Political Islam and Kemalist laicism: New Tango on Turkey's Old Battlefield

Leonidas Oikonomakis, June 22, 2010

The minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article with the catchy title "Intrigue in Turkey's bloodless civil war." It was referring to the ongoing "cold war" climate between Turkey's Islamic-leaning ruling party—the Justice and Development Party (AKP)—and the country's old laicist elites who describe themselves as "Kemalists" and seek to keep religion and politics entirely separate. But that's just the latest battle in the cold war between political Islam and Turkish laicism that started nearly 100 years ago.

Understanding the history of the two sides and their relationship with one another is key in resolving Turkey's cold war so the country can make peace with itself.

It started in 1923 when the Turkish Republic emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, immediately launched his "cultural revolution." He believed that Islam had no place in the state's affairs and embarked upon a campaign to subordinate religion to the state. He abolished the caliphate; closed all religious schools, orders and institutions; replaced Islamic law with Swiss civil law, German trade and commercial law, and Italian criminal law; replaced the Arabic script with the Latin one; introduced compulsory education and female suffrage; and banned the display of religious symbols in public institutions.

But Atatürk's cultural revolution was a revolution "from above" and never reached the hearts and minds of the majority.

The first major run-in between political Islam and Turkish laicism occurred during Atatürk's heyday with the Menemen incident of 1930 when the Dervish Mehmed Efendi incited rebellion. The rebellion was quelled and the instigators were eventually killed or jailed by the Turkish army.

After Atatürk's death in 1938 and the first multi-party elections of 1950, political leader and soon-to-be Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his Democratic Party campaigned and won on the platform of incorporating Islam back into public life by legalizing Arabic and lifting the ban on the call to prayer. However, the Turkish army launched a military coup in 1960, proclaiming itself the guardian of Kemalist laicism, and arresting Menderes on charges of violating the constitution.

Political Islam went underground again, only to reemerge with the election of former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and his Welfare Party (RP) in 1996. It was Erbakan who politicized the headscarf issue for the first time and also promoted closer cooperation with Muslim-majority countries. However, the RP was also overthrown by the army in 1997 and banned the following year.

Despite the ban, in 2001 the reformist wing of the RP created what was to become the greatest success of political Islam in Turkey to date. Current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP won the majority vote in the 2002 general elections and has been governing the country ever since.

The AKP has brought Turkey to the doorstep of the European Union, politicized religion with the headscarf as its flagship issue, and tacitly encouraged the conservative transformation of Turkish society through its rhetoric and policies at the top level, translating into "neighborhood pressure" to become increasingly religious at the grassroots level.

Eight years later, Turkish society is increasingly polarized. There is an ongoing struggle by the government and its supporters to take control of the media, the police and the judiciary out of the Kemalists' hands, though a large share of the country's media, including Zaman newspaper, is already said to be pro-government.

At the same time, one cannot fail to notice a shift in Turkey's foreign policy, focusing on the so-called Muslim world and distancing itself from its traditional Western allies.

But for genuine sustainable progress, Turkey has to address its own internal cold war without polarizing the two sides as winners and losers.

After all, it takes two to tango. The country's laicist elites have to come to terms with Turkey's distinctive religious landscape and sensitivities, and political Islamic activists have to realize that many believe Islam is a religion, not a way to run the state, and that it should stay in the private sphere.

The European Union and its Copenhagen criteria for accession eligibility—which includes respect for democracy, rule of law, human and minority rights, and a functioning market economy—seem like the best way to ensure Turkey's two worlds finally meet so that the country can make peace with itself, through a socio-political framework both sides can compromise on.

For this to be achieved the European Union needs to play the major peacemaking role, which involves a great deal of responsibility. Europe is the orchestra playing this tango. And in order for the dance to continue the music has to keep playing.

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a research associate at the University of Crete, as well as at the Center for European Studies of the Middle East Technical University. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service:

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