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Islam’s rise not the end of secularism 26 mai 2007

Posted by Acturca in Religion, Turkey / Turquie.

The Straits Times (Singapore), May 22, 2007 Tuesday

Mohd Nawab bin Mohd Osman *

The recent political upheaval in Turkey has reopened old debates about the role of Islam in its public realm.

The problem surged to the fore when the Islamic Justice and Development (AK) Party of Prime Minister Recip Tayyib Erdogan nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as a presidential candidate. Secularists held massive demonstrations, fearing the AK Party was trying to undermine the Turkish secular system.

What is really at stake?

Despite the fact that the president is chosen by Parliament rather then the people, the position carries some important powers.

Firstly, the president has the power to veto legislation. Secondly, the presidential palace of Cankaya, first occupied in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, has always been seen as a citadel of secularism.

More importantly, the president appoints some key offices, including members and chairman of the State Supervisory Councils, members of the Higher Education Council and the chief of General Staff. Members of the old Kemalist regime, known for their staunchly secularist positions, currently hold these offices.

The president will also chair the National Security Council meetings, which gather the military’s top brass and some Cabinet members.

Given these, the nomination of Mr Gul, who is known to be a devout Muslim – and whose wife wears the headscarf – as president has sparked fears that religious Muslims will occupy key positions in the Turkish state and seek to replace the secular system with an Islamic one.

Rectifying Turkish secularism

Secularists in Turkey believe secularism should exist, even at the expense of democracy. This means that, for example, if the people elect a parliament and government that is not secular enough, the country’s armed forces can stage a coup.

The army, presidency and bureaucracy have always considered themselves guardians of the secular principles in Turkey’s Constitution.

In support of this position, the Chief of Staff, General Yasar Bayakunit, declared in a recent statement that, as a citizen and a soldier, he hoped for a president devoted to the republic’s fundamental values ‘not in words but in deeds’.

In her book, Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam’s Revival, Marvine Howe, former Ankara bureau chief for The New York Times, describes Turkey as a country divided on the basis of lifestyles. There is a secular Turkey and a religious Turkey, the latter defined by its security in long-standing traditions and tight control.

In her assessment of the Islamic parties, such as the Refah, the party that AK broke away from, Howe concludes that the goal of the religious sector is not to force religiosity on Turkey, but to lift the barriers facing the more religious members of society.

She cites as examples of these barriers the official limits of religious practice and expression, such as the headscarf ban in public buildings, and the jail sentences given to Muslim journalists accused of ‘anti-secular’ behaviour.

Many believe it is the AK Party’s long-term aim to remove these barriers, and that, if Mr Gul is elected president, he will allow new legislation to be passed allowing the headscarf in public buildings. Such a move has consistently been rejected by current President Ahmed Sezer.

Some secularists also believe the AK Party will try to impose syariah law.

Bridging East and West

It is frequently argued that Turkey serves as a bridge between East and West, a cliche that is supposed to define its place in the world. However, many Muslims worldwide often cite Turkey as an example of the negative aspects of secularism, where the rights of Muslims to practise their religion are curtailed. Turkey’s image has suffered significantly due to the undemocratic ways used by the state to ban anything remotely associated with Islam.

To be a true bridge between East and West, Turkey needs to better accommodate religion in the public sphere, and protect the democratic rights of its citizens.

Religious Muslims and non-Muslims should be allowed to practise their faith without fear of prosecution. Turkey will then be the first Muslim country that is truly secular and democratic while remaining connected to its Islamic heritage.

The AK Party’s agenda may thus be good for Turkey. The party has succeeded in developing closer ties with Muslim countries and the European Union.

Mr Boost Lagenjik, the co-chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliament Commission, has argued in an article published in Turkey’s Zaman newspaper that, in terms of its EU membership quest, the AK Party has shown an enthusiasm which none of the secular administrations had ever done.

Turkey has also embarked on rapid reforms to transform the nation into a more democratic country. The AK Party has already developed the strength to defend its own legitimacy, and now it seeks to forge alliances internationally that would gain it respect on the world stage.

Mr Gul, if elected president, can capitalise on the strong links that he has built with many European countries to expedite Turkey’s entry into the EU.

EU membership will allow Turkey to be a true bridge between East and West. It can show that secularism and democracy can be reconciled with Islam. Similarly, it can show that one can be Muslim and European at the same time, and that these identities are not contradictory.

* The writer is a research associate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.


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