The victory of the ‘Islamist’ Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s general elections earlier this month was greeted with incredulity and consternation among both Turkey’s secular elite and its Western allies, who have been wont to hold Kemalist Turkey up as a model of the separation of Islam and politics for other Muslim countries. Despite the protestations of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP’s de facto leader, that his party is not religious, and is committed to Turkey’s secular constitution, few people doubt that the largest factor in its triumph is its identification with Islam in the minds of most Turks.
One thing that is absolutely clear is that the AKP will not be allowed to radically change the secular emphasis of Turkish politics. Like Islamist leaders before him, Erdogan will be forced to work within the constraints of the Turkish constitution and — more importantly — under the supervision of the military, which sees itself as the guardian of Mustafa Kemal’s secular fundamentalism. The AKP’s strong position in parliament means that the secular elites have to tread carefully in controlling it, but their determination to do so, whatever it takes, has been shown amply in the past. The last time an Islamist party achieved power in Turkey, its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, was forced to step down in 1997, in a de facto coup engineered by the National Security Council. The Refah Party (then the largest party in parliament, with 102 of 550 seats) was closed down in 1998 on charges of anti-secular activities, and Erbakan was banned from politics. Refah’s successor, the Fazilat Party, was banned in 2001.
The AKP emerged from the ‘modernizing’ wing of the Fazilat Party (the ‘traditionalists’ established the Saadat Party, led by Erbakan, which got 2.5 percent of the votes in the recent elections). Its success indicates the utter failure of the secularists’ attempts to wean the Turkish people away from Islam, reducing it to a personal religion at most and preferably not even that. This was always an unrealistic aspiration. Islam has shaped Turkish society for centuries, as it has all Muslim societies, and it would be utterly unnatural for the Turks to divorce the conduct of their public and social activities from their dominant value system.
Kemalist Turkey has been held up as a model for Muslim countries because it seems to be a secular democracy in a Muslim society, at a time when the West (despite its long record of supporting pro-Western dictatorships and repressing Islamic movements) has increasingly blamed anti-Westernism in the Muslim world on the absence of democracy. Turkey’s recent history demonstrates the danger that democracy in Muslim countries poses to the West: any system that genuinely takes into account the political opinions of Muslim societies must open the way for Islamic parties to come to power. This is why all ‘democratic’ institutions that the West is willing to countenance in Muslim countries (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Pakistan, etc.) are designed not to reflect the people’s aspirations but to create the impression of popular involvement, while ensuring that real power remains in the hands of secular, pro-Western elites, however unrepresentative and repressive they may be. The West’s horror that, even in Turkey, people still turn for political leadership to leaders perceived as Islamic, is understandable.
But there are important lessons in Turkey’s experience for Islamic movements too. The fact that working through established political systems has limited potential for success has been amply proved, in Turkey, Algeria, Pakistan and other countries, and is likely to be proved again by the AKP in the near future. The AKP is also likely to find that politicians who aspire to represent Islam, but repeatedly dilute their commitment in order to be acceptable and achieve success in political systems that are designed to filter Islam out of political life, soon come to be seen as little different from the secular politicians whom they aspire to replace.
But perhaps the greatest lesson of the Turkish experience is that the political will and support of the Muslim masses is the greatest resource of the Islamic movement, which the Muslims are willing to give to leaders whom they perceive as being genuinely willing to apply Islamic values to political life. The challenge facing Muslims, in Turkey and other countries, is to establish such movements and produce such leaders, and to harness the political power of the Muslim masses to replace the existing political structures in our countries with Islamic institutions that will reflect, guarantee and protect the Islamic aspirations of all Muslims