By Mehmet Karli, who is studying for a PhD at Oxford and is a former president of Oxford University Turkish Society (THE GUARDIAN, 31/08/07):
Your leader (Islam and democracy, August 22) is correct to state that a military intervention to defend secularism in Turkey would be “bad for the military itself, … bad for Turkey and, indeed, bad for the rest of the Muslim world”. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that it was the Turkish army that prepared the fertile ground for the development of political Islam. The military coup of 1980 cleared the way for political Islamists by crushing established political parties and by propagating an authoritarian ideology called the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a poisonous mix of nationalism and Islamism.
However, I find your conclusion troubling. Although your leader states that some policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are worrying “from a European liberal perspective”, it nevertheless seems to condone them because “in parts of the Middle East [Turkey] is often seen as a model”. This implies an Orientalist mindset, an assumption that a Muslim society cannot be as liberal as a European one. Why should we lower the bar? Is it wise to dismiss secular Turks’ criticisms of the illiberal policies of the AKP so that it can be presented as a role model elsewhere in the Middle East?
It is indeed true that “the Turkish brand of secularism has its unattractive side too”, being associated with “politics that at times can be far from progressive”. But it would be wrong to think that all secular Turks want an army intervention. Many are determined to protect not only secularism but also democracy. As your leader suggests, the danger in Turkey is not the establishment of an Islamic state. Neither the history nor the social structure of Turkey would allow this. The real danger is the creeping Islamisation of social life, and a rise in societal conservatism which puts pressure on secular Turks. While the AKP does not impose any laws towards the establishment of an Islamic state, it fuels social conservatism through political and economic incentives. Municipalities controlled by the AKP use social policies to promote conservatism, and in the central administration a conservative lifestyle becomes necessary for those who wish to be promoted to key positions.
You say Abdullah Gul, “in anticipation of becoming president … has made some reassuring noises”. Not all leading figures in the AKP have been so reassuring. After the secular Turkish columnist Bekir Coskun recently wrote that he would not accept Gul as his president (reminiscent of “not my president” protests against George Bush), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, urged him to give up his Turkish nationality and leave the country. Many secular Turks believed that this comment was addressed not only to Coskun but to all of them.
Many words and deeds of the AKP are indeed worrying from a European liberal perspective. Some in the west may condone them in line with the role they have tailored for Turkey: a role model for the Middle East. But some of us in Turkey still think that we should and can not settle for anything less than a truly liberal society – liberal in the European sense of the word. If that prevents us from being a role model to other Muslim societies in the Middle East, so be it.