Muslim Politics 5: Can Islamists change?

By DERK KINNANE ROELOFSMA, UPI Columnist   |   Oct. 7, 2003 at 1:46 PM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Editor's note: In this fifth installment of the UPI series on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, columnist Derk Kinnane Roelofsma considers the Turkish concept of Muslimhood, as opposed to Islamism.


Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and the theocrats ruling in Tehran continue to believe in a political ideology of Islam that has no use for liberal democracy. They are not likely to change. In the 1970s, similar groups were at work in Turkey, notably the Turkish Hezbollah. Violent clashes between secular Leftists and Islamists led to a coup by the Turkish Armed Forces in 1980, the writing of a new constitution and the repression of extremists of all kinds.

But based on what is going on in Turkey today, the question can be answered with a qualified yes: it seems at least some Islamists can change. On Nov. 3, the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, will mark its first anniversary as the ruling party. The AKP is the progeny of a series of successive Islamist parties, each successively banned.

But the AKP claims to have cleansed itself of Islamism. It believes in working within the state instead of replacing it and it propounds what it calls Muslimhood. For the AKP, Islam in politics is limited to ethical and moral inspiration of individual behavior and individual choice, as Boston University anthropologist Jenny B. White points out in a contribution to a research project conducted by the university's Institute on Religion and World Affairs together with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

A large part of the Turkish people, however, view Erdogan and the AKP as not trustworthy. For all its pro-Western stance, it remains suspect in the eyes of the dominant establishment in the Turkish military, judiciary and government bureaucracy as well as among secularist intellectuals.

But Erdogan has so far escaped being booted out of office and the AKP being banned. Such was the fate of a veteran, strident Islamist, Necmettin Erbakan and his Refah (Welfare) Party that won elections in December 1995. It was ousted in June 1997 when the army told Erbakan to go, which he did without too much fuss.

Erbakan was believed to want to replace Turkish law, based on European models, with Islamic Sharia, a key Islamist goal. The military were not about to allow him to undo the secularist character of the republic with which its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, endowed it.

The Kemalists' severe secularism forbids the wearing of turbans by Muslim clerics or Roman collars by Christian ones. The hijab, the Islamic head covering for women, is tolerated in the street, and in fashionably designed models has become an accoutrement for many Turkish ladies. But it remains banned in public places such as government offices and university classrooms.

So one of the major political issues in Turkey at the moment is a tug of war between those defending the ban on the hijab because they want to keep religion out of the public arena and those who insist on the right to express their religion.

The Turkish system allows the followers of banned parties to regroup, and so another Islamist party, Fazilet (Virtue), arose out of the ashes of Refah. Fazilet was in turn closed down in 2001, but from it came the AKP led by the charismatic Erdogan who had made a name for himself as an effective and Islamist mayor of Greater Istanbul. Under his leadership, the AKP developed as a populist party that within two years was able to secure sufficient votes to rule alone.

The AKP answers the oft-repeated question, "Can Islam and democracy go together?" White says the AKP's answer is a "yes." It supports democracy because democracy guarantees freedom of individual belief and expression, including religious expression, and so its own survival. Influencing the AKP's adoption of a moderate position was doubtless its realization that the Kemalists and their champion, the army, were clearly strong enough to prevent the establishment of Islamist rule.

Another reason for the AKP to be good Muslim democrats is its desire to join the European Union. This is not only because of hoped for economic benefits; it is also because the democratic practices EU membership require would be a barrier to Kemalist action to put an end to the political life of Erdogan and the AKP.

While the AKP looks toward the EU, Muslimhood looks to the origins of the Anatolian Turks in the Sufi-influenced Turkic tribes of Central Asia. This origin is said to be the reason why Turkish Islam is more moderate and individual than Arab Islam, a nationalist touch appealing to the electorate.

Perhaps the single strongest appeal the AKP has for the voter is that it appears free of the corruption characteristic of the secularist parties that dominated politics in past decades. The Turkish people as a whole have been ill served as politicians, their patrons and clients enriched themselves, something dramatized by the deaths resulting from the collapse of housing built in disregard of official standards in a major earthquake in 1999 and the resulting deaths.

The rise of the AKP also reflects important changes in relations between what is called Turkey's societal core and periphery. The core is made up of the culturally Westernized Kemalist establishment, including leaders of big business, and is centered on Istanbul and Ankara. The periphery consists of people, including small businessmen, from the culturally and religiously conservative small towns and rural areas.

Over the past 20 years the periphery has grown as a force in national life with its people emigrating in massive numbers from the countryside to the big cities while the economic role of its small businessmen has swelled.

The AKP and its supporters are a political expression of these changes and the party has prospered as the advocate of the periphery's values. These include, as White notes, stress on community membership and obedience to community norms. Such values can come into conflict with the tolerance and acceptance of a pluralist society that undergirds democracy as it is understood in the West. Hence the positive answer to whether Islamism is compatible with democracy, even when it has been refashioned into moderate Muslimhood, must be qualified.

Erdogan has pushed through regulations banning women from entering the national assembly in dress that reveals anything above the knee. Sleeveless and open blouses are also banned as well as open sandals. To those suspicious of him and the AKP, this and other moves look all too like the nose of the Islamist camel trying to push into the Turkish tent.

Next installment: "Democratic Islam" in Europe?

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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