NEARLY nine years in office as prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has already carved his name in history by his domestic and foreign policies.
The economy has registered phenomenal growth. It grew at 8.9 per cent last year. Civil society is articulate in universities, trade unions, business associations and human rights groups. The press is assertive. Last June, he won his third electoral victory in a row — 87 per cent of a 15 million electorate cast its vote. He won 326 seats in the 550-member parliament. This is less than the 367 he needs to amend the archaic constitution of 1982 and the 330 he needs to put his own draft for vote in a referendum.
The AKP escaped a ban by the Constitutional Court on July 30, 2008 by just one vote. The charge was that it was an Islamist party out to overturn the ‘secular’ ideology of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal. Its two powerful ‘guardians’ are the court and the army. In an article entitled ‘What is behind headscarf ruling of the Turkish Constitutional Court?’ published in 2010 Prof Abdurrahman Saygili of the University of Ankara exposed the court’s usurpation of political power in the guise of judicial adjudication. The army has used ‘Kemalist secularism’ as a weapon to control politicians it dislikes.
Recently, Erdogan invited to dinner leaders of religious minorities, including the chief rabbi of Istanbul, and promised to return thousands of properties, confiscated in the past, to the Jewish and Christian minorities. He proudly declared: “In this city the [Muslim] call to prayer and church bells sound together. Mosques, churches and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries.”
Erdogan, aided by the able foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, charted a new course in a foreign policy of ‘zero problems’ with neighbours. Bridges were built with Armenia, Greece and Georgia. It was on Israel that the change was most pronounced.
Even before he became prime minister, Erdogan had attacked the Israeli Defence Force for its outrages against Palestinians in Jenin and Nablus.
In 2009, in Davos he famously walked out on Israel’s President Shimon Peres declaring “You know very well how to kill”.
Relations between the two countries were all but broken last year when Israeli commandos attacked the Turkish freighter Mavi Marmara, which sought to break the Gaza blockage. Nine Turkish civilians were killed.
Erdogan praises the Hamas as “resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land”. Last month, he said on Egyptian TV: “I told Abbas to come with me so that we can all go together [to Gaza] Mahmoud Abbas, Erdogan and Ismail Haniya (the Hamas leader).” He made a remark which echoed all over the region because it is so very true: “Israel is the West’s spoiled child. To this day, it has never executed a decision by the international community.”
Erdogan’s trip to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in September was a resounding success. He has warned Syria’s President Bashar al Assad against suppression of peaceful agitations. It is a carefully calibrated foreign policy. In 2003, Turkey’s parliament voted against permitting American troops to use its territory to invade Iraq. Last year, it tried, along with Brazil, to mediate a nuclear deal between Iran and the US. But Turkey also joined Nato’s US-designed missile shield against Iran, though it was careful not to name Iran.
Radical changes in policies could not have been brought about unless they were rooted in long-felt aspirations. What we are witnessing is the people’s revolt against the perverted secularism forcibly imposed on them by Mustafa Kemal, despite their respect for him.
One learns of the depths of the revolt from a work of seminal importance by an erudite Turkish columnist and a committed Muslim, Mustafa Akyol, aptly entitled Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. He recalls that Kemal’s “vision was not the only alternative for the Turkish Republic during its genesis. The preceding war of liberation [1919-22] was led by a democratic parliament convened in Ankara”. Kemal founded the Republican People’s Party. Others, including war heroes, founded the Progressive Republican Party, which believed in “respect for religious beliefs and ideas”. In 1925, Kemal crushed the PRP. From 1925-46, Turkey was a one-party state actively anti-religion, closing religious institutions, banning religious symbols and suppressing religious leaders. A personality cult was sponsored. As a rising politician Erdogan asked, “In Europe there is respect for worship, for the headscarf. Why not in Turkey?” This earned him 10 months in prison.
The new direction that the AKP embraced has its roots among the Islamic liberals of the Ottoman Empire as well as in the centre-right tradition of Turkish politics represented by the Progressive Republican Party in 1924; by Adnan Menderes between 1950 and 1960; and by Turgut Ozal between 1983 and 1993.
“Classical liberalism, an idea so popular in the late Ottoman Empire but denounced by the Kemalist Republic, was rediscovered in the late 1980s, thanks to the reforms of Ozal and the efforts of new organisations such as the Ankara-based Association for Liberal Thinking. Books and academic works addressing liberal philosophy, extremely rare before the 1980s, became ubiquitous.”
Erdogan said in Cairo on Sept 12: “The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism.” He prays daily and his wife wears a headscarf; so does the wife of President Abdullah Gul, a respected academic. Akyol’s book is a plea for a liberal interpretation of the Islamic tradition. He praises Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s efforts. “The modernist tradition in the subcontinent would later be continued, and much refined, by Muhammad Iqbal, the wise philosopher-poet of the early 20th century who articulated an Islamic form of individualism and empiricism.”
Turkey is well set on the path of renewal.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.