'Islamization' of Turkey: Not what you would think
Saturday, March 15, 2008
One of the popular themes of the recent years is whether Turkey is being “Islamized.” People ask, and fear, about the change in Turkish society under the incumbency of the conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. The suspicion ranges from extravagant conspiracy theories about the “hidden Taliban-like face of the AKP” to the more reasonable concerns about the rise of moral conservatism in public life. Fellow TDN Mehmet Ali Birand, with whom I agree on many matters, touched upon the latter issue in his successive pieces about “the gradual Islamization of our daily lives.” I bet many readers have found his observations compelling.
I do, too – at least to an extent. But I also think that the “Islamization” he is speaking about is a result of – and not a threat to – Turkey's democratization. The majority of Turkish society has always been quite religious – a phenomenon that has been pushed out of the public square since the early decades of the Republic. The secular elite claimed to know what is right for society and dominated the whole political and social power centers. Now this is changing. The majority, with its values and lifestyles, is coming to the fore.
Meet the real ‘Islamization':
I call this “normalization,” but if you wish, you can prefer that more alarming term. But let me underline the crucial difference between this sort of “Islamization,” and the more famous one envisioned by the founders of the Islamist ideology. The latter's project was to impose Islamic religiosity to the society by using the powers of the state. One of the key architects of that doctrine was Sayyid Abul Ala al-Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami, which is a powerful, and quite radical, political party in Pakistan. Maududi suggested that the classical Islamic duty “to promote virtue and combat vice” was the duty of the state. (Whereas you can say that the same duty actually belongs to the individuals and the community, and should be done by preaching and proposing, not imposing.)
From that premise, “Maududi deduced that the Islamic state must be totalitarian, akin to the communist or fascist states.” (The quote is from Abdelwahab El-Affendi, whose newly reprinted book, “Who Needs An Islamic State?,” masterfully explains why Islamism is not a good idea from a Muslim point of view). That sort of Islamization — which has been in practice in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban — is simply tyranny, and has no justification what so ever.
The “Islamization” in Turkey, on the other hand, is something totally different. For it comes not from a state that imposes religion, but from a society that is breaking the bonds of an authoritarian state that has suppressed religion.
One of the wisest comments I have seen on this was from the Atlantic Monthly's senior correspondent, Robert D. Kaplan. In a December 2004 piece titled “At the Gates of Brussels,” he wrote the following:
“The re-Islamization of Turkey through the rejuvenation of the country's Ottoman roots was going to happen anyway; Atatürk's republican-minded secularization had simply gone too far. The only question was whether this retrenchment from Kemalism would take a radical or a moderate path. Erdoğan's political leanings suggest the latter. Europe should seize the opportunity.”
Exactly… Turkey was not going to remain forever as a country that pretends as if it has nothing to do with Islam. “Atatürk's republican-minded secularization” was a product of the zeitgeist of the early 20th century, during which religion was seen by most intellectuals as a myth that should die out as societies modernize. That's why most Kemalists considered religion as “an obstacle to progress.” But times have changed. Like the “statism” principle of Atatürk, which was a product of the economic trends in the 30's, the ultra-secularist Turkish laïcité does not cope with contemporary realities. It needs to be updated. (Not destroyed! Actually a secular, not a secularist, state is a crucial legacy of Atatürk, and a prerequisite of democracy, that we should keep. But we need to understand that religiosity in society does not threaten the secularity of the state or “progress”.)
Getting the facts right:
Turkey's hard-line Kemalists see such views as either evil-intended tricks or, at best, naïveté. They have been indoctrinated to believe that religion is a dangerous virus, and it must be constantly kept at bay by authoritarian measures. (Alas, they never consider the possibility that religious believers might be radicalized precisely because of that secular authoritarianism.) If they allow religion to flourish in society, the Kemalists rather think, it will soon dominate everywhere. The “Islamization” will go on until we became yet another Islamist tyranny.
But all of these are presumptions – and they are not supported by facts. The facts, on the contrary, show that the popular religiosity in Turkey is civil in nature and its aim is not to create an Islamic order. Survey after survey confirms that. Last week, the daily Star, Turkey's fifth top-selling newspaper, revealed a social study that it has carried out by interviews with 4.524 people from all around Turkey. The results reveal that only 7 percent of the Turkish society is in favor an Islamic state. But it also turns out that 48 percent of the society see religion as moral a guide for social conduct. Meanwhile, 43 percent said religion is only a private matter.
The “Islamization” we are speaking about in Turkey corresponds to the emergence of that 48 percent of the society, which believes that religion should have a role in their daily lives. The early republican ideal was to make everybody accept that religion should remain private. But societies never fully conform to such trials of social engineering. They rather create their own destiny in very complex ways. Turkey is doing the same thing with its “Islamization.” It is doing just fine.