Islam and Democracy; Coexisting in Erdogan's Turkey

Article excerpt


ANKARA, Turkey - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a complicated man - a seasoned Islamist politician who understands what it means to challenge the secular principles of Ataturk's Turkey. Yet during his five-year tenure, Mr. Erdogan made secularism the subject of constant public debate, portraying it as violating the rights of veiled Muslim women.

The country has been desperately lacking in serious discussion about the values of Turkish Islamists and how their understanding and practice of religion has fed fear. The challenge of teaching about Islam is narrowed down to the headscarf worn by Hayrunisa Gul, wife of Foreign Minister and former presidential hopeful Abdullah Gul. Millions of Turks throughout the country - and even in Germany, home to Europe's largest population of Turkish immigrants - took to the streets to protest any attempt by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to cross the line dividing mosque and state.

Now the Europeans who said Islam and democracy could not harmoniously coexist can cite those crowds as proof, who actually have done all the hard work and struggled to persuade Europe that no clash of religious values exists to prevent Turkey from joining the European Union. The secular Turks admit that Turkey is not ready to be part of Europe today with that fear of darkness coming from inside. Alas it would be betrayal to the larger Muslim population who constantly look up to the West at times of trouble. Yet they don't appreciate cheap shots about Turkey's EU destiny. Secular Turks fiercely criticized Dutch parliamentarian Fritz Bolkenstein, who said, "If we are to admit Turkey into the EU then why did we bother to stop the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683?"

The secular Turks who protested do not necessarily doubt whether Islam and democracy can co-exist. But they are concerned about the increasingly visible role in Turkish society of Islamists who define religion by the wearing of headscarves; supporting the separation of the sexes in general and refusing to shake hands with women; banning alcoholic beverages; and shaping the society to more closely adhere to the customs of the Arab world, rather than the Western world. Currently, secular Turkish women have no representation when Mr. Erdogan travels abroad. And they poured to the streets protesting the changing image of Turkey's women, and the many unknowns that are "veiled" behind it.

The AKP may have agreed to open official accession talks with the EU, but critics believe that party leaders misunderstand the idea of "freedom." The fight is not over a headscarf, but over embracing modernity as a core component of Turkish society. …