Monday, July 23, 2007


On days like today (and most other days too, of course!) I feel lucky to have a friend like E, who is a Cypriot and can fill me in on Turkish politics. In the morning as I was driving to work, Morning Edition had a piece on Turkey re-electing their Prime Minister, whose opposition fears that he is "too Islamist". If E hadn't explained it to me a while back, I wouldn't have understood the way many Turks feel about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern republic of Turkey as a secular state, and I would have been confused at a Muslim country being worried about a leader being "too Islamist".* Atatürk seems to have been a great proponent of education and women's equality, but also of not passing laws that forced people to change their ways or their religious beliefs, but simply encouraged them towards tolerance and secularism (for instance, his wife wore a headscarf, but he married her in a civil, not religious ceremony). It's hard to argue with a man who said, "A nation which does not practice science has no place in the high road of civilization. But our nation, with its true qualities, deserves to become - and will become - civilized and progressive."

Then this afternoon on my way home, I heard Robert Seigel interviewing the director of The Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, Soner Cagaptay, on All Things Considered. It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Cagaptay's main point was that the political discussion in Turkey had changed from "Islamist v. Secular," where secular was apparently an easy choice, to "Muslim v. Secular". The latter was causing secular party to lose support as, understandably, many Muslims, when forced to choose, were choosing "Muslim" over "Secular". This reminds me of the debates here where the conservatives have managed to re-frame the discussion over the past years from "Republican vs. Democrat" to "moral vs. liberal". Under those new names, you can see why people who would align themselves with the Democrats would instead give allegiance to the "moral" party (well, I wouldn't, but I guess I would call it "traditional vs. progressive" and hence choose the latter). Anyway, in Turkey the debate has been re-framed, and it's split the country approximately 50/50.

Up till now, the military has always stepped in if they felt that the Republic and values of Atatürk were at stake, and apparently the Turkish elite, appreciating the progress under the Republic, have approved of that. (Isn't it surprising to see the intellectual elite and military on the same side?) And now we'll have to see what happens, and whether Turkey can preserve itself as a country where one can be both a Muslim and a secularist, and whether it can do it without a violent military coup. I hope, as an example to the whole world (including us, who could really use a reminder of what a secular government looks like!) that it can.

* I also wouldn't have known that you can't search for Turkish swear words on Google without getting back a whole lot of porn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

interesting how you describe progressive. On the gootube-cnn debate yesterday, Hilary gave a clear distinction between what the definition of 'liberal' was, what it has become, and instead decided to label herself as 'progressive'. Well, a moderate-progressive, whatever that means :) Perhpas the democrats have been reading your blog and understand how 'liberal' in middle america somehow translates into socialism and heresy.

I usually compare the AK party in Turkey to the CDU in Germany. Somehow when a christian party is elected in europe, it seems perfectly legit, but apply the same principle to an islamist party and you've got uproar.

Note- the uproar comes from within. People in turkey have this fear they'll wake up one day and notice they are in Iran. However, if you look at the track record of the AK party after being in power for over 5 years, they have instituted mass reforms of the countries justice system to conform to EU law, i.e. eliminate the death penalty, (we haven't even done that here in the US!) and have aggressively pursued EU integration and membership. They understand what people will not tolerate. A canadian perspective - for the longest time Canadians were scared to elect a conservative party to government, scared they would touch universal health-care. The liberal party even ran attack ads portraying what Canada will become in the hands of conservatives: US-style health-care. However Canadians knew that the debate was over, and that value is something all of us would rise to defend. Today we live with a conservative government in power. The only thing they've done to health care is increase government spending. They know that trying to do anything else would cause revolt and consequently lose every election for another 15 years.

It will be interesting to see if Turkey can sustain secularism on its own without the stick of the military. It's really the next step in becoming a modern, progressive, true democracy. The people of Turkey will not wake up one day and find themselves in Iran, instead they'll feel confident enough in their values that they'll no longer need the military to protect what they value so dear. Instead they'll protect this with the one thing every great nation gives its citizens. A vote.