Spotlight on Geopolitics

Secular vs. Islamic Turkey

If France was known, until recently, as “the country of the permanent revolution”, Turkey could very well end up as “the country of permanent coups d’état”.

The Turkish Constitutional Court has recently admitted a request to verify the constitutionality of a measure aproved by the Erdogan government, concerning the freedom of female students to wear the Islamic veil in schools and universities. The objective of those who seem to have initiated this legal action, the Turkish military authorities, was to undermine the credibility of the premier´s party, which, through Abdullah Gul, was also able to secure the presidency of the country.

During the 1990’s, the Turkish military actually succeeded in outlawing another Islamic party, the Refah (or Prosperity party), which was led at the time by Nekmetin Erbakan. In a commentary published by TIME magazine on the 9th of February 1998, I cautioned against allowing the Turkish military to blatantly interfere in state affairs :

“Turkey´s difficulties, however, are self-inflicted, their main cause being the use of the military as guardian of democracy. The Turkish state, as it now stands, is neither democratic nor secular. The recent efforts to keep Refah, the main Islamic political party, from gaining power will make the Turkish military responsible for the tensions that are sure to follow. The political influence of Islamic parties should not frighten Western policymakers. Islam has high ethical and moral standards of business conduct. The Turkish military, on the other hand, is viewed with suspicion. An Islamic party in power in Turkey will not necessarily make the country less democratic or an uncertain ally for the West.”

Subsequent political developments in Turkey have proven the validity of the opinions expressed in 1998. Indeed, for the past six years, the Islamic party led by the Erdogan – Gul team has ensured the country´s stability and economic growth. The latter would have been impossible in the absence of a minimal social solidarity, one which previous governments have failed to achieve. In other words, Islam has acted as a positive, cohesive force in Turkey’s case, not unlike the success achieved on our continent by the German or Spanish Christian-democrats after 1945.

This could be one reason why Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Expansion, has cautioned the Turkish Constitutional Court against outlawing – once again ! – the ruling party under the pretext that it undermines the secular order of the state founded by Kemal Ataturk, out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

To be sure, the European Union offers the rest of the world two main state models. The first group of states is led by France. Countries in this group have built their modern states after dismantling pre-modern religious or political-military institutions, such as the Church or the monarchy, or reducing their role. The others, like continental kingdoms and even countries like Germany have succeeded in modernising their countries by harmoniously combining their political institutions and religious traditions with modern institutions and practices, such as parliamentary rule and democratic elections. In Spain, for example, the modernisation and democratisation that followed Franco’s death were achieved whilst preserving the monarchy and allowing the Catholic Church to contribute to the country’s social cohesion.

Furthermore, quite a few Western economists have arrived at the conclusion that belonging to a religion – especially the monotheistic cults like Judaism, Christianity or Islam – guarantees one certain economic and social advantages, such as “higher levels of income and education, more marriages and less divorces” (quoted from Eduardo Porter, The New York Times 2008). In order to achieve these advantages, organised religions have to impose a set of rules on their members, be it the obligation to wear the Islamic veil by women, the celibacy of the Catholic clergy or the fasting period prior to Easter, in Orthodox lands. If such rules are not observed and enforced, the social cohesion of the religious community suffers and the cult loses in terms of respectability and following.

From a political and military point of view, the Ottoman Empire was, for almost five centuries, the centre of the Islamic universal state which replaced the power of the Arab caliphates. It was the Turks who were in charge of protecting a decaying Islamic civilisation, as well as the Islamic faith, from the Balkans to the Middle East. This glorious historical tradition could not go underutilised for long by the politicians of a rather disfunctional state, as Turkey proved to be in the 20th century. The same talented politicians realised the potential of the Islamic faith´s contribution to stabilising the state, to an extent comparable to that of its military might.

These are just a few reasons why the recent attempt to outlaw Erdogan´s Islamic party in the name of secularism would be a major political blunder. This could prove all the more counterproductive today, when the West is trying to democratise Irak and other countries in the Islamic world. With the peace and stability of more than one billion Moslems at stake, such efforts are aimed at combining authoritarian-type Islamic institutions with modern democratic practices. In this respect, Turkey’s value as a model for the rest of the Islamic world should not be underestimated, as it is indeed exceptional.

(published in Curierul Atenei – Athens Courier, March-April 2008. For the Romanian version, click

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