By Fadi Hakira, an associate fellow, Europe, at Chatham House (THE GUARDIAN, 19/07/08):
The perennial, passionate debate over the place of Islam in Turkish society is reaching another crossroads. Within the next few weeks, the constitutional court will conclude a case brought against the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) by the military for “anti-secular activities”. It is widely expected that it will close down the government and ban the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from politics.
The current power struggle erupted between secularist and Islamist ideologues after the AKP’s landslide re-election last July. During its first term in office, the Islamist-rooted party introduced extensive political, human rights’ and economic reforms under the aegis of the European Union accession process. Excitement filled the air.
But, despite garnering this renewed mandate for reforms, in its second term the AKP resorted to Islamic populism and confrontational politics. Gone were the days of reform and in came religion: pig farms were closed down, there were attempts to restrict alcohol advertising and, most controversially, the lifting of the headscarf ban at universities. Joining the EU ceased to be a priority, and the government became increasingly repressive towards any public expression of dissent.
Beyond the high drama, political intrigue and score-settling, however, there is a dynamic and exhilarating Turkey in the making. According to recent opinion polls, the public’s support for both secularism and religion is rising in parallel. Headscarf wearing is at the same time declining. That and other evidence is pointing strongly to an intriguing development – Islamic and secular values are apparently converging among the Turkish people. A secularising Islam is emerging.
The electorate is yearning as never before for a western-style, post-ideological discourse on bread-and-butter issues. Surveys reveal that economics, jobs and inflation are the key concerns, while the headscarf ban warrants scant attention. Theology is undergoing a similarly comprehensive re-examination. Islamic authorities are reinterpreting holy texts in line with contemporary morality, especially as regards gender equality and minority rights.
These twin changes are having a significant impact on politics. Recent opinion polls indicate plummeting popular support not only for the AKP but for all the major parties. The percentage of undecided voters has risen fivefold since January. The polls also show the AKP and the secularists are blamed equally for the political mess. Forty-five per cent of Turks – a figure rising fast – want new political structures. An electoral earthquake could be in the offing.
Rumblings can be heard from liberal-minded, secular-leaning politicians who wish to build coalitions of right and left, are comfortable with individual choice about headscarfs or alcohol, and are protagonists of radical reforms.
Further proof of these dramatic changes can be found in the unprecedented silence of the military throughout the court case. During past crises, the “guardians of secularism” were always to the fore, but not this time. Sensing that Turkey is fast becoming a diverse society, the military is attempting to adapt. Turkey is increasingly peppered with capitalist-friendly conservatives, liberal secularists and moderate nationalists, all of whom are at odds with the one-size-fits-all state system.
Seen in this light, the current crisis reflects the excruciating labour pains of adjustment. Whatever happens to the AKP and Erdogan, Turkey is on the brink of a new style of politics, emerging as a phoenix from the gathering ashes of the ideologues’ battles of yesteryear.