Islamists won't follow Turkey's lead

Posted in Broader Middle East | 12-Sep-07 | Author: Geneive Abdo| Source: International Herald Tribune

Turkey's new President Abdullah Gul


Can Turkey's Justice and Development Party become a model for the ideal marriage between Islam and democracy that could be replicated in the Middle East?

Some Muslim intellectuals, politically correct commentators in the West and officials from the European Union seem to think so. They argue that the recent election of Abdullah Gul as president of Turkey and the success in parliamentary polls last July of his AK Party (as it is known in Turkey) are sound reasons to believe that a party comprised of Islamists can hold free elections, win at the polls and then run a state that is democratic and secular.

This presumption, however, rests upon the false belief that Turkey is much like the rest of the Islamic world and that all Islamists are similar to the leaders of the AK Party. For one thing, AK Party leaders should not be identified as "Islamists." As Gul declared during his acceptance speech: "Secularism, one of the basic principles of our republic, is a rule of social peace."

Islamists in most Muslim societies do not favor a secular state. In Jordan and Egypt, for example, unofficial Islamist parties and movements are fighting for Shariah, Islamic law, to be the guiding light for governing. Shariah-based governance, in fact, has been one of the foundations of opposition movements against authoritarian rulers in the Arab world for the last 30 years.

And it is not only the Islamists who are advocating Islamic law. The majority of Muslims surveyed in Arab countries, and in other Muslims societies, say they prefer that Islamic law be either a source, or the sole source, of legislation. By contrast, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, support for Islamic law in Turkey has never exceeded 20 percent.

As far back as 1981, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt tried to appease his country's Islamists by revising the Constitution to mandate Shariah as the primary source of legislation. Islamic law has never been enforced, however, and today this has become one of main battle cries of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to Egypt's governing National Democratic Party.

Although many moderate Islamists in the Middle East admire the AK Party's success, the way ahead for them is far more difficult. The vast historical differences between Turkey and the region's other countries also have to be taken into account.

The AK Party was born out of the more ideological Welfare Party, but then evolved to become more in line with Turkey's secular tradition. By contrast, secularism in the Arab world peaked in the 1950s and 60s, then came to a halt with the Six Day War of 1967. The Arabs' humiliating defeat by Israel inspired the rise of political Islam, which has grown in influence since then.

If Islamists came to power in many Arab states they would likely ban alcohol, homosexuality and pornographic images on the Internet and in film. For years, Islamists have complained about the millions of bikini-clad foreign tourists who frequent beach resorts in Arab countries, even though tourism helps keep their beleaguered economies afloat.

In addition, Arab societies have transformed over the last 30 years and are far more religious than Turkish society, even though an increasing number of Turks are embracing Islam in ways unseen since the Ottoman Empire.

Even if the Islamists in the Arab world had every intention of emulating Turkey's secular-style of government, they still would have to answer to the growing influence of religious authorities. These range from the scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the 1,100-year-old seat of learning for Sunni Islam, to respected clerics in mosques and institutions stretching from Saudi Arabia to Qatar who have followers across the Arab world.

Religious authority in Turkey has always been part of the state structure, unlike in the Arab world, where religious scholars and imams have been free to interpret Islamic doctrine at will. Sheiks at Al-Azhar and religious scholars in the Gulf have been at odds over a range of fatwas, from whether the 9/11 attacks on the United States were justified to whether female circumcision is an Islamic duty or simply a cultural tradition that began in Africa and was adopted in Arab society.

By contrast, the state's control over Islamic interpretation has a long history in Turkey, one that continues today.

In forging his country into a secular state, Kemal Ataturk did not allow Islam to become a basis for opposition movements, as happened in the Arab world after the Muslim Brotherhood was created in 1928. Instead, the Turkish state institutionalized Islam by controlling the message and the messenger - only imams licensed by the state are allowed to preach in mosques - making interpretations of the faith subject to state approval.

Policy makers and pundits in the United States and Europe should not rush to judgment by assuming that the Turkish model can be applied elsewhere. Just as the Islamic world is not monolithic, so too will Islamic-style democracy vary in each country, should it develop at all.

Geneive Abdo, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of several books on contemporary Islam, most recently "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11."