When Turkey’s secular elites, led by the military, declared war on the ruling AK Party earlier this year, in order to prevent foreign minister Abdullah Gul from being elected president, it appeared that the “Islamist” AK Party was going to go the same way as the Refah Party led by Necmettin Erbakan a decade ago. Erbakan was prime minister of a coalition government with Tansu Ciller’s secularist True Path Party from December 1995 until June 1997, but was hamstrung by interference from the military, and ultimately forced from office in a “soft coup”. Refah was subsequently outlawed on the grounds of being Islamic, and Erbakan banned from politics for five years. The AK Party emerged from a debate among former Refah Party members; its two top leaders, current prime minister Receb Tayyib Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, were senior members of the Refah Party.
This time, however, the military’s attempted political coup has failed. Erdogan’s government first proposed a constitutional amendment that the president be directly elected by the Turkish people, instead of by Parliament, and when this was vetoed by outgoing president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, took the issue to Turkey’s people by calling a general election. The AK Party’s victory in the resulting polls on July 22 (see p. 12) is a slap in the face for the secular elites, and a stunning confirmation that Turkey’s people regard Islam as a central part of their collective identity and inalienable from their public affairs. When historians look back, this summer may well be seen as the beginning of the end of the Kemalist era.
Just as interesting have been Western reactions to developments in Turkey. In 1997, there was widespread support for the coup against Erbakan, as Kemalist Turkey was seen as a model democracy in the Muslim world. This time round, although some commentators have taken the same line, there has been significant criticism of the military and support for the elected AK party. The Economist magazine, for example, took the editorial view that the military intervention was a greater threat to democracy than the success of the AK. Explicitly citing precedents in the Arab world, including the FIS victory in Algeria in 1992, it said that if democracy was to emerge in Muslim countries, ruling elites and their western allies had to accept the emergence of democratic Islamic parties. It also drew a parallel with the current situation of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, which remains illegal despite being the largest party in Parliament, and which is currently facing a government crackdown.
There has also been a significant change in Western commentators’ approach to the situation of the Ikhwan. Where previously the Egyptian government’s repression was tacitly supported in the West, and ignored in the media, their latest problems are being widely reported, and last month former US attorney general Ramsey Clarke, now a prominent human rights lawyer and critic of US policy, appeared in Cairo to try to represent them in a military court and publicly decry their treatment. Elsewhere too, for example in Western countries, surprised Ikhwan supporters are suddenly finding that their claims to represent a more modern and moderate face of the Islamic movement are being heard by some of those who previously ignored or disparaged them.
The explanation for these changes is clear. While some in the West responded to Muslims’ steadfast support for Islamic movements by reverting to supporting the dictatorships, others now recognise that they will have to accept the role of popular Islamic movements. Having failed to destroy all political expressions of Islam, they will now try to seem to be friendly and supportive allies of “moderate” Islamists, on the grounds of democratic solidarity, while maintaining the same hegemonic outlook and objectives. Their support, moreover, is not unconditional; sooner or later, “moderate Muslims” will be expected to prove their moderation by, for example, accepting the Western international order, opposing Islamic resistance movements (“extremists”), and recognisingIsrael. The rewards offered for doing so will be tempting, but the price will be high: abandonment of what should be the starting-point for all Islamic movements, namely independence from Western influence and control.
Muslims offered these hands of apparent friendship have to be very careful indeed.