Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Toward a Reconciliation?

By Heper, Metin | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Toward a Reconciliation?


Heper, Metin, The Middle East Journal


Turkey's democracy has been consolidated by the inclusion of the religiouslyoriented into mainstream politics. This was facilitated by the increasing secularization of the Turks that made support for a radical religious revival less likely, and the increasing moderation of the worldviews of the religious groups themselves.

The Refah Partisi (Prosperity Party, RP)' obtained the plurality of votes in Turkey's December 1995 general elections. In June 1996, the RP and the center-right secular True Path Party (TPP) formed a coalition government, and the RP's leader, Necmettin Erbakan, became prime minister for the first two years of the coalition. These developments caused consternation among many in Turkey, but, unlike the situation in Algeria, the military did not lift a finger to prevent them. Everybody, including the military, accepted the legitimacy of a government led by Erbakan. How has this uneasy marriage between democracy and Islam in Turkey been possible?

In order to address this issue, we need to look at the relationship between Islam and democracy in Turkey from a historical perspective. Bernard Lewis has found some aspects of Islam incompatible with liberal democracy.2 Lewis has observed, however, that of the 46 states which were members of the Islamic Conference in 1993, only one, the Turkish Republic, could be described as a democracy in Western terms.3 Earlier, Lewis had expressed a guarded optimism about the future of democracy in Turkey: Twice before, in the course of their history, the Turks have set an example and served as a model for others-under the Ottomans, of militant Islam; under Kemal Ataturk, of secular patriotism. If they succeed in their present endeavor to create, without loss of character and identity, a liberal economy, an open society, and a liberal democratic polity, they may once again serve as a model to many other peoples.4

To use Juan J. Linz's terminology, in Turkey democracy has become the "only game in town;"5 no group with political influence and/or power, including the military and a great majority of the religiously oriented groups, would prefer an authoritarian regime to a democracy.6 Islam, on the other hand, has been integrated into Turkey's democracy in a myriad ways, while constitutional and legal secularism have been kept intact. Religious orders, movements, and sects have had representatives in the secular political parties as well as in the RP. On the other hand, Turkey's 1982 constitution, not unlike the previous 1961 constitution, stipulates that Turkey is a secular state and that this particular provision in the constitution cannot be repealed. The Constitutional Court can be activated by the president and by the political parties if these constitutional provisions are violated. In 1971, for example, the Court banned the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party, NOP), also formed by Erbakan in the previous year, for using religion for political purposes. Ultimately, the military constitutes the major deterrent to the establishment of an Islamic state in Turkey.

The consolidation of democracy in Turkey, including the successful inclusion of the religiously oriented groups, has been a consequence of an interactive relationship between Islam and democracy. In the 19th century, Islam was given short shrift as a source for public policymaking while some key ideas of democracy were allowed to flourish. From 1923, when the Republic was founded, until the mid-1940s, democracy itself was gradually established. While people's religious feelings were respected, Islamists, defined here as those who wish to see Islam play a greater role in the society and/or the polity, were not permitted to have their own political organizations. From the mid-1940s to the present, as democracy became consolidated, Islamists have been increasingly reincorporated into the political system. This was helped by a gradual change of attitude on the part of the bulk of the Islamists from an anti-regime stance to a pro-regime one. …

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