On my recent trip to Istanbul, I came across an article written by a senior Turkish journalist who warned the Turkish government not to dabble in ‘political Islam’. The example that he gave of such an experiment going dangerously wrong was, of course, that of Pakistan. Interestingly this is exactly what I mentioned to some Turkish university students whom I had met on my first trip to that country in 2009.
Nevertheless, my recent trip convinced me that chances of Turkey becoming an ideological casualty like Pakistan are rather scant. Today Turkey is shining through as an example of a Muslim majority country that is functioning rather well as a secular state and society.
For decades Turkey was striving to find a balance between the great Mustafa Kemal’s radical secular doctrines and its historical link with a royalist Islamic past. But ironically it has been two full terms of a moderate Islamic party in the government that has been the most successful in finally giving Turkey this balance.
No wonder, then, that Justice & Development Party (JDP), has now won a third term in the recently held elections. In spite of the fact that the JDP has a rather staunch Islamist past, the two consecutive terms in power has helped it evolve into a moderate party that is more interested in addressing the people’s economic aspirations and demands than ideology.
I saw the way the party campaigned for this June’s election, and not once did I see a poster or heard a JDP leader even mention religion. I asked one of its supporters if that was due to the JDP fearing a reaction from Turkey’s staunchly secular military, and he told me this was not the case. He said Turks do not need to be lectured on Islam by a political party; and that secondly, the military does not believe anymore that a JDP-led government would dismantle Mustafa Kemal’s secularism.
He said the JDP would once and for all limit the Turkish army’s interventionist role in politics. ‘The party is doing this through democracy and a revamped constitution,’ he added. So, for the first time a popularly elected civilian government is successfully standing up to a politically overbearing military in Turkey which, in the name of defending Kemal’s secular legacy, has had a history of interfering in politics and propping up various nationalist outfits that in turn gave birth to some radical Islamist groups in the 1980s.
This was an irony that itself was tackled by yet another irony in which a moderate Islamist political party led the way by finally turning Turkey into a strong economic player, with democracy stopping constant military intervention in its tracks. The JDP, I noticed, was squarely focused on further advancing Turkey’s recent economic growth. Little was ever said about Islam, even though the issue of Turkey’s long-lasting ban on the veil and the headscarf (in government institutions) has opened up as a debate.
Istanbul is a great expression of the wonderful surreal scenario today’s Turkey exhibits to a person coming from a country like Pakistan where even the most secular public space is being invaded and occupied by gaudy religious symbolism and rhetoric. In Istanbul, bars, nightclubs, cafes, spice markets, carpet sellers, fast food joints, restaurants, western tourists, traffic jams, men and women in the most modern western clothes and women in hijabs, all go about their business, as many beautiful mosques that Istanbul is dotted with call out the faithful to prayer five times a day.
Not once did I come across a Turk frowning at this perfectly functioning juxtaposition of the secular with the religious. Why should they? The economy is doing well, investors and tourists continue to throng Turkey, their mosques and markets are not being blown up by mad men in the name of God. And yet it is the same God Pakistani Muslims worship as well.
In Istanbul I stayed at a lovely little ‘boutique hotel’ in the serene area where the marvellous Blue Mosque is situated. The area is surrounded by the most amazing array of tulip flowers and comfy benches on which I continued to see young Turk couples sitting, holding hands, smilingly and whispering to one another.
What amazed me was the number of girls in headscarves. To a Pakistani this would be an astonishing sight. Women in hijab holding hands with men in public! On the other end, the popular Turkish prime minster’s wife who wears hijab actually takes it off when visiting a public hospital or a school where hijab is banned. This, some Turks told me, was her way of showing respect to modern Turkey’s secular heritage. Stunning stuff.
A majority of Turks also want to become part of the European Union. No Turk sees this as something that would harm their sovereignty or their religious identity; instead they see this opportunity as a way to further Turkey’s economic prowess. Also, did you know the so-called ‘Muslim creationists’ like Harun Yayah (a Turk), who became such a hit in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, are actually described as ‘deli’ or ‘kizgin’ (both meaning crazy) by a majority of Turks? The Turks sound perfectly sane while trailing a smooth path between religion and secularism.