Turkey and its war over Islam

Published: January 18, 2017

As Erdogan fights for his political survival, the struggle between institutional Islamism and civil Islam for Turkey’s precious public space will only intensify. PHOTO: REUTERS.

As Turkey mourns the loss of 39 souls in the fifth terror attack to strike Istanbul in a bloody 18 months, the country’s plight unveils the two arms of Islamism unfolding against Turkey’s century-old canvas of civil, pluralist Islam. One is known as violent Islamism, and the other, less recognised but more covert (and, for that reason, more ominous), is institutional Islamism.

While the gunman has already been identified and claimed by ISIS as its soldier, Turkey is learning the institutional Islamism that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued for decades is no protection against violent Islamism.

Erdogan’s Turkey is increasingly governed by institutional, non-violent Islamism, a profound departure from both modern Turkey’s secular values and the legacy of the Ottoman civilisation—itself defined by pluralism, diversity, Islamic rationalism, and Islamic mysticism.

Post-Ottoman Turkey became the world’s first secular Muslim democracy moulded by the father of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, who believed secularism guaranteed the modernisation needed for Turkey’s survival as a nation state.

Secularism would be the new religion. Article 24 of Turkey’s constitution forbids Turkey’s formation on religious principles. Ataturk’s secular nationalistic legacy continues to influence Turkey and presents a healthy (albeit increasingly weakened) challenge to the efforts of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to lead Turkey toward institutional Islamism.

Of Turkey’s population of 72 million, most are Sunni, including ten to 12 million Alevis (a heterodox hybrid of Sunni and Shia). Turkey is highly educated with a 90.8% literacy rate, a striking contrast to the almost 40% illiteracy rate in the Muslim majority world. A mere 0.2% of Turkish nationals are minorities, comprised of Bahais, Christians, and Jews. Turkey’s secular constitution protects its religious freedom — and that of Turkey’s Muslims — by allowing freedom of worship, freedom to evangelise, and freedom to convert.

Yet Erdogan has introduced tight control over religion. Today, the Turkish government monitors Friday sermons at mosques—a hallmark of institutional Islamism.

Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions are long-held. And, as a result, Turkey’s democratic freedoms of speech, expression, and religion are under siege.

Early in his political career, Erdogan was imprisoned for his Islamist sympathies. In December of 1997, he was convicted of sedition by Muslim judges in the Ankara High Court, sentenced to three years for reciting an Islamist poem in a speech he delivered while he was the mayor of Istanbul in the city of Siirt:

“The mosques are our barracks; the minarets our bayonets.

The domes are our helms; the believers are our soldiers.”

These words were deeply offensive to the secular state at the time. Yet, a testament to his political prowess and tenacity, Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey, and later its president.

Concealing his Islamist ambitions, Erdogan euphemised the AKP, rebranding party members as “Muslim Conservative Europeans,” as a way of avoiding Islamist terminology. (The rebranding was an astute move; given that three Islamist parties had been banned by Turkey’s constitutional courts between the 1970s and the 1990s.)

Today, exploiting democratic organs, Erdogan continues to advance his institutional Islamist policies. The United States, under Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, has commended his “reforms,” including the 2010 referendum the AKP held to reform (and thereby weaken) the secular constitution—one of the major defences against the advance of Islamism.

Erdogan’s recent crackdowns on an independent press, an independent judiciary, and the secular military underline his Islamist values. The attempted coup earlier this year (which some detractors speculate Erdogan may have staged himself) resulted in further contraction of the academic intelligentsia, the confinement of journalists, and the dismantling of a free press—including the seizure of Zaman, the last opposition newspaper in its wake. Turkish journalists are now seeking political asylum overseas (as are military officers). Adding to the enormous number of arrests following the attempted coup, Erdogan’s government emerges clearly as an Islamist state seeking to shore up further power.

As Erdogan said, “Democracy is like a streetcar: We take a ride and we get off when we reach the station of our destination.”

Could Erdogan’s streetcar be coming to a final halt? Well, at the very least, the ride has certainly gotten bumpier. Erdogan’s desperation is mounting, and for good reason.

No matter what he says in the public sphere, ISIS attacks threaten his nation, its citizens, and his authority to govern.

While Turkey has been under pressure from the disintegration of Syria and the war on ISIS—spending $5.37 billion euros to shelter 2.5 million Syrian refugees—its robust economy has borne the strain well. From 2002 to 2007, Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew annually by 6.8% and its exports tripled. Since 2007, its annual GDP has hovered around 3.5%.

Political scientist Bassam Tibi explains how, under Islamist rule, Turkey’s judiciary has seriously eroded. Erdogan exiled many judges to rural oblivion as he severed the constitutional courts’ independence from his government, forcing other judges to take early retirement. So blunt was Erdogan’s attempt to defang the independent judiciary that, in July of 2011, the entire officer command of all branches of the armed forces of Turkey resigned, protesting the persecution of and prosecution of judges and leading intellectuals. Post-coup this erosion has become blatant.

All, however, is not lost.

The advance of institutional Islamism within Turkey is made more poignant given Turkey’s centuries-old history of civil Islam—that is, the anathema to all Islamisms (violent or institutional) that can only exist within the safety of a secular space enshrining diversity and pluralism.

These Turkish intellectuals form the vital bulwark against Islamism in all its forms, and they are also what stands between Europe and an advancing Islamist domination of Europe’s Muslim Diaspora. We—concerned citizens, all supporters of liberal democracies—must empower and engage Turkey’s intellectuals in both challenging Islamism and strengthening civil Islam.

