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Is Turkey Moving Towards Being A Truly Democratic Islamic Country Under The New PM?

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By Bhavya Kumar:

Some countries intrigue me. It’s fascinating to note all the significant aspects of a nation change over a period of time, and usually, these certain transformations begin at home before they affect the behaviour of the country in different spheres of importance. I would like to look at Turkey today, a regional power, holding a decisive take in the Middle East, South Caucasus, and South-East Europe — the areas of influence differ in terms of categorization. This country has had an interesting history, and an all the more interesting present. The political dynamics of the nation have come down to the one person today, the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, and what he holds for Turkey, against the turbulent backdrop of the Middle East.

Ahmet Davutoglu

Islam plays a very important role, and here, one must understand how. Prominence of religion and the functioning of the state affect each other, since there occurs a constant interaction between the two. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal came to power in Turkey, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey, then, had been carved out as a state from what had been an expansive territory. There was a deliberate attempt to cleanse the society and governance of most of the elements associated with projecting Islam as a dominant political force. Turkey’s policies concerning secularism were applied in a way which excluded the Islamic view of governance, isolating secularism from a democratic approach in the decision making process, to curb the influence the religion could render in every possible way.

These many endeavours and the responsibility of their sustenance was taken over by the Turkish armed forces, it seems. Ataturk himself was from the military ranks. The military tended to lean more to the West, while the latter, now that it is in power today, tends to lean to the powers on the other end of the line, and also, seeks the support of the same. They can be read from the events that call of Turkey’s attention, and its active involvement. The Turkish military has staged around three coups, and one “postmodern” coup (in 1997). It has long considered itself to be, and justified its position as, the “guardian” of Kemal’s legacy. NATO’s affiliation has been very instrumental in the constant restlessness of the military concerning power within the country.

In the last couple of decades, what had been suppressed started to resurface in the Turkish political landscape. The rise of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), a conservative national party, and its persistence, can be seen as somewhat of a change. AKP has been able to expand and solidify its influence and strength in political ambitions, particularly driven to maintain stronghold inside and outside the country. AKP is reviving participation of Islam in politics, which had never really gone away.

An important personality that I must mention here is Ahmet Davutoglu. In August 2014, he assumed office as the 26th Prime Minister of the Turkish republic. Before that, he was the foreign minister under Erdogan, and his significant contribution to the Turkish foreign policy and giving it a new shape was not only marked by the fact that he tailored something of the kind, but that he viewed it as a theory, a concept, an underlying governing theme, thus, rendering the policy a solid ideological support, and not just leaving it feeble and fragile in the face of more radical transformations.

What is this ideological support about? It’s about a new way of viewing international relations in a new light, from an entirely different perspective, that is , the Islamic perspective, in his work, “Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory”, which was published in 1993. The piece contrasts worldviews originating from the two, almost dichotomous Islamic and Western traditions of political philosophies and thought. By doing this, he goes well beyond just explaining political structures and legal institutions which are interpreted often by isolating the larger context of scholastic traditions. He, at the same time, somehow challenges the idea that a Western view of the world should prevail and be adopted by countries not necessarily included in “the West”, that is, a view that has been attuned to their needs instead of their own views. As a teacher, he one wrote about how the academics were also affected by dominance of the West in conditioning how the whole world views itself, and this, he found problematic.

“There were Chinese and Muslim Malays, Buddhist Chinese, Hindu Indians, Malays of Indian origin, students from different African countries, and even one from El Salvador. After looking at the class carefully, I glanced at the book that had been assigned for the class. It was a typical, classical textbook. It began with Plato, continued onto the Roman Empire, Christendom, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, modern ideologies, and culminated in an overview of current school of thought in the realm of political ideas. I hid the book. ”

Ahmet Davotuglu,
Global Governance (Vision Papers, Centre of Strategic Research)

