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Waseem Shehzad

Three times in the last 50 years – in 1960, 1971 and 1980 –  the Turkish military has seized power from civilian governments whose policies they deemed unacceptable.  In 1997, Turkey suffered a “soft coup”, when the military forced prime minister Necmeddin Erbakan out of power for being too Islamic.  

A similar intervention seems closer than ever as this issue of Crescent goes to press, after the military reacted angrily to the prospect of Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul (pic), becoming president. Gul is a member of the ruling AK party, which is accused of being Islamist.  Apparently more objectionable than Gul’s politics, however, is the fact that his wife, Hayrunissa Gul, wears the hijab, like the majority of Turkish women.  However, Turkey’s secular establishment, led by the army, is firmly anti-hijab; the wearing of hijab is banned in universities and government offices, and the prospective first lady herself led an appeal against the hijab ban to the European Court.

As a result, the voting for the presidency in Parliament has been boycotted by opposition groups (the Turkish president is elected by members of parliament, not by the populace as a whole.)  Nonetheless, in the first round of voting on April 28, Gul won 357 votes, just 10 short of the two-thirds majority required to win the vote.  Two further rounds of voting are due; in the third, a simple majority will be enough. However, it is uncertain whether the military or their political allies, particularly the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), will allow this process to continue.

The establishment’s fear of the hijab was made clear by outgoing president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose term ends on May 16.  In a speech at Turkey’s War Academies on April 13, he lashed out against too much religious influence “in the private and social life of the people.”  He warned: “For the first time, the pillars of the secular republic are being openly questioned,” since its establishment by Mustafa Kemal 84 years ago.  

Such sweeping statements reflect the secularists’ lack of confidence despite decades of forcing secularism upon the 70 million Muslim Turks.  Following Sezer’s “warning”, 300,000 Turks, most of them university students chanting anti-government slogans and waving Turkish flags, assembled outside the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal in Ankara on April 14 to denounce the alleged threat to secularism.  Students were bussed in from all over the country on orders of the military, the real power- wielder in Turkey.  An odd assortment of retired generals, led by Eruy Gur, who insist on proclaiming their continued relevance despite having outlived their usefulness, led the march and ranted about the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalists.  If the people of Turkey refuse to become secular, this can hardly be blamed on the ruling party, which has been forced to make painful compromises to accommodate the secular ideologues.  But these are not enough for the fanatics, as is shown by Sezer’s reference to too much religious influence in people’s “private and social life.”

Even the conservative British weekly Economist (no friend of Muslims) was forced to concede (April 19) that “contrary to claims by the hotchpotch of retired generals, nationalists and anti-European Union activists who organised the rally on April 14, many attendees seemed less concerned by Mr Erdogan’s supposedly Islamist agenda than by a general malaise over their future.  This reflects several things: worries over globalisation, violence in neighbouring Iraq, renewed Kurdish separatism, a feeling of being slighted by the EU.  Many are also disgruntled by the rampant corruption of some AK officials that Mr Erdogan has failed to curb.”

Mustafa Akyol of the Turkish Daily News pointed out in his column on April 17 that it is not the state’s business to regulate people’s private or personal lives.  In a similar column earlier (February 7) Akyol had said that “the principle of secularism as explained in Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution decrees among other things that ‘religion or religious feelings’ can’t be used ‘for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political and legal order of the state’.”  He pointed out that the constitution refers to the order of state, not to society or individual life.  However, secular fanatics like Sezer believe it is the state’s business to impose their ideology on others.  As a former judge, Sezer has had a chequered history in the service of secularism, but he has been around far too long even for his own good.  He not only preaches secularism as a principle that should guide human life, he also rewards ideologues who serve this “secularizing mission.” Last year, he gave the annual Atatürk Award to Muazzez  lmiye Çig, a controversial historian.  Sezer was so impressed by this 97-year-old woman’s insulting depiction of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as offshoots of ancient Sumerian sex cults that he considered it worthy of official recognition.  In a few weeks he will be history, but he refuses to depart quietly or with dignity.

