Army and Islam makes Turkey lose out to Europe

Article published on Sept. 22, 2008
Article published on Sept. 22, 2008
Slovakian experts have their take on what problems the EU member candidate has

'The ongoing smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims. We urge Your Excellency's government to take all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of Denmark's overall relations with the Muslim world'

(Image: world economic forum/ Flickr)In a letter sent to Danish prime minister Anders Rasmussen on 12 October 2005, the ambassadors of nine Islamic countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Bosnia reacted to the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in Denmark's Jyllands Posten in September 2005. The cry to restrict freedom of speech in a foreign country was co-signed by Fugen Ok, ambassador of Turkey in Denmark - an official representing a country claiming to be a secular democracy.

Islam or not?

A week before, Turkey had officially struck up negotiations on EU membership. This outlines the complicated position in which Turkey has found itself for so long: Islam or not? Just look at the twenty-one university rectors who protested against Islam gaining influence in the country in August. Turkey's entire 20th century has been jaundiced by a conflict with Islam on the one side, and Kemalism, an ideology named after reformer and first president of the republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other. Atatürk expelled Islam from public life and introduced strict control over religions, enforced by the army's guardianship of the secular nature of the state. Slovakian political scientist Anna Matušková cites four occasions in the latter half of the 20th century where the Turkish army was forced to intervene against the democratically elected governments which tried to restore Islam to public life. 'It is only a decade since the last attempt in 1997,' she says.

Catch up with the past to catch up with Europe

Kemalism means more than the mere separation of church and state. 'In Turkey,the state strictly controls all religious activities and organisations. Imams are paid by the state,' explains Matušková. Such hysteria mayseem excessive. After all, Europe has many legitimate political parties based on the values of the Christian religion. If promotion of Christian values in politics poses no threat to democracy in the west, why should Islam be a problem? Midway through the last millenium, the Ottoman Empire controlled a vast part of Europe and Asia, but gradually lost its colonies. Turkey expert Peter Kučera says that the Ottoman empire's intellectuals had begun to concede as early as the 18th century that the country lagged behind western Europe militarily, politically and economically. 'They had recognised the technological superiority of Europe and grasped that technical advances go hand in hand with cultural and intellectual development,' he explains. Gradual modernising reforms culminated in the creation of the republic of Turkey in 1923, which heralded an attack on Islam in public life.

(Image: Encounter/ amazon)It is wrong to consider Islam and Christianity as the same or even comparable, claims oriental specialist Robert Spencer in his book Islam Unveiled (2002). While Jesus advocated focusing on personal salvation and steered clear of politics ('Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things thatare God's'), the prophet Muhammad was both a religious leader and a politician. He waged wars against unbelievers and commanded his adherents to kill his opponents. Similarly, the Koran is not only a spiritual book like the Gospels. It also contains concrete instructions on legal relations and living in society. Islam means absolute and unconditional submission to God's will. The mandatory sharia law ranks higher than any worldly law crafted by humans. Even if it is possible to divorce Christianity from politics, the same cannot be said for Islam; if Islam were to cease interfering in politics, it would betray one of its basic principles.

What Atatürk knew

If religion encroached on public affairs, Atatürk said, it would stifle progress and innovation. 'Islam was percieved as a reactionary andretrograde religion that had to be placed under state control and outof mainstream society,' explains Kučera. Only the army was strong enough to fend off pressure from the religious elites.

Public support is growing for the pro-Islamic ruling party

Taking this into account, the perspective of preserving secularism in Turkey is getting weaker. Polls suggest that public support is growing for the pro-Islamic ruling party of Justice and Development (AKP). Protests of secularists and vague gestures of few academics after the AKP won the suit that was designed to ban the party, will not stop the the advance of Islamist tendencies in Turkey. Within the accession negotiations, the EU demands that Turkey reduces the army's influence on politics. Logically, in the name of democratising the country, the army's power in politics should be diminished. Ironically though, fulfilling EU requirements could help those who want Turkey to come back into the embrace of Islam.