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Islam, Democracy and Turkey

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Bilal Sambur, Ph.D., is assistant professor on the faculty of divinity at Suleyman Demirel University in Isparta, Turkey. He is a guest scholar this summer at the Acton Institute.

Islam, Democracy and Turkey

By Bilal Sambur

The inauguration of Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s new president has provoked a great deal of discussion — and anxiety — about the rise to power of a man who is an observant Muslim with a background in Islamic politics. Instead of anxiety, the world should be celebrating Gul’s election as the greatest breakthrough in the history of Turkish democracy and a sign of hope for Muslim nations all over the world.

In July elections, Gul’s Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkey) won 47 percent of the popular vote and came to power without having to form a coalition. But the main message to the military and secular elites who have run Turkey for so long was not about religion. It was about reforming Turkey’s government.

Today, the biggest problem in the Muslim world is the absence of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, with the exception of Turkey, there is no true democratic rule in the Muslim world at the present time. Most Muslim countries are ruled by militarist dictatorships, kings, monarchs and totalitarian regimes. Under these anti-democratic and illiberal regimes, Muslim people have no opportunity to participate in the political life of their countries.

After the collapse of Soviet Union, a number of former communist countries established democracy rapidly and successfully. Although some former communist regimes have been transformed into democracies, the Muslim world has not been influenced by this new wave of democracy. The anti-democratic regimes of the Muslim world have successfully isolated themselves from this third wave of democracy. And everything seems to be the same as it used to be in Muslim world.

Liberal democracy has taken root in many places outside its birthplace in Europe and the United States. India is the best example of that. Although India has Hindu culture, it is the most populous democratic country in the world now. Having a liberal democratic rule or a totalitarian/autocratic regime is a matter of choice. But Muslim societies have not, for the most part, been given an opportunity to choose between a liberal democratic rule and anti-democratic regime. Recent developments in Turkey show that Muslim people choose democracy when they have a chance to choose it.
Although the majority of Turkish society is Muslim, the nation is a secular state. From the establishment of the modern Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk in 1923 until 1950, a single party (Republican People Party-CHP) ruled the country. After this period of single party dictatorship, a multi-party period started in Turkey. But the country’s growth into a true democracy involved a slow evolution — often obstructed by bureaucratic and military elites — to get where it is today. Since 1950, the army has intervened in political life four times. In these periods of interventions, political parties were closed, the national assembly was shut down, politicians were arrested, and individual liberties were abolished. Yet, Turkish democracy has survived.

Gul’s election can be seen as a broad Turkish mandate for this democracy. The support for the Justice and Development Party was motivated by a widespread sentiment that Turkey’s state institutions were in need of a fundamental overhaul, even to the point of rewriting the Constitution. And voters were not intimidated by the military’s history of intervention.

The suggestion that this vote was animated by a desire to impose Islamic policies on Turkey is simply wrong. As a matter of fact, Gul’s Justice and Development Party has no religious identity, policy or program. This party describes itself as conservative and democratic and aims to synthesize traditional values of Turkish society and Western liberal values. During the last four years, the Justice and Development Party made great strides in advancing democratization and the liberalization of Turkey’s political culture. It succeeded in making serious constitutional and legal changes, promoted Turkey’s accession process to the European Union, enlarged individual liberties by cancelling many restrictions, and invested in infrastructure improvements. There has been no evidence of an Islamic agenda.

The vast majority of Turkish people are against anything that looks like a theocracy. In fact, voters who identify themselves a “religious” are among the most vocal supporters of democracy, EU membership, and the development of Turkey’s free market economy. Gul’s election is a positive and hopeful development for Turkish democracy. The new administration under the Justice and Development Party should not be viewed as a potential threat to democracy, but rather a golden opportunity. Now, Turkey can prove to the world that Muslim cultures are capable of developing a mature and healthy democratic system.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Barrett Kalellis

    Islam is totally incompatible with Western-style democracy, or hasn’t he read the Qur’an? Ataturk spent most of his life trying to stamp out Islamist practices. And they are returning. Wait and see.

