Turkey’s Islamic movement at crossroads

Developing Just Leadership

Crescent International

Shawwal 19, 1418 1998-02-16


by Crescent International (World, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 24, Shawwal, 1418)

Three weeks after Turkey’s constitutional court announced its decision to ban the Refah Party and Necmettin Erbakan for being too Islamic, publication of the verdict and its reasons in the official gazette are still awaited. Until this happens, the decision is not official and its full implications cannot be assessed. Turks, meanwhile, have been waiting in animated suspense, no-one quite sure what to do in the ambiguous circumstances. While Erbakan remains politically active, addressing meetings across the country, lobbying for the reversal of the decision and overseeing Refah’s contingency planning, Refah activists have made it clear that no future strategy will be decided until the full verdict is known.

Speculation is naturally rife. What were the actual grounds for the verdict; to what extent was it politically imposed; why did two judges vote against it (it was passed by 9 voted to 2)? And, increasingly, why the delay in publishing it? Constitutional Court decisions should not be announced until they are finalised, and are supposed to be published immediately. Various explanations are suggested: that the government is regretting the decision, that the decision was announce prematurely because of government pressure, even that Erbakan is somehow delaying the announcement in order to try to reverse it.

These issues will only be clarified when the decision is published and reactions to it can be analysed. But certain aspects of the broader picture are clear. Foremost among these is that Turkey’s establishment is now conducting a major and multi-faceted drive against Islam, designed to counter the influence of the Islamic movement and secure the dominance of Kemalism once and for all. This campaign is not new; probably even the controversial decision to allow Erbakan to form a government was a part of it, in the expectation that like most Turkish political parties Refah, too, would prove ineffective in office and public support would disappear. However, Erbakan’s (reasonable) success in office, and the more substantial achievements of Refah in local government, scotched this expectation, hence the more direct attack.

Politicking apart, the rising influence of Islam is also being attacked in other ways. Numerous Islamic activists have been jailed for offences against Turkey’s secular principles or for insulting Mustafa Kemal or the military. The latter itself has repeatedly been purged of those suspected of having Islamic tendencies. Many of the very limited pro-Islamic measures Erbakan did succeed in passing, such as in education, are now being reversed. And, perhaps most serious of all, the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs is increasingly intervening to try to misguide and control the way in which even committed Muslims understand and practise their faith, for example by lobbying support for salat being read in Turkish instead of Arabic. In this, Turkey’s secularists seem to be learning from more subtle enemies of Islam such as the Saudis, who have long manipulated the Muslims’ faith and commitment to fight Islam.

Where now, in this context, for Turkey’s Islamic movement? It is too early to attempt a detailed assessment of the Refah experience. But it certainly demonstrates, again, the futility of trying to change an anti-Islamic political system from within. Every political system’s first priority is to defend itself and the principles on which it is based. Adding the Refah experience in Turkey to the Jama’at-e Islami’s in Pakistan, the Ikhwan in Egypt and the Islamic Salvation Front’s in Algeria, and contrasting them with the example of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the lesson is quite clear. The first step to building an Islamic society and polity must be the total rejection of the existing political order, in deed as well as word.

Whatever Islamic Iran’s mistakes or shortcomings, they have totally rooted out the old order and are now working sincerely (and with some success) to build a new, Islamic order. In Iran, the revolutionary process started in 1963 with Imam Khomeini taking a firm stand against the existing order - the political expression of la illaha il-Allah... The revolution itself took nearly two more decades to achieve, but this initial rejection set the tone for every subsequent act, thought, idea and strategy. The question is whether the Islamic movement in Turkey has the political maturity and courage to take the same stand now, or it is going to simply plunge back into the murky waters of secular politics once more.

Muslimedia: February 16-28, 1998

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