Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Secular strains: Turkish political Islam comes under new fire
By Vincent Boland and John Thornhill

Every year on April 23, Turkey’s political, military and state leaders gather in the parliament building in Ankara to celebrate national sovereignty day. It is one of those solemn state occasions the country does so well – and it offers a splendid opportunity for grandstanding. This year the speaker of parliament has invited wives of deputies to attend the event wearing headscarves should they wish, a provocative act in a country that has banished the garment from public life. This in turn has prompted speculation that the army top brass will boycott the reception.

Parliament is synonymous with Turkey’s republican history and the central tenet of that history is secularism. But since the Justice and Development party (AKP) was first swept to power in the 2002 general election, the headscarf has become the symbol of a new power struggle in Turkey, between the secular elite – of which the army is the most important element – and a new generation of conservative, religiously-minded Turks.

The military/judicial/bureaucratic nexus looks set for a new and perhaps final confrontation with the AKP. If the generals are even considering a no-show, it is evidence that Turkey’s secularists and the AKP have failed to find a modus operandi after more than five years of uneasy cohabitation. The constitutional court is already preparing to consider a petition to shut the party down, in what many commentators are calling a “judicial coup d’état”.

The AKP, which denies that it has any “agenda”, hidden or otherwise, to Islamise Turkey, will present its defence in the next few days against the charge that it seeks to impose Sharia law on Turkey. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the prosecutor who filed the case with the constitutional court last month, also wants Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, Abdullah Gul, the president, and 69 other party officials banned from political activity for five years.

A legal battle is in prospect lasting perhaps for most of 2008, with the potential to paralyse the business of government and complicate Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union. It adds a huge element of uncertainty to the outlook for Turkey. The economy is already slowing and the country is vulnerable to the impact of the global credit squeeze because of its need for foreign capital to finance its current account deficit. Guven Sak, who heads the Tepav think-tank in Ankara, says the juxtaposition of these “three crises” makes this a difficult moment for Turkey.

The case against the AKP has polarised Turkey along its most familiar faultline – the point, as much ideological as psychological or social, at which its austere founding vision of secularism meets the messy reality of its emergence in the past 60 years as a multi-party democracy. It is perhaps inevitable that the more democratic Turkey becomes, the more its underlying character as a Muslim society will emerge to shape its political culture. The question is whether the AKP fuels this phenomenon or merely reflects it.

While the nation has changed – through migration, industrialisation, the spread of education, democracy and globalisation – in the 85 years since the republic was created, the state has remained essentially the same: authoritarian, hostile to plurality and observant of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular vision for the revolutionary republic he founded. The clash between the AKP and the secularists embodies this tension.


Pertinent Links:

1) Secular strains: Turkish political Islam comes under new fire

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