Turkey’s Irrelevant Islamism

Commentators feared a radical backlash when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28 (UNAOC)

After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister of Turkey for the conservative Justice and Development Party AKP in 2003, both the secular opposition and Western commentators were quick to expound their fears about the country’s apparently newfound Islamism. The legacy of Atatürk was being squandered, some alleged, in favor of backwardness and nationalism.

Those fears peaked in 2007 when Erdoğan nominated his foreign minister Abdullah Gül for the presidency. Gül was an outspoken Islamist and his wife even wore a headscarf! Such outward symbols of religion had for long been anathema to Turkey’s secularists yet Gül became president and has been popular ever since.

Visiting Spain in 2008, the prime minister responded to questions about the headscarf issue, wondering, “What if the headscarf is a symbol? Even if it were a political symbol, does that give [one the] right to ban it? Could you bring prohibitions to symbols?” His party didn’t think so and attempted to lift a decades-old ban that prohibited women wearing headscarfs from working in public-sector jobs and studying at state universities. In spite of gaining an overwhelming majority in parliament in favor of repeal, Turkey’s highest court struck it down as unconstitutional in June 2008.

No matter criticism, the AKP’s civil rights record has been spectacularly progressive for a party that describes itself as conservative. In an effort to meet European Union criteria for membership, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government allowed the European Court of Human Rights supremacy over Turkish courts, diminished the powers of a 1991 anti-terror law that had constrained Turkey’s democratization and abolished the death penalty.

For decades, the country’s secularists relied on the army to keep Islamism at bay while enriching themselves at the cost of financial ruin. Erdoğan almost immediately restricted the power and influence of the military after he was elected and has worked to root out corruption from the Turkish government altogether at the same time — a herculean task that is not without merit. In conjunction with market reforms and free-trade agreements with neighboring states, Turkey’s economy is prospering because of it.

Politically, the windfall has been impressive for the AKP as well. Between 2002 and 2007, Erdoğan’s party picked up almost six million votes, representing nearly half of the electorate in parliament today. The opposition meanwhile, rather than offering real alternatives, has largely succumbed to scaremongering. The secularists have been mounting legal challenges to Erdoğan’s policies and allege that his government has estranged Turkey from the West. That is only part of the truth.

Turkey may have been acting more independently in recent years but this is rather to blame on Europe than its own intentions. During the early years of Erdoğan’s prime ministership, the country made a sincere effort to meet Brussels’ demands for membership. The European populace, however, had grown tired of the European Union and weary of its expansion. The European mandarins have grown tired of their populace in turn while national politicians are afraid to express support for the admittance of any new member states, let alone Turkey with its 75 million people, some 97 percent of whom identify as Muslim.

Turkey understands that it will take many more years before it can start to think of entering the union, if ever it does. Its Middle Eastern orientation is a choice but one of necessity. It cannot afford to remain in something of a twilight zone between East and West indefinitely. For now, it is naturally seeking a leadership position in a part of the world that welcomes it, in part because of its clout in the West (Turkey is a NATO member after all) and in part because it is an economic powerhouse thanks to Erdoğan’s reforms which nearby states stand to profit from immensely. If anything, its moderate Islamism stands as an example to the rest of the region where theocratic regimes and sectarian violence continue to wreck havoc and demand lives almost every day.

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