The recent ban on Turkey’s Islamist Fazilat (‘Virtue’) Party (Fazilet Partisi or FP) caused division in the ranks of the country’s largest Islamist party along the lines of a longstanding rift between its so-called “traditionalist”/ “loyalist” and “modernist” / “reformist” factions. The division was officially sealed with the formation of a new party, Saadet (‘Felicity’) Partisi, SP, led by Racai Kutan. The new party, which is believed to be directed from behind the scenes by former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, represents the traditionalist wing and includes some 50 of the 100 deputies of the outlawed Fazilat. Some disgruntled members of other parties, such as deputy prime minister Mesut Yilmaz’s Motherland Party, have also turned to Saadet.
Announcing the formation of the new party, Kutan used words of symbolism and passion. “We will serve all the Turkish people, without discrimination. We are going to show our difference by being faithful to moral and national values,” he told journalists in Ankara. He emphasized that there would be a world of difference between other “materialist” parties and the new party, which would advocate religious freedom but would not challenge the secular basis of the Turkish state. Saadet would also push for a human rights court and the end of the overbearing judicial authority exercised by the state security courts, Kutan said.
Fazilat’s modernizers are rallying behind former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and are expected to launch their own new party shortly. As long ago as June, Abdullah Gul, a leading figure in the modernizing camp, confirmed that his faction had “completed all preparations” to set up a new party. Speaking in an interview with the Turkish daily Milliyet (June 22, 2001), he also said that “it will not be long before we come out.”
Erdogan himself has only returned to political life in July after a court ruling overturned a ban from politics on him. The courts had imposed a life ban against Erdogan for “inciting religious hatred” by reciting a poem with pro-Islamist allusions at a rally. He has recently drawn attention by a series of public appearances around the country, yet his legal status remains uncertain. He has been trying to project an image of himself as what political scientists call a “valence” politician, someone who emphasizes agreement rather than disagreement and the need to appeal to a broader electorate instead of addressing only the pious and religiously-oriented voters. This could be a tactic to keep the ire of the generals at bay. Yet it comes at the enormous cost of diluting the identity and programme of the Islamic movement. The most likely outcome is a centre-right party with a religious inclination.
The now-defunct Fazilat was banned in June by Turkey’s constitutional court for “engaging in activities contrary to the principles of the secular republic.” The move annulled the votes of more than 5 million Turks. With its 102 deputies, Fazilat led the opposition in the 550-seat parliament. The court’s verdict banned only two Fazilat deputies from politics, allowing the rest to remain as independents. This is widely regardedly as an attempt by the court to avoid causing strains in the current tripartite government that could result from a series of by-elections if a large number of Fazilat deputies had been banned.
Fazilat is the fourth Islamist party to be banned on charges of anti-secular activities in Turkey in less than four decades. In 1998, the constitutional court banned FP’s predecessor, the Refah (‘welfare’) Party. Its leader, Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, was forced to step down in 1997 under pressure from the ultra-secularist army. He was subsequently banned from holding political office for 5 years. Erbakan’s National Order Party and National Salvation Party were outlawed after the 1971 and 1981 coups respectively.
The blow dealt to the Turkish Islamist movement by the constitutional court’s verdict against Fazilat was compounded by another blow on July 31, when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided that Turkey did not violate Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights when it banned Refah in 1998. The court also decided not to hear an array of other Refah complaints against Turkey. The ECHR judges in Strasbourg said in their decision, that the ban on Refah could “reasonably be considered to meet a pressing social need for the protection of democratic society.” They added that the party’s political programme, which declared its intention to implement the shari’ah, contravened the Convention on Human Rights. Political parties can be banned in some European countries, but only if they advocate or resort to violent means. The ECHR’s approval of the ban on Refah for its non-violent beliefs shattered the hopes that many in the Turkish Islamist movement had had that Europe would ward off some of the excesses of Kemalism. Members of Refah had brought the case to the ECHR in the hope that it would rule against Turkey. But Europe’s ability to overcome its centuries-old anti-Islamic bigotry is still wanting.
The rift in Fazilat emerged at its convention last year. It was triggered by disagreements over the influence on Fazilat of Erbakan, widely seen as the party’s real but shadow leader, and culminated in an unsuccessful challenge to the chairmanship of Kutan, an Erbakan loyalist. The division in the ranks of the Turkey’s Islamist politicians could not have come at a more inopportune moment. It is a blow to the chances of the Islamist movement, which has played an influential role in the country’s political life since the 1970s despite bans and coups, to take advantage of the decrease in popular support that has left the country’s major political parties and leaders bereft of any significant following. Confidence in mainstream political parties is at an all-time low because of rampant corruption and the climate of economic uncertainty brought about by a severe financial crisis. Since February, hundreds of thousand of Turks have lost their jobs or businesses; the national currency, the lira, has lost some 50 percent of its value.
Despite Kutan’s assertion that “we have emerged from this closure decision by growing,” the split will inevitably weaken the Islamist movement, whose two factions are expected to compete for the support of the same segment of the electorate. Opinion polls have shown far more support for the modernizing faction. A recent poll by a Turkish newspaper found that 74 percent of Islamic-oriented voters would vote for a modernizing party, whereas only 14 percent indicated that they would vote for the traditionalists. Polls also suggest that, were a general election to be held now, none of the current parties in government would be able to pass the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament.
In the meantime, the army has reportedly finished drafting a new 100-page document to replace the security paper of April 1997. The new document characterizes “fundamentalist” and “separatist” parties as “imminent internal security threats.” The so-called “National Security Policy” document also stresses the military’s determination to continue its pursuit of closer military cooperation with Israel. The fact that this year’s document regards the bogey of “fundamentalism” as a threat indicates the military’s determination to continue its inquisition against any form of Islamic activism in the country, regardless of how “moderate” an image it tries to project. The fate of Fazilat, which made concerted efforts in this regard, is telling. Its political platform differed little from those of other conservative parties; the core of its Islamist activities centred merely on campaigning for the end of the official bans on women wearing hijab in government offices and on university campuses.
The new security document, which avoids mentioning the upheavals that could result from the country’s deepening economic crisis, clearly signals the intent of the ultra-secularist military to clamp down on any political groups to emerge from the ruins of Fazilat. In this it reflects the military establishment’s commitment, reiterated bluntly on January 16 by Turkish chief of general staff Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, who pledged that the armed forces would “if necessary fight Islamic fundamentalism for another 1,000 years.”
Perhaps it is time for Turkey’s Muslims to take heed and try to find another, and completely different, way forward.