Turkey’s Muslims have long co-existed successfully with secularism. Mustafa Aykol notes pragmatic Ottoman scholars and statesmen allowed enactment of secular laws known as the kanun, in parallel to their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law—they saw Sharia as compatible with secular laws.

As Erdogan fights for his political survival, the struggle between institutional Islamism and civil Islam for Turkey’s precious public space will only intensify. If Erdogan’s Islamist mission is to be derailed, it is Turkey’s secularists upholding civil Islam who must be triumphant — the very integrity of Europe’s Muslim diaspora will be defined by the outcome.

This post originally appeared here

Qanta Ahmed

Qanta Ahmed

A British Muslim who is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom' and a physician. She tweets @MissDiagnosis (twitter.com/MissDiagnosis)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ramanan

    Learn some history.

    The first genocide of the 20th century was carried out in Turkey, of 2 million Armenians,

  • Baba

    Erdogan is the democratically leader of Turkey. He has the support of Turkish voters, majority of whom are proud Muslims. Majority of us Pakistanis who know about turkey also love Erdogan. Just because some liberal extremists don’t like him does not mean he is not a democratically elected leader. If you pro-western Liberals want change then go win elections instead of writing blogs or being twitter warriors.Recommend

  • Asadfm

    It’s irony that such type of people will never write with the same tone about million children atrocities in Iraq by secular and liberal democratic shrine of USA’s Bush, hanging of old-age muslim leaders by Hasina wajid in Bangla desh, Killing of German Muslim, Modi in Kashmir, Iran’s Role in Syria and killings of Palestinians….they will look blind and deaf…..just because all the the west stands against Erdogan so these people believe that they will get morespace in eastern media….a real shame!Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    No matter what he says in the public sphere, ISIS attacks threaten his nation, its citizens, and his authority to govern.

    Not so fast Madam Nostra Damus. On the contrary, Turkish jets are now pounding ISIS strong hold outs in Syria together with Russian Jets for the first time since NATO came into being. Turkey is also cochairing the peace conference on Syria with Russian Federation next week.
    Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the most popular leader of our times among the European leaders and those in the wider muslim majority countries. He is the head of AKP political movement and successfully declassified the role of military brass in politics. As the Prime Minister of the country he is resposible for initiating constitutional reforms in support of countrys membership of the European Union and undertaking economic reforms which have provided continuous growth.
    He is the elected President of the country with very limited political resposibilities but has put forward constitutional reforms which will turn the country into a Presidential republic like that of France and it is estimated that barring some mishap the new Ata Turk of the 21st century has the required majority in the parliament to implement the change..

    Rex Minor .Recommend

  • Intensive Care
  • only truth is nature

    Middle path is the best .Emphasis on rituals instead of virtues like honesty,justice,freedom of expression should not prevail.Turkey called sick man of Europe achieved a lot due to leadership of Ataturk.Most of Turks are good Muslims ,though they are not hardliners .Imposing ideas by force create hypocrites.freedom has resulted in sincere lot of Muslims in Turkey.Recommend

  • Hidayat Rizvi

    This is what BJP have in stock for you. Chastity belts. Mechanic ‘drilled h0les in wife’s g enitals so he could seal them with a PADLOCK(chastity belt) when he went to work’ in Indore, MP a BJP ruled state.

    * Sitabai Chouhan had tried to kill herself with poison.

    * Medics discovered primitive chastity belt still in place

    * Husband arrested and police found keys in sock

    * Claimed he did it because women in family ‘strayed’

    She was brought into hospital after attempting to commit suicide with rat poison.

    But when nurses examined Sitabai Chouhan, they make a horrific discovery that was medieval in its barbarity.

    Four years ago, the housewife had been drugged by her husband Chouhan who then punctured holes with a needle on either side of her g enitals.

    He had carried out the agonising assault so he could seal her private parts with a padlock(chastity belt) when he went to work to stop her having s ex with anyone else.

    When she was admitted to the Maharaja Yashwant Raoin Hospital in Indore, India, the crudely-fashioned chastity belt was still in place.

    It was only removed when police tracked down her husband and retrieved the key. He had kept the keys in his socks.

    Head constable Chhaganlal said: ‘The nurses confirmed the existence of a small lock. It was only after the husband’s arrest that the lock could be opened.’
Chouhan said he had done this because several women in his family had ‘strayed’ in the past.

    Mrs Chouhan is being treated in hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.
 Her husband, meanwhile, has been charged with cruelty and voluntarily causing grievous hurt.
 Police described him as an alcoholic who was mentally disturbed. 
Mrs Chouhan married her husband when she was 16.
 She is said to have attempted suicide after her husband allegedly tried to r ape their eldest daughter.

    A chastity belt is usually a piece of clothing that can be locked to stop the wearer having s ex. The first recorded examples of their use is in the 15th century.

    But it is not a item completely alien to modern India. Human rights groups have reported their use in the conservative state of Rajasthan as recently as 2007.

    Gender rights activists say Indian women face a barrage of threats in India.

    Many of the crimes against women are a result of a deep-rooted mindset that women are inferior and must be restricted to being homemakers and childbearers.

    In addition, age-old customs such as payment of hefty dowries at the time of marriage and widely held beliefs linking a female’s s exual behaviour to family honour have allowed gender crimes to persist.

    Earlier this month, a dentist was reportedly arrested in Karnataka after his wife accused him of forcing her to drink his u rine because she refused to meet dowry demands..!.!.!Recommend

  • ramanan

    We are talking in the context of turkey. Okay you are right, may be it was the ‘SECOND’ genocide of about 2 million people. Now dont come back and say it was not 2 million but 1.935 million.Recommend