The Turkish people are concerned with far more basic issues (employment, inflation, housing, education) than about such nebulous concepts as secularism being in danger.  This is an issue constantly played up by the military: promoters of Kemalism who continue to monopolise a disproportionate portion of state resources, depriving people of their basic needs.  Officially unemployment stands at 11 percent, but most commentators believe it is much higher; 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and most people cannot afford to eat meat.  Petrol prices, at more than US$2 per litre, are among the highest in the world.  The 800,000-strong military, meanwhile, consumes 40 percent of the state’s $115 billion annual budget directly, with numerous perks creamed from other sources.  Even with such large consumption of the state’s resources, it has little to show by way of achievements.  It fusses continuously about imaginary threats from such diverse sources as Russia, Armenia, Iran, the Kurds and Greece, and about Turkey’s being unwelcome in Europe, but is unwilling to show what role it has played in addressing any of these problems.

The European Union, for instance, has cited too much military interference in state affairs as one of the stumbling blocks of Turkey’s EU membership; lack of respect for human rights is another.  These realities are undeniable, yet they are excuses because Ankara has been given a long list of other demands, at the root of which lies Turkey’s Islamic identity.  In moments of candor some Europeans have admitted that Europe as a “Christian” continent cannot accept a Muslim Turkey.  Even so the military, notorious for its abuses of human rights, refuses to back off or mind its own business.  The military chief, general Yasar Buyukanit, referring to Erdogan’s Islamic leanings, said “As a citizen and as a member of the armed forces, we hope that someone who is loyal to the principles of the republic –not just in words but in essence– is elected president.” This was also a veiled attack on Erdogan’s hijab-wearing wife.  After Buyukanit’s statement, a member of the opposition People’s Republican Party rose in the National Assembly to ask why Emine Erdogan continued to wear the hijab!  This criticism will now no doubt also spread to Gul’s wife.

Erdogan has stabilised Turkey’s economy considerably, but major problems persist.  Unproductive state enterprises have been put on the block and exports have increased to more than $73 billion annually.  Imports, however, continue to rise and are well over $102 billion, creating a trade deficit and taking the country’s external debt to $170 billion.  Although the country has reserves of $52 billion (a respectable sum), its agriculture-based economy, which accounts for 36 percent of earnings, is vulnerable.  Industrial production accounts for 22.8 percent, while the service sector brings in another 41.2 percent with tourism playing a large part.  The Turkish lira was so low in value compared to the dollar ($1 equaled 1.3 million liras) that people found it difficult to write cheques.  The government revalued the lira by slashing six zeroes from it.  The new currency, however, has made little difference:  people’s earnings remain low; most workers earn less than $450 a month. Junior university professors, for instance, earn between $800 and $1,000 per month, amounts so low that few can make ends meet.

Despite such problems, the direct result of too much spending on the military, and of the secularists’ stubbornness, there is not even a hint that they are prepared to provide space for a civil society to operate on its own preferences.  The secular ideologues insist on forcing a reluctant people to march to their beat but have no idea how to address the country’s economic or social problems.  It is these contradictions that have turned a country of otherwise hardworking people into a marginal adjunct of Europe instead of a vibrant and leading part of the heartlands of the Muslim world.


If a country’s architecture can be taken as indicating its status in the world, that of Istanbul reflects fairly accurately both Turkey’s past and its present. While the grandeur of its historic buildings are vivid reminders of past glories, the blandness of its contemporary buildings–concrete and glass boxes–reflects the disrupting influence and ultimate vacuousness of its Westernization.

Less than a century ago Istanbul was the capital of a world power that had ruled a vast empire for nearly four centuries, since the capture of the Byzantine capital Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481CE), better known as Sultan Fatih, in 1453.  Renamed Istanbul, and symbolically bridging the gap between Europe and Asia, the city became the capital of a new empire that carried Islam deep into Europe, and ruled Muslim societies in three continents.  Today, the city boasts some of the greatest monuments of Islamic architecture. The Blue Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I and designed by Sedefkar Ahmet Agha, one of the most brilliant students of the great architect Mirmar Sinan, and built between 1609-1616, stands majestically opposite the Aya Sofia and Topkapi museums, flanked by the Marmara Sea to the south and the Golden Horn to the east. Topkapi–meaning the cannon gate–was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1467 and served as the official residence and court of the sultans until 1839, when Sultan Abdulmecit I moved to the new palace of Dolmabahace on the Bosphorus Sea. It was later converted into a museum, which now houses several relics of the noble Prophet, upon whom be peace, including the original letter he sent to the Roman governor of Egypt, Muqaiqoos, one of his swords, and a sword that he gave to Khalid ibn Walid (ra), the companion famed as a brilliant general who led the early Muslims to many victories.

