The Dream of a New Turkey

Article excerpt

The court action has gifted the Islamist parties with the popular underdog brand.

Since arriving in Ankara earlier this summer I have been having a cool Turkish dream. No, it does not take place on a yacht sailing through turquoise waters off the Turkish Riviera. Rather, my dream is a political one, involving Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in the wake of the Constitutional Court's recent decision to fine it for violating the secular Constitution rather than shut it down. In my dream, the Islamist-rooted AKP embraces full-scale liberalism and finds a lasting balance between secularism and democracy for Turkey. My dream is not such a utopian one. Each time the Turkish court sanctions an Islamist party, that party reinvents itself as a more moderate political movement. In return, the court's reaction to each reincarnated Islamist party has become less harsh. The court shut down the AKP's hard-core Islamist predecessors, the Welfare and Virtue parties. But now it has come down with a lesser verdict against the more moderate AKP, hoping that the party will moderate further.

The AKP's record gives me much hope it will do so. When the court shut down the Virtue Party in 2001 for its antisecular activities, the AKP emerged as a breath of fresh air. It publicly eschewed Islamism and pronounced respect for secular democracy, as well as the West and its liberal values. Then things got even better. After coming to power in 2002, the AKP promoted European Union (EU) accession for Turkey, driving a liberal reform agenda and following pro-business policies. The party reached out to different constituencies, suggesting a pluralist understanding of democracy and alleviating concerns about its Islamist pedigree. For a while, it looked as if the AKP had found a liberal balance between Islam and democracy and that it was moving Turkey west.

Alas, it was a mirage on three fronts. First, after Turkey started accession talks with the EU in 2005, the AKP's appetite for the EU faded. It realized that accession talks meant costly reforms, and shied away from pursuing Turkey's EU dream. What's more, a November 2005 decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold Turkey's ban on a specific Islamic-style headscarf (turban) on college campuses disappointed the AKP, which had come to believe it could rely on Europe to redefine Turkish secularism. Second, the AKP started to treat liberal, egalitarian democracy as an a la carte menu, choosing some liberties while ignoring others. For example, while the party pushed to lift Turkey's turban ban on college campuses for female students, it implemented religion-infused policies that led to a decrease in women's employment. …