  • Dale S. J. Milne

    I enjoyed reading Bilal Sambur’s summary of the development of the Turkish national political spirit. In that sense, Ataturk truly is the Father of the Country. Not because of what he did against any particular religion, but because he sought to unite people beyond religion and instill a new patriotic, public-minded spirit. In the recent past Turkey has taken a stand against both right and left extremism. I remember one change of government brought with it the execution of both a right and a left extremist, as a signal to extremists on both sides that Turkey was not open to their seductions.

    We should realize that democracy is not the be-all and end-all of human politics, but merely the present state in certain countries, a point in the linear development of human society. Western democracy developed chiefly from Christian attitudes superimposed upon primitive customs.

    Each nation has virtually its own unique version, as we see from a quick comparison with the voting systems, the “branches” of government, and the distribution of political powers. A glance at the history of the U.S. shows that different eras of a single nation can have different forms of democracy. One line-up includes: colonial, ante-bellum, Reconstruction, World War II, cold war, welfare, and modern (“floundering”).

    There are more types of democracy than “Western,” and even the “Western” ones vary significantly in their institutions, power distribution, citizen involvement, social goals, and handling of religion and economics. Not all Christians are “Crusaders.” It is as great an injustice to consider all Muslims as “fascist” or all Islamic countries as incompatible with democracy. It would have been anachronistic for the Qur’an to have mentioned democracy either for or against it.

    Turkey is perfectly democratic within the definition that includes the current range of imperfect “democracies”. I look forward to further insights and analysis from Bilal Sambur.

  • in reply to Bilal Sambur

    Just a short note. I too, having lived for years in Turkey, can see the good sides of the recent Turkish elections. Turkey becomes more “normal” and it is now possible for a devout moslim to become president of Turkey like it is for a catholic to become President of the United States.

    While the recent development is cause for rejoicing, it has nothing to do with the other question, whether Turkey should assume a place in the European Union as a full member. Societies, cultural heritage on both sides of the Bosphorus are so different that there would be little of communality and cohesion with the rest of Europe. Turkey’s demographic influence would also be so big under new EU constitutional rules as to cause severe disturbance in European decision making. At the other level of our societies, simple living-together in our European suburbs, the disturbance and loss of cohesion would also be dangerous for Europe’s future tasks.
    Turks do not integrate and assimilate European traditions.

    After the good recent elections let us now decide to do with Turkey something more productive and make with that country a valid partnership. The country has shown that it can find the way to democracy on its own, and does not have to be “anchored” to, or “guided” by Europe.

    Anton Smitsendonk

  • Dr. Sambur: Thank you for this piece which I enjoyed so much that as an editor at OpEd News I added it to our Best of the Web opinion pieces. That is I added your headline, a teaser and a link back to your article, not the actual article itself. Thanks.

  • Ames Tiedeman

    “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step.” — Sir Winston Churchill – circa 1899

  • Atabrit

    Churchill’s words, of which he uttered too many, once again show him as blathering hypocrite rather than peace-maker. His praise of his own dubious military career knew no bounds, allowing him to ignore British atrocities in South Africa, until his disastrous handling of the Dardanelles briefly humbled him. Unfortunately, that quietude was a mere pause from which he bound back in viprous response to Germany’s military developments.

    Churchill’s unabashed love affair with the armed forces of the British Empire contrasted with his exaggerated fear of the military ability of Britain’s unwilling colonies and neighboring continental economic and political rivals. In truth, the Empire’s military might was no more a boon for the Ottomans, Afrikaaners, Germans and Indians than was German military might seen as a force for peace and prosperity in Judea and Russia. The “Balance of Power” sought by Britain was a balance of British superiority with a politically fractured continent with militarily weak nations.

    Churchill hated Germans, Turks, and Muslims, in that order. He isn’t worth quoting.

  • meral

    the reason of türks being secular is that most of türks never read kuran so they dont know what islam is, i became atheist after reading kuran, funny…