Today's date:
Winter 2008

Turkish Crisis: The Biggest Test Since 9/11

Summer 2007

"If we can show that a big Muslim nation can modernize itself with the help of friends," former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has argued on behalf of Turkey's admission to the European Union, "it demonstrates that a strong civil society, equal rights for men and women, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a modern administration and modern economy are not in contradiction to Islam. This would be the most powerful message against the jihadists and terrorists." Or not.

Some fear a different message is being sent by the attempt of the Muslim-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP), which holds a majority in the democratically elected parliament, to capture the presidency as well. Along with the military, it has always been the guardpost of secularism. The fear, expressed by millions of anxious Turks demonstrating in the streets, is that "the state is being taken over from within" by Islamists who aim to slowly corrode secular rule with a long march through the institutions. It might begin with banning bikini billboards in Istanbul or separating boys and girls at the public swimming pool, advance to criminalizing adultery or banning short skirts and alcohol and one day lead to the establishment of a full-fledged 21st century caliphate, with women the biggest losers.

Some, like the militant Somali-born feminist and former Dutch legislator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, even argue that the admission of Turkey into the European Union, which would require that the military stay out of politics, would abet the Islamist agenda by disarming secularism and enabling the first velvet revolution in the Muslim world.

As always, the nexus of the clash between the West and Islam is the role of women. In hailing Turkey's advance over the years as an example of non-Western modernization, the Turkish sociologist Nilufer Golë has put her finger somewhat provocatively on precisely what secularists fear might be taken away. "In contrast with the West," she has written, "where the public sphere was first formed by the bourgeoisie and excluded the working class and women, in the Muslim context of modernity women have been the makers of public space. In the Muslim context, the existence of democratic public space depends on the social encounter between the sexes and on the eroticization of the public sphere."

For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's chief Muslim modernizer, denies any hidden agenda to overturn secularism. "First of all, a party cannot be Muslim or not Muslim," Erdogan told me in Davos shortly after he first came to power. "A party is an institution. Individuals can be Muslim, Christian or atheist. It is personal.

"Personally, I am a human being who tries to be religious. But my party is not based on any religion. Our identity is that of a conservative democratic political party. We will never have a religious identity. This is a founding principle of our party: We are neither Islamic, nor Islamist.

"Our religion, Islam, is infallible. But political parties and their leaders are not—they make mistakes. So, we have to separate the two."

As for Turkey's accession to Europe, Erdogan argues that it would "prove Samuel Huntington's idea of a 'clash of civilizations' wrong. On the contrary, it will show that a union of civilizations is possible."

Indeed, my more objective friends in Turkey note there is a certain reactionary quality among many secular nationalists who view any expression of piety as religious fundamentalism. They say this is really a battle betweeen the autocratic secular/ military establishment and democracy. And, they point out, there is little evidence of any efforts to impose shari'a in the AKP strongholds. Anecdotally, they note that in a city like Kayseri, where the AKP received more than 80 percent of the popular vote, you can witness girls walking in the main streets with lots of skin showing. Further, the liberalization of the alcohol market by the AKP over the last three years has resulted in the production of the most delicious raki, the strong Turkish ouzo.

Turkey's most famous writer, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, brings a novelist's subtlety to the debate. "Turkey is a country of two souls," he told me just after his novel, Snow, was published in 2005. "There have been so many authoritarian politicians over the years trying to impose one soul on Turkey, one way of life or mode of being. Some wanted to impose Western secularism by military means; some wanted Turkey to be eternally traditional and Islamic. This approach destroyed democracy in Turkey. It was responsible for all the coups." Let's recognize, pleads Pamuk, "that to have two souls is a good thing. That is the way people really are. These souls are continually in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other. To have democracy is precisely to have dialogue between these two souls."

In order to look forward, Pamuk looks back. "This idea of incompatibility of Islam with modernity is an argument that adopts the fundamentalist logic. Liberals, democrats or Western thinkers should stop making general, vulgar and essentialist observations on Islam every time they come up with some new problem, most of which is partly their making, too. The whole history of Islam under the Ottoman Empire was a synthesis of the Book and what was happening in history, in the world. Islam is not a pure thing that exists out there in a vacuum.

"Look at what has happened already in Turkey. We once had an Islamic fundamentalist party which has now converted into a more or less Western-style party whose historic mission is to take Turkey into Europe, and it is backed by the people! This approach is sober and compelling to most Turks today."

As if to prove Pamuk right, the year I saw Prime Minister Ergodan in Davos he hosted a party for whom the guest of honor was Miss World, who was Turkish. She whirled around triumphantly with evident patriotism in her tiara—hair, arms and shoulders uncovered. Erdogan's wife stood by his side, covered with a headscarf. The great irony was that the Miss World contest that year had to be moved to London from Nigeria, where radical Islamists forced it to shut down in an episode the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka memorably referred to as a competition between "beauty and the beast."

But it is precisely such a "union" of civilizations as the one witnessed in Davos that may prove Josckha Fischer wrong about the importance of a modernized Turkey as a moderating influence on anti-Western jihadists. "Since Kemal Ataturk, the Turks have believed they could become a modern state like the Europeans if they became secular and separated religion and state," Mohamad Mahathir told me when he was still prime minister of Malaysia. "This strategy is not convincing to Muslims, who, after all, are believers. If you say that modernization means secularization, then it will be rejected in the Islamic world."

How the Turkish crisis is settled, and the impact it has on the rest of the Muslim world, if any, is the biggest test of relations between Islam and the West since 9/11. God willing, secularism will survive democracy in Turkey and Muslims elsewhere will realize the value of both.