A welcome Islamism

A welcome Islamism

Since Mr Abdullah Gul became president of Turkey last month, talk of rising Islamism (which has become synonymous with obscurantism of late) in Turkey has dominated many think tanks, They are linking it with the global political Islamism and they also believe that it can be replicated in other Muslim countries, especially those where Islamist forces have been politically active, such as Egypt and Pakistan.

Egypt may have a chance in replicating something like the success of the AKP, but it does not have much of a chance in Pakistan. The religious political parties are either under hereditary leadership or political opportunists with hardly any educated religious scholars to develop political alternatives to battle the current chaos. In order for it to work in Pakistan, the religious political parties would be required to take a 180-degree turn and rewrite their manifestos, which usually start with US-bashing and end with Israel-bashing, with women-bashing thrown in the middle for good measure.

Neither President Gul nor Prime Minister Erdogan are Islamists, they both started their political careers with the Welfare Party, but their politics have always been secular. Yes, they are Muslims and their wives wear headscarves, but to equate the personal choice of a spouse to the religious right in other countries is far-fetched and has little credence, if any.

The policies of the AKP, since it assumed power in 2002, had been miraculous. For instance, the 2004 reforms to Turkey”s Penal Code, which were passed by an AKP-dominated parliament, have been revolutionary in granting women personal freedoms and rights to sexual autonomy. A Berlin-based institute, European Stability Initiative, in its report earlier this year said that the new penal code eliminated all references to patriarchal notions that are restricted to women alone, such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs or decency. The new penal code also treats sexual crimes as violations of individual women”s rights, and not as crimes against society, the family or public morality. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the AKP is that it criminalised rape in marriage, something which the secular Turkish establishment never bothered to address and which is absolutely impossible to address in other Muslim patriarchal societies such as Pakistan. In addition, the new Turkish penal code eliminated sentence reductions for honour killings, ended legal discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, and criminalised sexual harassment in the workplace and treated sexual assault by members of the security forces as aggravated offences. A landmark legislation has been an amendment on the penalty of sexual abuse of children because the possibility of under-age consent has been removed.

The AKP has broken the myth that only liberal and secular forces can safeguard women”s right. On the contrary, it was the 1924 constitution of Ataturk which stated that women”s bodies were the property of men, and that sexual crimes against women were in fact crimes against the honour of the family. The AKP reforms are supported by efforts to empower Turkish women and minimise the gender gap. According to the ESI report, a new liberal and Islamic feminist movement is gaining momentum in Turkey. Effective campaigns have been organised for the education of young girls in rural areas and shelters have sprung up across the country for women threatened by domestic violence or honour killings. (A very interesting statistical figure on the social change in Turkey is that between 1997 and 2004 the percentage of arranged marriages fell from 69 percent to 54 percent.)

The AKP proved its commitment to its electorate and moved beyond the traditional notions of what constitute women”s rights. It achieved this by working closely with Turkish civil-society and women”s groups, something which we don”t see happening in Pakistan. Here, the religious right is sceptical of civil-society organisations and terms many of them agents of West. The situation has deteriorated in the NWFP to the extent that for the ruling religious alliance the word NGO is now synonymous with immoral. The idea of working with women”s group to bring about constitutional reforms to achieve greater personal liberty for women is preposterous for such politico-religious parties. .

Another factor that distinguishes the AKP from other religious political parties is that it has never been involved in West-bashing. For instance, Mr Gul, in his capacity as foreign minister, was responsible for the initiation of negotiation of Turkey”s entry into the EU. The massive penal and constitutional reforms were also brought forward to comply with EU demands. President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan believe in the importance of engagement, especially economic engagement, rather than that of confrontation. Such common sense or sagacity is not prevalent in countries like Egypt or Pakistan.

Compare this to Pakistan, where religious groups force women to stay at home during elections in the NWFP. People like Mullah Fazlullah (of Swat) forbid parents, via illegal FM radio stations, to send their daughters to school. It is the MMA and its cohorts, such as the Tehrik-e-Insaaf and the PML-N, that first opposed the women”s protection bill, which does not grant any groundbreaking freedoms but just redressed the grievances that they endured since promulgation of the much-hated Hudood Ordinance, and were later responsible for watering it down. In addition, it is the same set of parliamentarians that has consistently rejected moves to toughen sentences against honour crimes.

One cannot deny that overwhelmingly religiosity is gaining ground in Pakistan and no political party which is overtly and vocally secular can hope to gain much, hence the need for moderate Muslim voices is greater than ever before. Gul and Erdogan belong to that group of reformers who wanted to break away from the rigid and dogmatic. Similarly, reformist members of the famous Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, who are disillusioned with their leadership, have been trying to form a new party. We need such forces in Pakistan to bridge the gap between various political groups at both the ends to encourage the spirit of democracy and harmony. Ironically, despite creating the country through a democratic process, most political parties in Pakistan are undemocratic in their own structure and only surface during elections. They do not have honest Islamic scholars amongst their ranks who are in sync with the voice of the common man and can provide with the intellectual framework under which political and social action can be taken.

In short, the AKP won not because of its Islamic leanings but because it practiced liberal democracy. It replaced a more authoritarian character of the government and made it more inclusive for weaker groups such as ethnic minorities and women. Easing curbs on the Kurdish language, which was previously considered a threat to unity, perhaps won it lasting sympathy in the Kurd areas. In addition, the AKP delivered economic reforms which resulted in high growth rate and improved infrastructure, employment and services with equitable distribution. The AKP won because its achievements during its first tenure outweighed the achievements of its many Kemalist predecessors.

With the recent reforms and the promise of some more, Turkey has emerged as a post-secular, post-patriarchal democracy which is a lesson for leaders of the struggling Muslim world today. The so-called “pro-deal” liberals in Pakistan should learn a lesson or two from all of it. Instead of branding their own countrymen bogeymen, to seek international legitimacy, they should respect democracy. Instead of shunning the Islamist forces, one should work with them, not for temporary political gains, but for lasting social justice, rule of law, development and democracy. Just like Turkey, the educated middleclass in Pakistan must reclaim its place in politics. It is this class that was instrumental in creating the country, it should also be a torch-bearer in bringing about the much needed social and political change.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]