Today's date:
Summer 2007

Autocracy vs. Democracy

Yusuf Muftuoglu is an editor of NPQ-Turkiyë. His comments here are in response to the editor's opening commentary in this issue of NPQ.

Istanbul —The opening comment in this NPQ by editor Nathan Gardels is balanced for such a complex issue, but the picture perceived from the outside world is a very tiny part of the reality here, and many things remain unknown.

I'm one of those very few who believe that the real risk in Turkey is not Islamization, but anti-democratization. Turkey's already problematic democratic system risks being turned into an isolated oligarchy of 1930's style by the present crisis. The country faces the risk of losing the liberal/democratic political momentum it achieved over the past four years. Just as I am writing this, the Turkish Army has issued yet another statement in which it calls for the "Turkish people to show a common resistance against terrorism." In a country where nationalist sensitivities are easy to exploit, this is an open invitation to discriminate—and even lynch—the Kurds and legitimate a possible attack on northern Iraq—which would only deteriorate things further.

Nevertheless, there is hardly any opposition to this kind of military statement. Only some weak critics from the civil rights groups and some academicians dare to speak out, and their views are rarely reflected in the "military-biased" media. Nobody wants to acknowledge that only two days before, two Kurdish origined youth were beaten harshly in one of the "traditionally nationalist" cities of Western Turkey.

It would be misleading under the current circumstances to read the quarrel in Turkey as one purely between secularism and Islamism. It is in reality a battle between democracy and autocracy. It is a battle between liberal and state-controlled economic policies. It is a battle between integrating with the world and pure isolation. And it is a long-continuing battle between the secular/military elites in the center and the masses in the periphery. Despite its long presence at the heart of Turkish leadership, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is still perceived by the secular/military elites as "an element of rural periphery" because of its religious identity and the geographic/cultural roots of its electorate. For these reasons, the separatist and racist behavior of Turkey's secular elites has once again manifested itself in the effort to block the AK Party leadership's quest for the presidency of the Republic.

This is not something new. The secular/military elites acted similarly in the case of the election of Turgut Ozal in 1989, who became Turkey's first "civil" president in 49 years. They opposed him as they oppose the AK Party today. Ozal's wife did not wear a headscarf, nor was Ozal an Islamist. But still, he was not a "soldier." He came from the countryside, he was educated in the US and he was a man of liberal policies. That was more than enough for the elites to oppose him. As it turned out, Ozal was one of the key revolutionary reformers of Turkish economic history. He is responsible for integrating Turkey into the international scene. Today, many of the secular elites accept this fact, 14 years after Ozal's death.

What we see today is thus essentially a battle of symbols and fears, not realities. The secularists and the military justify their behavior over "fears" related to the "risk of the Islamization of Turkey."

RELIGIOUS BEHAVIOR IN DECLINE | Despite the fears of Islamic takeover stoked by the military, many independent observers point out that there is hardly any tendency toward the implementation of religious law (shari-a) in the country. To the contrary, in an environment where any kind of piety is labelled "religious fundamentalism," the religious tendencies are fast declining.

According to a recent research sponsored and co-ordinated by Tesev, one of Turkey's strongest NGO's which works in co-operation with the Open Society Foundation, the number and percentage of Turkish women wearing religious headscarfs is diminishing sharply. Their research has found that not only are religious adherents to the headscarf diminishing, but also traditional adherents (not necessarily religious) who wear the headscarf. The same study reveals that many religious practices, such as fasting in Ramadan, are also in the decline.

The headscarf is banned in almost all public places in the country. The universities do not accept any headscarfed students on campuses or for lectures; any attempt to discuss the role of the headscarf is harshly rejected by the country's Higher Education Institution (YOK), a regulatory body that was established after the military coup in 1980. A headscarfed friend of my girlfriend, studying in London (because she can't study in Turkey), once complained that she "felt more at home walking in Oxford Street than walking in some Istanbul streets." This sense of deprivation is deeply felt by many religious people in the Republic of Turkey, whose founders expelled non-Muslim religious minorities from the country to create a purely "Turkish and Muslim" population. Such a great irony!

