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.