Smokers’ Corner: Cold Turkey
By Nadeem F. Paracha
I’ve twice been to Turkey in the last three years. My second trip there coincided with the 2011 election. Recently I have come across various conservative and pro-establishment personalities, politicians and media men in Pakistan praising the Turkish model of democracy and economics.
For example, Imran Khan just returned from Turkey and sounded extremely impressed by that country’s people and politics.
The reason why you might now be hearing more and more Pakistanis singing praises of Turkey is due to the fact that a determined political party with an Islamist background has been winning elections and forming governments there ever since 2001.
It is a good sign that to some of our conservatives the Turkish social and political model now seems more charming to emulate than the puritanical authoritarianism of certain oil-rich Arab states. However, the fact is they may really be over-romanticising their Turkish experience. Either they haven’t understood the dynamics of Turkey’s political and social milieus, or they are only seeing what they want to see: i.e. a conservative Islamist party at the helm in what was supposed to be a secular country.
Only recently I heard a TV commentator suggest that Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdogan’s AK Party, has been winning elections due to its popularity among the rural and semi-rural Turks. This is a rather simplistic understanding of what is actually a complex consensus that the AK Party has struck with almost all sections of Turkish society.
Erdogan’s multiple electoral successes have more to do with his emphasis on economic growth, reform and his all-out efforts to help Turkey become part of the European Union (EU) than on the usual stern moralistic and anti-West stances that most Islamist parties are stuck with in most Muslim countries. During my trip to Istanbul when the campaigning for the 2011 elections was in full swing, not even once did I hear Erdogan (whose wife adorns a hijab) mention the word Islam.
According to a few Turkish academics I managed to talk to in Istanbul, Erdogan’s electoral success is squarely based on the way he seamlessly struck a sympathetic chord with urban Turkey’s significant liberal constituency. Erdogan’s growth-friendly economic maneuvers, his commitment to take Turkey into the EU and his headstrong and constitutional ways to tame a once untouchable military have bagged him the support of a large number of liberals as well who don’t see him as a threat to Turkey’s staunch secular traditions.
It is naive to suggest that Turkey has all of a sudden turned Islamist. It’s a fascinating society where, during my 2011 trip, I did see more Turks visiting the mosques, but then at the same time, I found more Turks spending time in Istanbul’s lively bars than I did in 2009! But Erdogan’s economic wonders alone are not what keeps getting his party both the conservative as well as liberal vote.
And nor are Turks in any mood to become a European Saudi Arabia, a more democratic Iran, or like Pakistan where religion has become an anarchic, free-for-all tool to mindlessly wag in matters of politics, war, business, et al. What our new Turk romantics among conservative Pakistanis don’t get is the fact that instead of trying to Islamise Turkey, the AK Party has simply (and democratically) been turning the Turkish state from being an instrument of power based on what is called ‘Assertive Secularism’ into a plurality-friendly actor run by an ‘all-encompassing’ brand of secularism.
I also want to share certain other facts that many Pakistanis selectively miss. I want to do this just to let them know that the Turkish model they have been praising and dreaming of emulating can never be integrated into their largely quasi-theocratic, pro-military and socially myopic idea of Pakistan. According to two extensive studies on secular states, one by Columbia University’s Alferd Stepan and the other by Cambridge University’s Jonathan Fox, Turkey is by far the most assertive secular state: even more than France!
Through an aggressive state-run institution called the Diyanat, the Turkish state continues to keep religion within the mosque and away from the public sphere. All religious education is the duty of the state-run institutions in which Quranic courses are not allowed to be taught to students under the age of 15. Private Islamic education is banned.
Wearing of the headscarf and the burqa in educational institutions, government offices and the national assembly too is banned, so much so that whenever Erdogan’s wife, a headscarf wearer, visits a government institution, she takes off her headscarf as a sign of respect for Turkey’s Kamalian secular tradition. Turkey has just two Islamic holidays, Eidul Azha and Eidul Ramazan.
There are no prayer rooms in offices. If you want to pray, kindly go to a mosque.
The Turkish constitution clearly states: ‘…We note that religions should stay in the individuals’ consciences and temples without interfering in worldly affairs.’ In 2008, the Turkish Constitutional Court struck down the passing of an amendment by the ruling party in which it sought relaxing the headscarf ban in educational institutions. Erdogan almost lost his constitutional legitimacy.
Observers suggest that the rise of a more ‘Islam-friendly’ new urban middle-class in Turkey has also been a force behind AK Party’s success. But unlike in Pakistan, where a similar middle-class has been largely reactionary and anti-democracy, conservative sections of the Turkish middle-class are only interested in keeping the AK Party in power so that this class can get its slice of the economic growth witnessed in Turkey in the past decade.
More than a battle of ideas (secularism vs theocracy, Islamic vs un-Islamic), in present-day Turkey, politics is more about a democratically fought economic tussle between the old Ankara elite and the new one rising from Anatolia. A tussle, mind you, which actually benefits the social and economic aspirations of most, if not all Turks.
Their practising of Islam, unlike ours, is not exhibitionist.