Originally published at Rubin Reports.
A fascinating article on Islamism in Turkey that also reflects on the situation in Arabic-speaking countries was written last month by Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Turkish research program. I’m a fan of his analysis so nothing in the following article should be taken as criticism but rather as an exploration of his article’s themes.
There’s also a very interesting parallel here with domestic events in the United States. But first, Cagaptay’s theme is as follows:
There are strong limits on how far Islamism can go in Turkey and the Arabic-speaking states are very different from Turkey in lacking a strong secularist (or at least anti-Islamist) sector that is deeply embedded in the country’s culture and history.
I think he is right on both points but let’s look more into the details.
Cagaptay’s article was prompted by a personal experience in Istanbul. In a café he saw a group of Salafists, who had just finished prayers in a near-by mosque, interact politely with a waitress who had tattoos and wore a short-sleeved shirt. He writes that in both words and body language one could see there were no real “tensions between the two opposing visions of Turkey brought into close encounter for me to witness.”
He continues that while “Turkey’s two halves…may not blend, neither will [either one] disappear. Turkey’s Islamization is a fact, but so is secular and Westernized Turkey.” After a decade of Islamist rule—I should note here that few Western experts, journalists, or political leaders acknowledge or understand that the regime ruling Turkey is Islamist in a real sense—there has been, “a rising tide of Islamization in Turkey.” He mentions, for example, a recent law that mandates teaching Islam in public schools and a shift in Turkey’s professed identity from European to being Muslim and Middle Eastern.
But, Cagaptay adds, there are limits in a country “so thoroughly westernized that even the AKP and its Islamist elites cannot escape trappings of their Western mold.” As examples he cites the role of women and Turkey’s membership in NATO. He explains that “Turkey’s Islamization is meeting its match” because, for example, there was a consensus that Turkey deploy NATO Patriot missiles on its territory to defend itself from a possible attack by Syria. “The Turks have lived with NATO too long to think outside of its box.”
Now there is no question that in the broader sense Cagaptay is correct. Turkey is not going to be another Saudi Arabia or Iran. And yet beside that glass is half-full argument is a shocking glass is half-empty counterpart. As Cagaptay notes, Islamist or semi-Islamist parties received 65 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections. That means, he continues:
[Thirty-five] percent of the population, totaling twenty-five million people, did not vote for the [Islamist regime]. These voters stand for secularism, and they will never buy into the religious movement in Turkey. This block will constitute the domestic limitation of Turkey’s Islamization. After ten years in power, and likely to run the country for another term with a humming economy boosting its support, the AKP is making Turkey in its own image. But the new Turkey will have a uniquely distinct flavor: a bit Islamist, a bit secularist, a bit conservative, and a bit Western.
That’s absolutely true. And yet who would have believed twenty years ago that about two-thirds of the people would vote for Islamist candidates, even after a decade of Islamist rule? Will that 35 percent ever be able to get the Islamists out of power and reverse the process? And what about the process itself? Revolutions, even quiet ones, keep on going. Will 35 percent of the nine-year-olds now likely to get Islamic teaching (which may well amount to Islamist indoctrination) vote for secular parties when they grow up? And doesn’t much of Turkish foreign policy on regional issues under the AKP look like Iran or Egypt today? The attitude toward Israel, Iran (despite competition in Syria), the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizballah are all in line with an assessment of it as a radical Islamist policy.
And how real is the current regime’s commitment to democracy? Not that much deeper than that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Prime Minister Erdogan’s latest remarks have stirred a controversy in Turkey but haven’t even been reported in the West. In a speech in Konya, Erdogan said: “Separation of powers is hindering service to the people. We have to do something about it.” In other words, having now laid the foundation for beginning the Islamizing of the courts, he’s now going to go after parliament.