Istanbul’s other great monument is the Eyup Sultan Mosque, named after the companion Ayub Ansari (ra), in whose house the noble Prophet (saw) initially resided in Madinah after his migration from Makkah, until a modest house was built for him. Ayub Ansari (ra) is buried in a compound alongside the mosque. His grave is carefully preserved and visitors can view it through an outer railing. Worshippers and visitors throng the mosque at all times of the day and night, but the most moving scenes are witnessed during fajr (morning) and isha (night) salats. One cannot help but contrast the respect shown by the Turks to the memory of Ayub Ansari (ra) with the vandalism of historic sites in the Hijaz by the Saudis. Jannatul Maula in Makkah, Jannatul Baqi in Madinah and the cemetery of the shuhada’ at Uhud are all in a sorry state. The Prophet’s first wife Khadijah (ra) is buried in Jannatul Maula, but it suffers from neglect; it is virtually impossible to locate the grave of this illustrious mother of the believers, the first person to accept Islam. Jannatul Baqi, where numerous companions of the Prophet (saw) and members of his family are buried, has suffered even more. On the spurious pretext of the risk of shirk, the Saudis have destroyed almost all the Islamic historical sites of Makkah and Madinah, while carefully preserving relics of their own sorry history, such as the tip of the spear that was lodged in the door of the Mismak fortress when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty struck it.  After their conquest of the Hijaz in 1924, the Saudis embarked upon wholesale destruction of historic buildings and monuments.  In the name of development, concrete monstrosities now tower above even the Ka’aba, and the Masjid al-Haram is surrounded by hotels and shopping malls apparently modelled on New York or Los Angeles.  McDonalds and Pizza Hut stores, and other symbols of Western consumerism, stand in stark contrast to the spirituality of the Haram. Traffic congestion and noise add to the distractions from the spiritual journey that pilgrims aspire to while circumambulating the Ka‘aba or running between the hills of Safa’ and Marwa.

By contrast, the Turks should be proud that the Ottomans went to extraordinary lengths to preserve Islamic monuments, especially those relating to the time of the Prophet (saw) and his companions (ra), when they ruled the Haramain.  But like the Saudis, Turkey’s secular rulers are today determined to destroy their own Islamic heritage in the name of modernization and  progress. The establishment in Turkey suffers from a severe crisis of identity: it wants to abandon its glorious past in order to adopt the West’s lifestyle and habits. It is one of the few countries in the world where hijab is officially banned in government offices and universities. Even the Islam-hating West does not go to such extremes. Bizarrely, the wife of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is barred from attending state functions at the presidential palace because she chooses to wear hijab, while Turkish law prohibits hijab at official events.

What Turkey’s generals fail to understand is that when Turkey held the banner of Islam, it was the leader of the Muslim world; by adopting secularism and imitating the West, it has become the sick man of Europe, facing an uncertain future. But the fact that the vast majority of Turkish women continue to wear hijab reflects a commitment to Islam among  ordinary Turks that decades of aggressive secularism have failed to obliterate. This commitment holds out the hope that Istanbul might yet again emerge as a centre of Islamic civilization and power, and a source of inspiration for all Muslims, insha’Allah.

The July elections in Turkey have clearly demonstrated once again, Turkey’s sham political system which many western politicians and commentators continually promote as the ideal model for the Muslim world. The crisis in Turkey concerning the presidency and the role of Islam in politics represents the trend in the Muslim world as a whole. Some feel that the vociferous opposition expressed in the streets of Ankara, and in the military headquarters last May, seems to indicate that Mustafa Kemal’s secular legacy is safe for the time being. However, the real story is of a country in transition, slowly being transformed as part of a wider dynamic across the Muslim world.

