The End of Secularism

Article excerpt

Byline: Soner Cagaptay

This fall, I plan to teach a course on Turkish secularism at Georgetown University. The class was originally listed as current politics. But given the direction in which Turkey's headed, it could well become a history course instead. For after some 80 years, Turkish secularism is withering away.

In late July, the ruling Justice and Development Party (known in Turkish as the AKP) won 47 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, strengthening its already commanding position. Now the AKP, a party with an Islamist pedigree, seems set to elect its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, as president. Once marginal, Turkey's Islamists have become mainstream, and the consequences could prove enormous.

To understand the stakes, it helps to grasp the particular nature of Turkish secularism. When Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey as a secular republic after World War I, he looked to Europe for his model, especially France. Whereas U.S. secularism provides freedom of religion, the French version that Ataturk adopted, known as laA[macron]cite , emphasizes freedom from religion--that is, keeping mosque out of politics.

LaA[macron]cite proved quite durable in Turkey--somewhat surprising given its conservative Muslim character. But the role of religion there was always complex. On questions of Islam, Turks fall into three camps: a minority of irreligious liberals; a minority of fundamentalist Muslims; and a vast majority of conservative Muslims, who practice Islam at home but don't want to live in a Sharia state. After Turkey became a multiparty democracy in 1946, secular parties forged a lasting alliance between liberals and conservative Muslims (and the military), marginalizing and demonizing the fundamentalists.

The AKP, which rose to power in 2002, challenged this old arrangement. It provided better governance and higher economic growth than its secular predecessors, showing that devout politicians could also be good managers. Second, after a few early stumbles, it pursued a pro-business and pragmatic foreign policy. And the AKP tried hard to shed its Islamist image, repositioning itself as a mainstream--albeit conservative--movement. Then came the events of April and May, which helped the already popular AKP increase its standing. …