Another very interesting policy taken up by Turkish government when he was the foreign minister was that of “zero-problems”. It basically means a neighbourhood free of “troubles”, a peaceful, stable Middle East. I personally found it hard to grasp initially because it has been almost a hundred years and I really couldn’t imagine how “zero-problems” is going to solve anything, but later, it became clearer. Turkey wants no problems for itself in the region. It has envisaged an atmosphere where it is welcome more than ever, where it can prevail. It is reconciling with the Arabs, viewed with much distrust as the WW1 ended. Turkey now wants good relations with everyone around itself. Turkey is the third largest purchaser of Iranian oil (according to CIA factbook records, as of 2012), being one of top NATO contributors, and Turkey has also found itself in problems with the US over the Iranian-Turkish banking, and there was a whole scandal revolving that. Turkey has recently started to sympathize with the Hamas, and is also rumored to back Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is not necessarily an “anti-US” stance, but, it is more of assertion of independence to follow their own path as deemed fit by the governance, and Davutoglu gives a face to this assertion of independence that is not only tolerable but also acceptable, fit for endorsing and with a credible backing, endorsed and valued by academicians all over the world and viewed by the political world as a fine statement. For all this, Turkey is going back to Islam, because you have to reconcile with Islam before you can gain the trust of the Arabs.

Now, after a term as a successful foreign minister, he has taken over the seat of a Prime Minister. It is very clear that Turkey now intends to take on handling it neighbourhood not in accordance with what the West says, but on the basis of the world view that the Turkish society itself has generated. Turkish society, despite Ataturk’s best efforts, couldn’t let go of Islam. It’s a religion that has been there for years, it still persists and Turkish governance today intends to dissolve this weak hold of absolutist kind of secularism with great perseverance.

Erdogan was very unpopular for his tilt towards conservatism, but, his successor isn’t. He is working upon something which we can easily mistake for Islamism rooted in the party he comes from and the support he receives in Turkey. How exactly should we view this? Is he giving just a facelift to the conservatism that Turkey is stretching out to, or is Turkey actually starting out on a path of being a truly democratic Islamic nation?

You must be to comment.
  1. Aditya Malpani

    Turkish constitution defines turkey as a secular nation. So where does the word Islamic democracy come into picture?

    1. Bhavya Kumar

      Of course it is a secular nation. That’s what Ataturk wanted. But it’s taking a different course now. It might stay secular but not so much in practice. Erdogan, in fact, was trained to be an Imam. Just raising a possibility here. The direction in which they’re heading off, they might choose to be one in the future. And please read again, a “democratic Islamic nation” as I have mentioned in the end.

    2. Bhavya Kumar

      Also, an Islamic governance is different from an Islamic nation. The governance isn’t Islamic, but the country is. You have a Muslim majority in Turkey. I hope this answers you question.

  2. Anuraag

    Hi Bhavya,

    Interesting article I if may say so. Where do you think all of this fits in with Turkey’s position on the PKK and the Kurds in general ? We’ve seen Turkey sit back and let ISIS lay havoc on its borders, no doubt with some pre-decided understanding between themselves. It has conducted airstrikes against the main crack force fighting against ISIS in the region. As a member of the NATO it has always not allowed fellow NATO members to use its airspace to conduct military operations against the IS.

    My point is that it feels like Turkey’s pivot from a secular state to an Islamic one has terrifying consequences for the realpolitiks of the region and a re-tracing of their efforts not to be seen as a country in the middle east but a modern progressive European nation.

  3. Anuraag

    Hi Bhavya,

    I had written a pretty elaborate comment before the comment system spazed out and i lost everything I wrote.

    Regardless, good article. Well researched and referenced. 🙂

    My point would be that in the context of Turkey’s tension with the Kurds, subsequent airstrikes against the PKK, disallowing NATO partners from using it as a base, allowing ISIS to run rampant at its borders, do you think there is a tone of criticism or caution that must be used when we (you) describe the pivot of a secular nation into a theocratic one.

    1. Bhavya Kumar

      I don’t think Turkey is moving to theocracy. It is only dissolving the secularism that was inspired by Mustafa Kemal. And it’s a slow process, a subtle process. But, yeah, I know what you mean. All these, in my opinion, are not as well interconencted as I’d like it to be. Turkey was actively against ISIS, as well as the Syrian government, which it wanted desperately to fall. However, animosity with ISIS doesn’t really compromise its efforts to redisover, reinvent and revitalize Islam’s role in politics. I think Turkey is being extremely practical here. Airstrikes against the PKK were a harsh response to PKK’s initiatives, which, according to the world, is very uncommon, but looking at Turkey’s history, that was what I did expect of Turkey. I don’t justify, I only say that it was Turkey’s standard behaviour. I don’t criticize Turkey for this, because it’s adapting to newer developements. It’s killing Ataturk’s legacy, though and that’s a sad loss. But Turkey is now realigning, it is deparately trying to. Their method isn’t bad in my opinion, but yes, it will really complicate the matters in the neighbourhood. Israel’s isolation is yet another thing…

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