The cause of this crisis was the decision of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) to put forward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then the foreign minister Abdullah Gul, as candidates for the post of president. The presidential office is the apex of the staunchly secular political system established by Mustafa Kemal in the aftermath of World War I. Turkey had been the seat of the Caliphate until Kemal banished the Ottoman Caliph and his relatives in 1924. Hence, there are unique sensitivities towards any hint of the return of Islamic politics. Due to this legacy, the green-tinged secularism of the AKP, who invoke religion less frequently than the Christian Democrats in Germany, is treated as the spearhead of an Islamic challenge to the Kemalist system. In a country where the majority of women wear the Islamic headscarf, the greatest indication of the ‘Islamist menace’ is the fact that Gul’s wife, Hayrünnisa Özyurt also wears the hijab.

The major demonstrations on April 14th and 29th drew crowds of three hundred thousand and then up to a million. Such numbers are usually associated with widespread mobilisation of the masses, when a regime is on its last legs. In recent times we have seen similar numbers in the ‘colour’ revolutions of Eastern Europe. In Turkey’s case however the dynamics of these demonstrations of ‘people power’ are vastly different. Rather than representing the coalescence of the masses facing down the state, the demonstrators had the full backing of the establishment. One of the main organisations behind the protests was the Ataturk Thought Association (ADD), which is closely linked to the army.

Sener Eruygur, president of the ADD, is the former head of the country’s paramilitary forces. He has been linked in recent months to a plan, allegedly formed by senior officers to launch a coup against the AKP government. Due to the international climate, it is clear that the Turkish military cannot overthrow the government without serious diplomatic consequences. However media-friendly rallies mask the mobilisation of elite power with an acceptable veneer of popular outrage.

In reality, the opposition to the AKP candidacy is much more about fear than anger. Sadly, it is a fear of the majority of the Turkish people and their Islamic sentiments that is motivating this opposition. As one protestor remarked of the religious Muslims moving into her wealthy area of Istanbul “They have started to look down on us…they are trying to be part of the ruling class.” It seems strange to such protestors that people who do not meet their standards of civilisation and refinement should have, in their view the temerity to influence political life in their country, just because they represent the sentiment of the majority.

In recent years, the largely ceremonial post of president has become akin to a gatekeeper engaged in a secular crusade, rejecting appointments to academic and civil service posts if the candidates are “excessively” religious. As the Islamic identity of Turkey’s people has become more pronounced, the state has become more active in vetoing such appointments; hundreds of officers are removed from the armed forces each year and particular attention is devoted to the upper echelons of the judiciary and central government.

The political crisis in Turkey is part of a broader picture being drawn out across the Islamic world. As the poll conducted by for the University of Maryland shows, a large majority of Muslims support the implementation of Shari’ah law within, and the unification of Muslim countries into one Caliphate. The elite in Turkey are facing a similar problem to their counterparts in other countries. Imbibing secular western values since their childhood, they are simply unable to relate to the values of the overwhelming majority of their countrymen. The predominant beliefs, values and traditions are so alien to them that they regard the broad mass of their population with a mix of fear and disgust. An inevitable result of this is that whenever the population have the chance to express their sentiments, the elite find themselves repelled by what they hear. Frustrated by their own illogical arguments and rejected by a Europe that has shown its anti Islamic credentials, the ruling elites lash out wildly at their own countrymen.

It is clear that liberal secularism increasingly shown as ineffective in western nations has no future in the Muslim world as the latter move towards an Islamic system more in tune with their religious beliefs, history and heritage. Within such a system, Muslims elect their ruler, there is accountability and the ability to criticise officials no matter their position, an independent judiciary, a rule of law, a strong obligation to eliminate poverty and the fruits of modern technology and science. In addition Islamic texts clearly reject eighteenth century western doctrines of liberal secularism (the detachment of religion from public legislation) or the privatisation of vital resources such as water and energy, as well as the failed laissez faire social model. Islam also comprehensively rejects the flawed basis of political unity being achieved through the destructive force of nationalism; an anachronistic throwback to the nineteenth century. As the Muslim world moves beyond the false bonds of race, the secular world retreats back to the dark ages of Westphalian nation state supremacy and patriotic concepts such as being proud to be Turkish.

Turkey was the capital of a superpower once, the centre of a flourishing civilisation with Islam at its centre. Today it begs European states such as Greece and Cyprus to pass it some crumbs from the ‘grown-ups’ table. No wonder an increasing number of people believe Kemalism belongs more to a museum than in a modern 21st century state.


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GOVERNANCE IN THE MUSLIM WORLD - by moeenyaseen - 05-06-2007, 11:11 AM

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