Turkey’s experiment

  • September 6, 2007

{mosimage}A profound experiment in the relationship between religion and politics is unfolding in Turkey, an officially secular state but fundamentally Muslim society. If all goes well, as appears likely, it could teach Western societies a useful lesson about the place of faith in a pluralistic society.

On Aug. 28, Turkish citizens found themselves with a new unabashedly Muslim president. Abdullah Gul won a second election in parliament to gain this post despite sinister warnings from the country’s traditional elites in the military and government that by doing so he would push the country into a political crisis.

Gul’s philosophy and mode of governing is shaped by his devotion to Islam. But that hardly says all there is about this politician. By any other measure, he is an attractive candidate for the office he has just won. He is the former foreign minister and, as such, he promoted Turkey’s cause to join the European Union, designed democratic reforms and called for changes to draconian laws that punished those who dared to “insult Turkishness.” He has a doctorate in economics and has been a politician since 1991. He was a founder of the Justice and Development Party with current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an attempt to put more distance between the country’s mullahs and its politics.

But Turkey’s avowedly secularist elites see red in the fact that Gul does not deny that Islam is a moral compass for himself or that his wife wears an Islamic head scarf in public. They see both as direct challenges to the official secularism that has shaped Turkish politics since the country’s modern inception in 1923.

Since this founding, Turkey has been exceptionally skittish about religious freedom. Islam is widespread and other religions exist, though they are legally restricted in their ability to function. Meanwhile, the state itself insists on strict legal secularism in which there is no place for religion. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Turkey in November 2006, he underlined the need for Turkey to relax its restrictions on the official institutions of Christianity, notably the Orthodox Church, but also the smaller Christian minorities such as Roman Catholicism.

Perhaps understandably, Turkey’s elites look over their shoulder at what radical Islam has wrought in the country’s Middle Eastern neighbours and shudder at the thought of what could be unleashed inside their own borders. But to simply refuse to countenance any public space for religion will not eliminate religion or its importance to people. By being upfront about their faith foundations, Gul and his colleagues are demonstrating how religion can co-exist with other belief systems in a pluralistic society — and be a force for good.

In a world in which radical religion increasingly appears to be threatening democratic societies with violence and upheaval, Turkey is working hard to find another way. Success there would be a victory for the world.

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