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Turkey shows that it’s different
Turkey shows that it’s different
Turkey’s election choice on July 22 does not mark a final disengagement with secularism as some enthusiastic Islamists in the Arab world believe.
Sunday, July 29,2007 06:10
by Osama Al Sharif Gulfnews.com

Turkey"s election choice on July 22 does not mark a final disengagement with secularism as some enthusiastic Islamists in the Arab world believe.

The victory of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose Islamic roots were too obvious to ignore by the country"s secular establishment, opens a new chapter in Turkey"s long search to redefine its identity in the 21st century world. That transition may have led to the birth of a hybrid political as well as socio-cultural animal; secular Islamism.

From the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Mustapha Kamal Ataturk"s greatest, and most controversial, legacy to the young Turkish nation which he defended and put together was secularism, which spelt a decisive divorce between Islam as a political religion and the modern, westward looking state in Asia Minor. That revolutionary experiment which remains unique in the Muslim world has survived for over 80 years, but not without challenges.

Thus it is simplistic, and factually wrong, to make comparisons between, or parallels with, Turkey"s strong election mandate for the AKP on the one hand, and the rising influence of political Islam in the Arab world and elsewhere. AKP"s victory at the ballot boxes, the second since the 2004 elections first brought it to power, was a triumph for the country"s democratic principles and institutions before anything else. But essentially it gave the last word on the future of Turkey to the Turkish electorate and not the military establishment.

If the AKP is intrinsically an Islamist party then it is fair to say that we, in the Arab world, have nothing that comes even close to its founding principles, populist objectives and seemingly laissez faire politics. Not only that it is functioning in an entirely different domestic environment than say that of Jordan, Egypt, Algeria or Tunisia, but it departs completely from the agendas of the likes of Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other Islamist political movements across the Arab world and beyond.

AKP"s leader and Turkey"s charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to respect the country"s secular foundations. During the previous government he made sure that his policies did not challenge the tenets of Turkey"s secularism. His policies of free market economic reforms, closer relations with Europe, including his genuine campaign for Turkey"s EU membership, maintaining contacts with Israel and tolerant views on globalisation, puts him more in the league of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy than that of conservative leaders of most Islamist parties.

It is now a fact that the overwhelming support that Erdogan"s party received by Turks from all parts of the country, including the westernised urban areas of western Turkey, was in actuality a vote of confidence for AKP"s economic reforms above anything else. When election results were announced the country"s stock markets responded positively. The people of Turkey wanted more of the same.

Political map

Islamist parties in Turkey have dotted the political map for sometime under the watchful eyes of the military establishment, which has often intervened in the political process under the pretext of protecting Ataturk"s secular legacy. The most infamous case was when Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party was forced to resign in 1997 under pressure from the military. But from the ruins of the Welfare Party came Erdogan"s AKP who gave his party a broader message focusing on economic reforms and fighting corruption, both of which hit a chord with a cross-section of Turks.

Since then small religious parties have attacked the AKP for departing from the Islamist course, but Erdogan and his close comrades, most prominent of whom is Abdullah Gul, did not waver. Through building coalitions with centre-right parties, AKP was able to tone down its Islamist background. In his confrontation with the secular nationalists, especially the Republican People"s Party, over his nomination of Gul to the presidency, Erdogan outmanoeuvred the opposition by calling for early elections.

The future challenges for Erdogan and his party will not be easy to overcome. He will have to decide if he will pursue his bid to appoint Gul as president and risk another showdown with the secularists. Relations with Europe, especially France, and Turkey"s application to join the EU will take centre-stage in the weeks and months to come. And he will have to deal with the complicated Kurdish issue and the future of Iraq.

Turkey"s bold choice this month has raised many questions over the future of secularism in a country that has struggled for decades to cope with its Islamic heritage and identity while striving to look towards Europe and the West as a model for economic achievements and wide-ranging political reforms. That internal struggle continues but not at the expense of democracy. The concept of secular Islamism, still nascent, is finding roots among many elite European Muslims despite the wave of extremism and fundamentalism that has swept Muslim communities in the continent.

How AKP in particular and Turkey in general will reconcile Islam and secularism, if ever, is the real big story, which Arabs and Muslims everywhere, especially in sectarian-embattled Iraq, should follow and try to understand.

Osama Al Sharif is a Jordanian journalist based in Amman.


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