Is Turkey’s experiment sustainable over the long term?

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Muharram 26, 1432 2011-01-01

Special Reports

by Ahmet Aslan (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 11, Muharram, 1432)

The most important reason for the failure of Turkish Islamic intellectuals may be their detachment from their past/traditions, especially valuable Islamic knowledge of the Ottoman seminaries.

Recent domestic and international developments have catapulted Turkey’s importance in the international arena. Through an assertive and independent foreign policy, booming economy, significant achievements in human rights and the removal of unrepresentative elements from within the state apparatus, have placed Turkey in a unique position in the Muslim world. This despite the fact that merely eight years ago Turkey was suffering from one of the most serious political and economic depressions in its short history since WWI due to the dire ramifications of a “post-modern” coup d’état on February 28, 1997.

This was a major setback from the rapid progress that political Islam had made in Turkey in the 15-year period after the previous military coup of September 1980 that had curbed the not yet fully developed Islamic movement. Between the two coups, Muslim intellectuals in Turkey who were deeply inspired by the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and the Islamic Revolution of Iran, had wanted to bring about a revolution of their own and tried to combine the teachings of the Egyptian Ikhwan leaders Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb with those of Imam Khomeini. However, the two approaches were quite different and the Turkish Islamic movement achieved neither the intellectual revolution of the Ikhwan (which of course has so far failed to establish an Islamic state but caused revivalist waves throughout the Muslim world) nor the religious, intellectual and political triumph of Imam Khomeini’s Iran.

The most important reason for the failure of Turkish Islamic intellectuals may be their detachment from their past/traditions, especially valuable Islamic knowledge of the Ottoman seminaries. Mustafa Kemal’s relentless Westernization/secularization project erased virtually all aspects of this seminary culture, and went on to sever the connection of Turks with Islamic sources by banning the Arabic alphabet along with imposing many other draconian measures. In his ambitious project Mustafa Kemal even introduced the adhan (call to prayer) in Turkish in 1932 which was later reinstated to the original Arabic in 1950. Through this robust secularization process that shook the very foundations of Islamic identity of Turkish Muslims, a new Muslim identity was shaped: the new Turk had a Western mind but a Muslim heart.

Despite the long imposed secularization process many Turks managed to keep their Islamic identity while adopting Western positivist philosophy. They were cut off from their long-lived Islamic tradition yet their affiliation to Islam was irrevocable. While they were trying to assimilate to a Western way of thinking, they kept up their sincere commitment to Allah (swt). Thus Muslim leaders and intellectuals emerged in Turkey and strived to revive Islam. Unlike other Muslim countries they had limited access to Islamic studies both in academic and seminary institutions, and thus understood even the most basic Islamic sources from the perspective of the translators. Consequently, although they were well acquainted with the Western way of thinking and concept of government they had a vague understanding of issues surrounding Islam let alone reforming and advancing those teachings. For this reason, in order to understand the Islamic movement in Turkey one needs to be aware that the situation of Islamic activists is very different from other places. Also, this is a very cursory and broad description of Turkey's Islamic activists. There are many other complex issues and dynamics that need to be considered for a proper grasp of the situation.

There have been two noteworthy political Islamic movements in Turkey: The first is the Nur movement founded and inspired by Sheikh Said Nursi. He was the last scholar of his kind who dedicated his life to studying and teaching Islam at profound levels. He was also deeply involved in politics and became a vocal critic of Mustafa Kemal and his secular agenda. Thus he was imprisoned for a long period and poisoned there. However, his students embarked upon spreading his teachings and secretly expanded their power to the political landscape of today’s Turkey.

The second movement is Milli Gorus, which stemmed from Mehmet Zahid Kotku’s Iskenderpasha movement. Mehmet Zahid Kotku was a very influential Sufi (Naqshbandi) Shaykh who encouraged one of his disciples, Necmeddin Erbakan, to set up a political party that would operate as a political wing of the Iskenderpasha movement. Soon after, in 1970 Erbakan founded the first “Islamic political party” of Turkey: Milli Nizam Partisi. However, the party had a very short life and was closed down by the military regime in 1971. After a brief hiatus, Necmeddin Erbakan founded the Milli Selamet Party in 1972 to continue to develop policies with the support and guidance of Shaykh Kotku. Just before Shaykh Kotku died, a disagreement occurred between him and Erbakan. The Shaykh asked Erbakan to relinquish leadership of the party. The latter refused and left the Iskenderpasha movement. He formed his own movement, the Milli Gorus, that emerged as the forefront of Islamic movements in Turkey and thus a hub for future leaders of the country.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul were two prominent disciples of Erbakan but they departed from Erbakan’s party in 1998. The reason for the rift was difference of opinion between the “progressives” represented by Erdogan and Gul and the “conservatives” represented by Erbakan and his close followers. The “progressives” criticized Erbakan for not giving any space to the younger generation and most importantly for not being able to harvest policies to deal with necessities of the time. Therefore, they established their own party.

