Islamization is Not the Issue in Turkey

March 1, 2010

After the latest wave of arrests in Turkey, the Western media has finally begun to show some interest in what is going on in Turkey in the framework of civilian-military relations. As usual, the comments are divided between those who believe that there is a high risk of Islamization in the country and those who see the birth pangs of genuine democracy.

If you ask me, I think these arrests are historic because they put an end to the old days of military interventions. From now on, Turkish generals will have to assume unprecedented legal risks in order to even contemplate the idea of a “coup.” This is bad news for some because they think the military has a legitimate role to play against political Islam. They fear that Turkey without the secularist military would become a fundamentalist state. They are wrong.

Turkey is unlikely to succumb to political Islam for at least four structural reasons, and none have to do with the Kemalist military. First, Turkey has a tradition of state supremacy over Islam that predates the modern republic. In many ways, the Ottoman Empire and state tradition was based on political supremacy over Islam. Suffice it to look at the body of law — known as “kanuns” — promulgated by the sultan. These laws were enacted outside the realm of Shariah and had no direct Islamic justification. The sultan made laws based on rational rather than religious principles in the spheres of public, administrative and criminal law as well as state finances. In that sense, the Ottoman Empire was no theocracy. In fact, it was closer to secularism because when the Ottoman “raison d’état” and Islam clashed, it was always raison d’état that emerged victorious. This strong state tradition, with secular roots going back to Central Asia, is what differentiates Turkey from the Arab Middle East. This is a crucial point to remember. In the Arab world, the state is a product of Islam. In Turkey, the state predates Islam. One should also add that while the modern Arab state is an artificial product of post-colonialism, the modern Turkish state is an organic formation with a strong imperial legacy. As a result, Arab states desperately need religion for political legitimacy. The Turkish state, however, needs religion only for social harmony.

The second reason Islamic rule is impossible in modern Turkey is the country’s long history of democratization, going back to 19th century constitutionalism. Democracy is the best antidote to political Islam. In the absence of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free political parties and free elections, Islam and the mosques become the only outlets for dissent. Islam, in such an authoritarian context, becomes the only language of resistance against tyranny and the solution to everything. This was the case during the shah’s Iran and is still the case in the Arab world. Unsurprisingly, “Islam is the solution” is the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful Islamic movement in the Arab world. Thank God Turkey managed to avoid this vicious cycle with the beginning of multi-party democracy in 1946. If the Turkish military wants a more Islamic Turkey, it should simply emulate the Arab world and abolish democratic rule.

The third reason Turkey will not witness the emergence of Shariah law is because it has a vibrant middle class that benefits from globalization, capitalism and democratic stability. Turkey is blessed by the fact it does not have vast oil and gas resources. Energy abundance in the Arab world is a curse that paralyzes the growth of democracy and capitalism. Instead of oil and gas, the Turkish economy is fueled by its highly productive and export-oriented “Anatolian tigers.” This upwardly mobile, devout Anatolian bourgeoisie has a vested interest in political stability and economic growth. Turkey’s entrepreneurs dream about the EU and maximizing their profits, not about an Islamic revolution that will bring Shariah.

Finally, the fourth reason fundamentalism is not in Turkey’s future is because Turkish Islam has a healthy dose of Sufism. This brings a social, cultural and mystical dimension to Turkish Islam at the expense of a radical political agenda. The fact that Turkey’s most powerful religious movement is more interested in education, media and civilizational dialogue than pure politics is a case in point. Yes, for all these reasons, we should stop scaremongering about Shariah or Islamic rule in Turkey.