"Islam and Democracy: The Turkish Model?"

By Ziad, Homayra | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2003 | Go to article overview

"Islam and Democracy: The Turkish Model?"


Ziad, Homayra, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Waging Peace

On Feb. 11 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, Center Fellow Haldun Gulalp presented a talk entitled "Islam and Democracy: the Turkish Model?" The animated sociology professor from Istanbul's Bogazi'i University discussed the place of religion in the current Turkish government.

There is a similarity, said Gulalp, between the Turkish secularists' view of Islam and the way in which many Westerners have decried the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Under secularist governments, he observed, Turkey was touted as a model Muslim country by the West only because its Muslim identity was suppressed. Most Westerners and secularists believed that, for a Muslim country to become truly democratic, it had to shed its Islamic culture, identity, and existence.

However, argued Gulalp, under its present government Turkey may become a valid model for the coexistence of Islam and democracy. It may also represent a viable alternative to Islamist governments, as well as to secularist regimes which have suppressed not only their Islamist opponents but Muslim identity itself.

In considering what differentiates Turkey's previous Islamist regime from today's Muslim government, Gulalp began by distinguishing between Islam and the politics of Islamism. The former, he stated, encompasses religion and culture, while Islamism denotes a political ideology. During the previous Islamist government, he said, "what we had was a case of political Islam, not founded on democratic principles." Although it participated in the electoral process and won legitimately, he pointed out, it was not a prodemocracy government.

Many believe that because Islam, particularly as a culture, was oppressed under secular Turkish governments, the assertion of an Islamic identity in the form of a political movement was a progressive and democratic step. "I was critical then of this view," said Gulalp. "Islamism as a political movement cannot be democratic." Any policy based on an assertion of cultural identity, he maintained, has the potential to be authoritative and intolerant. "It necessarily presumes an essential quality to culture and members of that culture," he said. "It presumes a homogeneity that doesn't exist, and forces people into straitjackets."

Recalling the slew of post-- Cold War identity movements, Gulalp noted that most were defensive, looking for an assertion of identity that was non-negotiable. Furthermore, he said, "political Islamism and other identity movements are geared toward power-capturing state power to impose a certain view."

Islamism, he stressed, is deeply in touch with and makes use of modernity, a fact noted by scholars. Its "traditional identity" is merely for ideological purposes.

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