Before establishing the party, Erdogan went through a transformation period starting with his four-month imprisonment, up to the founding of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party). During this period, Erdogan went from being a staunch Islamic activist to a liberal pragmatist politician whose sole aim is to work for the prosperity of the country. Up to that point, Erdogan would say “my reference is Islam” for addressing pressing issues of the country, however after imprisonment he renounced his previous discourse and claimed that “it is nothing but delusion to believe that a state can be run by Islamic teachings.”

The strongest evidence for this transformation was Erdogan’s remarks in Gebze in June 2001: “We don’t need people who are good Qur’an reciters; rather we need people who are sagacious, avid readers and who can interpret the world affairs. Politics can’t be managed by just having beards.”

Many people believed at the time Erdogan was practicing dissimulation (taqiyyah). Looking back at his staunch Islamic background it was difficult for people to accept that Erdogan had renounced his original opinions. Perhaps he realized the impossibility of adoption of an Islamic state in the secularized Turkish society or did what every pragmatist would do to gain power after a series of political “defeats”: playing the game according to the rules.

However, in office, Erdogan has proved that what he had been saying before assuming power was in fact true. He stopped using Islamic references and focused on the prosperity of the country. One thing he did not compromise was his faith. Despite denouncing his political opinions about Islam, he continued to practice Islam and became a “pious liberal” Muslim leader of Turkey.

His policies have in fact worked in favour of Islam. He has weakened the power of secular elites and the army who had at one point almost managed to remove the Islamic identity of Turks. Erdogan had been struggling with them and finally brought their domination to an end on September 12, 2010 through the referendum to amend the constitution. During his long political life, Erdogan has fought many battles and made many enemies. He is a very good politician who knows how to lead the masses in difficult times. His warriorlike character, hard work and political prudence have gained him immense popularity among the public and allowed him to triumph against his political foes.

However Erdogan is not a deep thinker who can develop independent ideas and policies that would help Turkey advance to a point where it would become a model for the Muslim world. So far what Erdogan has done is to restore/embellish the existing system with pragmatic decisions. His most capable aide and adviser Ahmet Davudoglu has played a vital role in Erdogan’s bid to achieve his goals. Apart from his strong Islamic background Davudoglu has completely different skills than those of Erdogan. He is a highly polished academic and an independent thinker who singlehandedly devised Turkey's new foreign policy paradigm and covered for the weakness of Erdogan. However, Davudoglu is not a politician and cannot control the masses. He is not used to mingling with the people, hence he is not very popular with the public. Therefore, it is highly improbable that he would be able to assume the position of Erdogan when the latter retires from active politics in 2015. This means it will be a crucial time for the future of the country as well as the future of the Islamic movement. At the moment it seems there is no alternative to Erdogan in the AKP.

However, outside the AKP ranks, there is a rising star in Turkish politics who could well measure up to Erdogan’s charisma: Numan Kurtulmus, leader of the newly established Voice of the Public Party (HAS Party). Like Erdogan, Kurtulmus too emerged from the Milli Gorus movement. He had led the Felicity Party (SP) until October 2010 and had been regarded as Erbakan’s successor. However, fate took a different turn and Kurtulmus and Erbakan have been at odds since the party’s general congress in July 2010, when Kurtulmus was reelected as chairman and excluded Necmettin Erbakan’s son and son-in-law from the party administration. Erbakan was the SP’s honorary leader at the time. Facing strong reaction from Erbakan and his supporters, Kurtulmus resigned and a few months later established his own party.

Kurtulmus is known for his intellectual abilities and strong academic background. He was a vociferous critic of the government’s cooperation with the IMF which eventually forced Erdogan to end such cooperation. Unlike Erdogan’s (and of course all the other political leaders’) harsh rhetoric, Kurtulmus has a congenial personality and the ability to keep calm when arguing with opponents. His criticisms are constructive and are aimed at reconciliation to improve the opponents’ positions. In this regard, when he praised Erdogan’s stand against Israel, he also asked him why “do you not give the same reaction against the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan” and is urging Turkey to follow more independent foreign policies. He also put Erdogan in a difficult position by making fun of the famous “Zero policy” when Turkey accepted the NATO Missile Shield project aimed at Iran.

Further, despite his academic background he has the ability to communicate with the masses and is thus very popular at the grassroots level. A long-time friend of Kurtulmus, Erdogan asked him twice to join the AKP in the early stages of its founding but on both occasions Kurtulmus turned down the offer saying they have conflicting opinions.

He has a lot to say about economics, foreign relations, human rights, the issue of Palestine, and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. He talks about US domination of the Middle East and the necessity of containing US influence there. He does not hesitate to refer to Islam for solving the problems of not only Muslims but even the rest of the world.

In this regard if we are to compare the two leaders we may say that Erdogan is a man with a mission and Kurtulmus is a man with a vision. Erdogan came with the mission of eliminating internal obstacles and preparing the country for bigger objectives. Anyone familiar with Turkish politics would confess that only Erdogan could achieve what has been achieved in Turkey in the last eight years. But now the mission of Erdogan is coming to an end. It is time for a leader with vision who can undo the devastating effects of militant secularism among the Turkish public.

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