Claims about the signs of Islamization in the media are manifestations of piety limited to extreme minorities, even among the Islamists. Indeed, the manner in which these practices are covered in the media reflect that same categorical understanding that labels any piety as a "fundamentalism." The idea that "separating boys and girls at the public swimming pool," might "advance to criminalizing adultery or banning short skirts and alcohol and one day lead to the establishment of a full-fledged 21st century caliphate" is just not going to happen. Honestly and frankly, such things were never initiated by the AK Government and there is no support for them among the majority of Turkish people.

No one has segregated any public pool (the conservatives have their own hotels and pools and they generally don't send their children to public pools).No one has banned short skirts (it is enough to come to Kayseri, the city where the AK Party received more than 80 percent of their votes, and walk in the main streets where girls walk strapless and with lots of skin showing) and there has been no ban on the sale of alcohol. There was only an ill-minded attempt of the government preparing legislation that would ban adultery, which later failed. It was rejected mainly by Islamist AK Party deputies.

While we were drinking "raki," the strongly alcoholic Turkish ouzo, at Beyoglu in Istanbul recently, one of my gourmet friends noted that "the most delicious rakis have come onto the market in the last 3 years, during the power of AK Party." Before the liberalization of the alcohol market by the AK Party government, there was only one producer of raki, the state company Tekel. The government privatized Tekel and liberalized the market. Now there are 7 producers of raki in the market, two of them are even exporting to Europe and Greece. "Oh poor Ataturk" my friend said, "he was not able to drink such delicious raki 80 years ago."

Indeed, liberalization has not only taken place in the alcohol market, but in every segment of the economy. As a result growth has been steady and strong. The government has also succeeded in controlling inflation. The level of foreign investment is unprecedented. The democratic reforms that were realized during the last four years are beyond anything that has come before.

NO INTERNAL COUP | In such a context, the claim that the Muslim-oriented AK Party is trying to capture the presidency of the country and that "the state is being taken over from within" by Islamists becomes hard to sustain. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand these claims, since only a minor part of the picture is seen from abroad.

The image presented in the Western media has been of huge rallies that brought together nearly millions of people who are "marching for secular/modern Turks against Islamization." But when one goes to a little deeper, that picture changes very easily. Though the protests were true manifestations of democratic rights, the content of the messages and slogans were truly "undemocratic."

The first protest, organized in Ankara on April 14th, was named "The March of The Republic and Secularism." There was no reference to democracy or civil rights. The content of the majority of the speeches, slogans and banners invited the Turkish army to "save" the country. After the declaration of the army on the night of the 27th of April on their website (thus dubbed the e-coup) and the negative reaction to that statement both by the civil society and by the government, the same crowds were somewhat ashamed. They changed the name of their second march in Istanbul, on the 29th, to "The March of Democracy and the Republic." But the essential content of the message did not change. One of the favorite speakers, Tuncay Ozkan, the editor-in-chief of Kanalturk, an ultra-nationalist and ultra-secularist TV channel reportedly backed by some fractions of the Turkish army, asked the crowd: "Are we going to leave our armed forces alone in this struggle?" The crowd responded: "No, we won't.

It is not only the AK Party or its supposedly anti-secularist politics that these demonstrators are against. These so-called modern masses in the streets are also against privatization, the IMF, the World Bank, Turkey's accession to the European Union, the EU itself and the United States. "No to the EU, no to the US, long live fully independent Turkey" is one of their most popular slogans. One wonders whether they favor the autocratic systems of the East since they are against both the EU and the US at the same time. But no, they are also against Iran and the Islamic world (since they are categorically against the Islamic law) as well as Russia (since they still equate it with communism, their old evil). In fact, the sensibility of the masses that gathered in hundreds of thousands in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir reflect very well that most popular slogan of right wing Turks: "The Turk has no other friend but a Turk." Honestly, these rallies remind me of the "March to Rome" by Mussolini.

A very tiny part of this picture is perceived by the outside world, indeed a misleading part. Nevertheless, perception is reality. As long as this perception prevails, it will be very difficult for the West to understand what is really going on in Turkey.

Despite God willing, democracy and secularism must survive together in Turkey without one beating the other. If only secularism survives, it will survive along with its ill-minded products—extreme nationalism, an iron-curtain style isolationism, skull-measuring racism and ruthless military rule. That would truly mean the end of Turkeys' short adventure of democracy.