Middle East

A role for religion in Turkish and Pakistani politics?

Landscape view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo: Rick Becker-Leckron / Getty Images)

Istanbul/Islamabad - Pakistan and Turkey stand at a crossroads in their political evolutions. The democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Pakistan control both the presidencies and parliaments of their countries, ostensibly making them amongst the strongest elected governments in each of their respective histories.

Both the PPP and the AKP have promised to bring about much needed political and economic reform, but their sincerity and ability to undertake such initiatives is very much disputed.

The two countries’ political trajectories shed light on some of the changing political dynamics within Muslim countries. Turkey is frequently cited as a unique example of a secular democracy in the Muslim world. On the other end of the secularism spectrum is Pakistan, a country whose founding principles were based on the ideology of Muslim democracy.

Since independence, both countries’ politics have been dominated by large militaries, whose disproportionate economic and political power has been a significant obstacle for democratisation.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish republic in 1923, ending more than 600 years of Ottoman rule. However, while the new republic was quick to adopt many of the cultural aspects of a Western country, creating a democratic political system proved much more difficult.

Even after Turkey transitioned into a multi-party political system in 1946, the military remained dominant in politics as the guardian of democracy and secularism. The military used this self-acclaimed guardianship as justification to legitimise its interventions, and thus Turkey witnessed military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, followed by a quasi-coup in 1997 and numerous other unsuccessful attempts.

Each military intervention dominated the political sphere long after their one-to-three-year durations.

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Pakistan, on the other hand, was created in 1947 as an independent homeland for Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. Although the founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned Pakistan as a modern Muslim democracy rather than a theocratic state, the role of religion in state affairs was ill-defined at the time of independence.

In fact, the issue of just how "Islamic" Pakistan should be is still debated by the country’s polity.

Like in Turkey, the Pakistani military dominated state affairs soon after independence. The country has witnessed four military coups and spent most of its 60 years of independence under military rule.

The initial years of the Turkish Kemalist state saw some of the most radical measures to expunge Islam from public life, such as the ban on women wearing headscarves and the closure of madrassas (Islamic religious schools).

Although some of the restrictions on religious practice were subsequently eased, the role of Islam in public life is still an extremely polarised debate in Turkey.

In July 2007, the AKP was elected to power for the second time. The electoral success of the AKP, a moderate, pro-Western, politicised Islamic party, has proven to be the litmus test of Turkish democracy.

Although the AKP promised to uphold the secular traditions of Turkey, its religious roots made it anathema to the military establishment.

In March 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court attempted to ban the AKP from politics. Although the Court eventually voted against banning the party, the case was welcomed by the military establishment.

However, it caused an uproar in Turkish civil society.

In April 2008, following the AKP’s nomination of Abdullah Gül as President, the military made a statement denouncing the rising religious sentiments in the country and warned that it would not hesitate to defend Turkey’s secular principles.

This was interpreted by many commentators as a thinly disguised threat of a fourth military coup and a stark reminder of the military’s distrust of a political party which had won over 46 percent of the popular vote.

While Turkey struggled to create a new secular order by suppressing religious tendencies, Pakistan tried to forge a sense of nationhood based on ideals of Muslim nationhood. Thus, the existence of Islam in Pakistani politics is a natural, albeit contested, ligature of its creation.

During the period of military rule in Pakistan in the 1980s, General Zia ul Haq’s policy of state-led "Islamisation", an attempt to appeal to Pakistan’s religious right, aimed to restructure the institutions of Pakistan into an Islamic state.

But state efforts in both countries to define the role of Islam in politics and society have not gone uncontested. In the last two decades, there has been a grassroots mobilisation of political Islam in Turkey in spite of state restrictions.

In Pakistan, Islamic parties that want a more politicised role for religion have been unable to make a significant impact at the ballot box, despite successive attempts by the state to co-opt them. They have, however, benefited greatly from state patronage, particularly during periods of military rule.

In fact, General Pervez Musharraf, though viewed in the West as a secular ally in a volatile region, also allied himself with a coalition of religious political parties in a bid to gain political legitimacy.

In order for these fledgling democracies to be strengthened so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, it is important that the AKP and PPP’s political mandates be respected.

The two political parties, no matter how flawed they are, need to engage in the political process uninterrupted. The most critical challenge for both countries is strengthening independent institutions such as free media, an independent judiciary and an active "watchdog" civil society that will hold elected governments accountable and ensure they act within a constitutional framework - a role monopolised by the military for far too long.

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* Özlem Gemici lives in Istanbul, where she works with a think tank focusing on Turkey’s foreign policy, democratisation and governance issues. Rehan Rafay Jamil is a media consultant who lives in Islamabad and writes on issues related to democratisation and foreign policy in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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