a new and alien world.
Once urbanisation is complete the headscarf will begin to fade, says
Faruk Birtek, a sociologist at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. Bogazici
was always refreshingly unbothered by students with headscarves. But
the rules were tightened in the 1990s. And around the time the
constitutional court in June overturned the new AKP law to let women
with headscarves attend university, Bogazici’s liberal female director
was squeezed out.
Like many, Summeye Kavuncu, a sociology student at Bogazici, has been
caught in the net. She complains that her stomach "gets all knotty each
time I go to university. I no longer know whether to keep my scarf
on or to take it off. The secularists look upon us as cockroaches,
backward creatures who blot their landscape." Few would guess that
Ms Kavuncu belongs to a band of pious activists who dare to speak up
for gays and transvestites.
Social and class snobbery may partly drive the secularists’
contempt for their pious peers. But it is ignorance that drives their
fear. Bridging these worlds can be tricky, "because Islam is not like
other religions, it’s a 24-hour lifestyle," comments Yilmaz Ensaroglu,
an Islamic intellectual. "Devout Musl ims pray five times a day."
Wine, women and schools The biggest fault-lines in Turkey’s sharpening
secular/religious divide concern alcohol, women and education. When
Welfare rose to power in the 1990s, one of its first acts was to ban
booze in restaurants run by municipalities under its control. Party
officials argued that pious citizens had the right to affordable
leisure space that did not offend their values.
Some AKP mayors have pushed this line further. They want to exile
drinkers to "red zones" outside their cities. A newly prosperous
class of devout Muslims is creating its own gated communities, and
a growing number of hotels boast segregated beaches and no liquor. A
survey shows that the number of such retreats has quadrupled under the
AKP. Taha Erdem, a respected pollster, says the number of women wearing
the turban, the least revealing headscarf of all, has quadrupled too.
All this is feeding secularist paranoia about creeping Islam. Are
these fears justified? In the big cities conservative Anatolians
are expanding their living space. But this is not at the secularists’
expense. Life for urban middle-class Turks, and certainly for the rich,
continues much as before. It is in rural backwaters that freewheeling
Turks fall prey to what Serif Mardin, a respected sociologist, calls
"neighbourhood pressure". For instance, Tarsus, a sleepy eastern
Mediterranean town (and birthplace o f St Paul), made headlines
recently when two teenage girls were attacked by syringe-wielding
assailants who sprayed their legs with an acid-like substance because
their skirts were "too short".
Habits in the workplace are changing too. Female school teachers
have been reprimanded for wearing short-sleeved blouses. During the
Ramadan fast last year the governor’s office in Kars stopped serving
tea for a while.
Secular Turks contend that Islam will inevitably wrest more space from
their lives and must be reined in now. With no credible opposition
in sight, many look to the army as secularism’s last defender.
So do many of Turkey’s estimated 15m Alevis, who practise an
idiosyncratic form of Islam: they do not pray in mosques, they are not
teetotal and their women do not cover their heads. The government has
not kept its promise formally to recognise Alevi houses of worship,
called cemevler. Nor has it heeded Alevi demands for their children
to be exempted from compulsory religious-education classes that are
dominated by Sunni Islam. "There is a systematic campaign to brainwash
us, to make us Sunnis," complains Muharrem Erkan, an Alevi activist
The battle for Turkey’s soul is being waged most fiercely in the
country’s schools. Egitim-Sen, a leftist teachers’ union, charges that
Islam has been permeating textbooks under the AKP. Darwin’s theory of
evolution is being whittled away and creationism is seeping
in. Islamist fraternities, or tarikat, continue to ensnare students
by offering free accommodation. The quid pro quo is that they fast
and pray, and girls cover their heads.
Yet the biggest boost to religious education came from the army
itself, after it seized power for the third time in 1980. Communism
was the enemy at the time, so the generals encouraged Islam
as an antidote. Religious teaching became mandatory. Islamic
clerical-training schools, known as imam hatip, mushroomed.
Another example of how army meddling goes awry is Hizbullah, Turkey’s
deadliest home-grown Islamic terrorist outfit. Hizbullah (no relation
to its Lebanese namesake) is alleged to have been encouraged by rogue
security forces in the late 1980s to fight separatist PKK rebels in the
Kurdish south-east. The group spiralled out of control until police
raids in 2001 knocked it out of action. But not entirely. Former
Hizbullah militants are said to have regrouped in cells linked to
al-Qaeda, and took part in the 2003 bombings of Jewish and British
targets in Istanbul.
Banning the AKP could strengthen the hand of such extremists,
who share the fierce secularists’ belief that Islam and democracy
cannot co-exist. If instead the AKP stayed in power, that would
bring Islamists closer to the mainstream. "Six years in government
has tempered even the most radical AKP members,8 0 comments Mr
Ensaroglu. True enough. AKP members of parliament wear Zegna suits
and happily shake women’s hands; their wives get nose jobs and watch
football matches; their children are more likely to study English
than the Koran.
Had Mr Erdogan made an effort to reach out to secular Turks, "we might
not be where we are today," concedes a senior AKP official. He missed
several chances. The first came last autumn when the AKP was trying
to patch together a new constitution to replace the one written by
the generals in the 1980s. Mr Erdogan never bothered to consult his
secular opponents. He ignored them again when passing his law to
let girls wear headscarves at universities. Critics say that his big
election win turned his head.
"Erdogan accepts no advice and no criticism," whispers an AKP
deputy. "He’s become a tyrant."
Maybe he has. But that does not mean he deserves to be barred from
politics, and his party banned.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress