Monday, April 18, 2011

Turkey’s Model May Be A Slippery Slope

 By Soner Cagaptay
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/04/2011
The so-called “Turkish model,” in which an Islamist party heads an ostensible democracy, has been touted in recent weeks as the likely outcome in post-authoritarian Arab countries.
Likely, maybe, but Turkey’s experience under the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, suggests that such a path may also be a slippery slope.
The AKP does not aim to create a fundamentalist state in Turkey, but the ruling party’s conservative policies might inadvertently lead to precisely that. For several years the AKP has been transforming Turkish society by making religion the moral compass of the country’s body politic. This does not mean that the party wants to turn Turkey into a theocracy. But once narrowly defined faith becomes a guiding principle in formulating policy, fundamentalists claiming ideological purity become more competitive politically. Their demands for an even stricter implementation of religion-based rules and values risk pushing Turkish society toward radicalization.
History teaches us that fundamentalists always defeat conservatives in any competition for ideological purity. In the 11th century, the religiously conservative Almoravid movement swept the Muslim kingdom of Andalusia in reaction to its liberal ways, especially its embrace of progressive thought and acceptance of non-Muslims. Upon taking over Andalusia, the Almoravids enshrined their illiberal interpretation of Islam as the moral compass of society.
But the Almoravids’ brand of conservatism was soon viewed as too lax by Muslims who were even more fundamentalist. The Almohads emerged to protest what they considered the Almoravids’ “tolerance.” Their takeover of Andalusia radicalized the society, leading to the persecution of non-Muslims and to religious warfare.
Turkey’s Islamization under the AKP threatens to follow a similar, if more gradual, trajectory. The AKP’s embrace of religious values is not the biggest problem of Turkish secularists. Rather, the larger threat is that, now that the AKP has pushed religion more to the center of Turkish social preoccupations, fundamentalists will gain carte blanche to challenge the AKP as “not Muslim enough.”
Indeed, last November the AKP was moved to fire Ali Bardakoglu, the liberal head of Diyanet, Turkey’s official religious authority that has historically checked fanaticism by building mosques and training imams while promoting a liberal understanding of Islam. The AKP replaced Bardakoglu with another well-known scholar, Mehmet Gormez, who has an avowedly more conservative take on Islam.
The new Diyanet chief’s first act was to fire Ayse Sucu, who headed the organization’s women’s branch. Sucu’s initiatives had included suggesting that women should be able to decide for themselves whether to cover their hair. Fundamentalist media and pundits were ecstatic at her ousting, claiming that it signaled that there was no room for a personal interpretation of Islam.
The AKP has promoted socially conservative values, such as the need for women to wear the Islamic headscarf and a disdain for alcohol. Turkish bureaucrats and businesspeople complain that embracing these practices to prove that one is a “good Muslim” has become a precondition for getting government promotions and contracts.
Meanwhile, the AKP-run media watchdog recently scolded a television station for broadcasting a program about Suleiman the Magnificent that truthfully depicted the famously cosmopolitan Ottoman sultan drinking alcohol. The official warning followed an outcry led by AKP leaders and fundamentalists alike, who demanded that the show be banned. Radicals now have the upper hand in slowly ending Turkey’s centuries-old drinking culture.
Or take the AKP’s new Kurdish policy. In an effort to expand its base among Kurds before parliamentary elections next June, the party has emphasized Islam as a common denominator between Kurds and Turks, in order to undermine the secular Kurdish nationalist party. The plan may well help the AKP win the elections. However, it will also invite competition from religious radicals, such as the Kurdish Hezbollah – a violent Sunni group not linked to the Lebanese Shiite group of the same name. Kurdish Hezbollah boasts a wide grassroots network in southeast Turkey.
Recently, Kurdish Hezbollah’s leadership, which had been imprisoned since a crackdown in the late 1990s, was released due to a legal loophole. The AKP’s emphasis on Islam may mean it helps replace the secular-nationalist Kurdish movement with a religious-nationalist one. Don’t be surprised if Kurdish Hezbollah begins suggesting that neither the AKP nor Diyanet are “Muslim enough” to represent Kurds.
Turkey’s shift is bad news for the United States and Europe. The potential radicalization of the Turkish population is a pressing concern, given that Turkey recently eliminated visa restrictions for citizens of a number of Muslim countries – including Iran, Syria, Jordan and Libya. The move will facilitate cross-fertilization among radical groups in Turkey. Washington should start making contingency plans now to deal with radicals who will challenge the AKP’s cooperation with the United States, particularly in Afghanistan.
Turkey’s emboldened radicals will also take issue with Ankara’s European Union policy – as if Turkey’s EU accession plans did not already face enough obstacles. Given the large number of Turkish immigrants in Europe, the radicalization of the Turkish population, especially its Kurdish segment, will likely replicate itself in Europe.
The AKP’s religious bent, disconcerting in itself, can easily spin out of control. The lesson of the AKP experience for the Arab world, particularly give that Muslim Brotherhood-led governments may take over in the region, is that religious orthodoxy is an ideological beauty contest in which the winner is always the ugly guy.
Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is also a senior fellow. This article, originally published in the Wall Street Journal, is reprinted by permission from the author.

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