Monday, April 16, 2007

Turkey: Will a Muslim Democrat succeed Ataturk?

In Australia, conservative politicians love lecturing us about our great “Western” or “European” or “Christian” or even “Judeo-Christian” heritage. So what do conservative politicians in Turkey tell their voters?

Turks take the separation of religion and state far more seriously than we do. You won’t find an Islamic Fred Nile running for Turkish elections.

(And even if he did, it’s unlikely he’d have anyone to preference!)

The Turkish Republic was formed in 1923 from the remnants of a European Muslim empire which lasted some 623 years. Unlike other Muslim empires, the Ottomans kept religious leaders firmly in their pockets and gave their empire a strong Sunni Muslim (as opposed to Shia Muslim, the Ottomans spending centuries fighting the Shia Iranian empire) flavour.

Turkey ’s first president and architect of its staunchly secular political system was the man who led Ottoman troops at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Pasha “Ataturk” (or “Father of the Turks”).

For years, religion played a largely invisible role in Turkish politics, despite the fact that the Turkish Ministry (or rather, Presidency) of Religious Affairs traditionally had the largest budget of any Turkish Ministry.

Since the 1980’s, a mild form of Islamist political activism has been infiltrating Turkey ’s political scene. Turkish Islamists have had a completely different focus to Islamists in other parts of the world. Firstly, Turkish Islam is has a more Sufi flavour, and is quite hostile to Saudi-style Wahhabism. Secondly, Turkish Islamists have spent decades making mega-bucks and gaining a major stake in the Turkish economy.

Most importantly, Turkey ’s Islamists have re-invented themselves into the Muslim equivalent of Europe ’s Christian Democrats. They have convinced voters that they are committed to all those things secular parties are committed to. No Turkish government has shown as much zeal for EU membership as the current Islamist one.

More importantly, the Islamists have runs on the board when it comes to the economy and other key areas. So you’d think the current Prime Minister Recep Erdogan taking on the largely ceremonial title of President shouldn’t be problematic.

Think again. The Presidency has always been regarded as the guarantor of Turkish secularism. Each Turkish president is a successor to the title first held by Ataturk. And with 300,000 Turks marching in the streets of Ankara to oppose Erdogan’s candidacy, he might have reason to be concerned.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007