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Illustration by Abro

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.

Author Image

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (42) Closed

Saad Durrani Jun 19, 2011 09:24pm
For once, I totally agree with Nadeem.
Mohan Jun 19, 2011 09:24pm
Dear NFP, If the solution to present day problems being faced by Pakistan is to become secular then what was the need for the 2nation theory (Partition)?. Pakistan was found based on ideology that Muslims from Sub continent can practice their religion freely & being secular is the defeat of the Ideology. Just my 2cents!!!
iNDIAN Jun 19, 2011 09:27pm
Turkey and Indonesia will lead the Islamic world in thimes to comes. The present conservatism in Islam stems from the fact that Saudi does not want to change the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family that makes it easier for the oil producing nations to brutally suppress their populaitons. In fact oil is one of the factor why Islam is controlled by so few people and twisted in the way that they like.If Pakistan follows the Turkish model then all disputes will spontaneously resolve with India too.
sharma Jun 19, 2011 09:33pm
It should be appreciated by Pakistan that inspite of Muslims being minority in India not even the Right wing BJP has not demamded Hijab to be banned as has been done in many European countries. It is this respect to the ethos of Islam that keeps India together.Islam has nothing to be afraid of in India rather if it approaches the Hindus the 'Sufi' way, it might gain more followers.However militant Islam is a threat not only to Pakistan and india but to Islam itself.
jalaluddin S. Hussai Jun 19, 2011 10:29pm
Excellent piece by Nadeem F. Piracha, entitled "Young Turks to the rescue", 19 June. His views are appreciated. However, there can be no comparison between Pakistan and Turkey. Pakistan will need years of "detoxification" to implement Turkish-like secularism. It is reassuring that the third-time winner, Justice and Development Party (JDP) is doing its best to reduce the "interventionist" role of the military in Turkish politics.
Mohan Kapur Jun 19, 2011 10:52pm
Turkey is a successful country because it does not have any problem with the past and accepted the history of Muslim as well as Christian dominations. India also has accepted its history of Hindu and Muslim dominations over its 5000 years old history and seek pride in it's nationalism. Pakistan has never comes to terms with its history and its Identity, and got confused between Islam and secularism. So, they take pride in Islam but not in secularism and nationalism.
rumasa Jun 19, 2011 11:39pm
hmm.. well everything that you mentioned in the article is kind of okay except that hijab ban. i don't understand if a perfect Muslim democracy has night clubs, bars (alcohol which can actually cause harm) is okay but hijab which do not cause any harm is banned? what is hijab doing to anyone? thank god i live in US where i can wear hijab wherever i want.
Chak Jun 20, 2011 12:28am
give them a few years, just a few years, and you would see a religious police out there trying to impose some arbit Islamic law onto the women of Turkey.
ArifQ Jun 20, 2011 12:30am
Unlike Pakistan losing its East wing, Turks lost the Othoman empire yet they were able to pull themselves together simply because they were able to separate state and religion. We on the other hand born as a free and secular state reversed trend and went in the opposite direction. Well said NFP
Inquisitive Jun 20, 2011 12:32am
Considering that hijab is banned in schools/hospitals in Turkey, I hope Pakistan does not become like Turkey either.
umar Jun 20, 2011 12:49am
We certainly have a lot to learn from Turkey. But i fear we have reached a point where it will take two-three generations for Pakistan to come on the right track if the country survives that is. As long as the fundo mullahs keep blowing themselves up we can never progress.
Manu Jun 20, 2011 01:22am
Thanks Nadim, I know a bunch of yong Turks here in the US (in their 20's and 30's), and your descriptions sound spot on. There are hot discussions among them (and with other non-Turks) about topics related to religious identity (Islam in public or Israel/Palestine etc.) or joining the European Union (they may be better off as neighbors). But exactly that tells me that they are from a "living" civilization...
raghu Jun 20, 2011 01:26am
Fundamentalism is growing in turkey though currently its low.Its a matter of time the religious figure heads grab the political overcoat and make turkey one more peace less place.
bekhud Jun 20, 2011 01:33am
The reason they couldn't draw between religion and political-economical lifestyles they acquired is simply because they have been harshly brainwashed.Having economical prosperity doesn't mean they are the only perfect examples to follow.Think of a nation who's been orderd on gunpoints to betray themselves as well as Allah asking to stay away from mosques,forcingly shaving off beards and uncovering your women in the name of moderation.who will wish giving their childrens life in city like istanbul where bars and nightclubs are more than parks?dear writer,you have mentioned malaysia but you havent understod the meaning of Pakistan and why is it still surviving like a lonely warrior still firm enough to vanish all its enemies incl.these phsycological conspiracies surrounding it all the time.if u r pakistani my advice is simple,don't even try think u can weaken pakistan if you simply cannot live up to its expectations.PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!!we will serve to make it live forever not like turkey whose name itself is non-compliant to islam and who obeyed the orders of eu to remove the following verse from holy quran inorder to join eu but shamefully they're not letting them in and turks already accepted their slavery by disobeying the orders of Allah.this what we call it"Lanat" The verse: "And you announce that the only straight path is the path of islam " Khauf e Khuda Sharm e Nabi Yeh bhi nhi woh bhi nhi..
Alam K.Wazir Jun 20, 2011 02:29am
Recep Tayyip Erdo?an a pious Muslim whose wife wears headscarf appeals not only to devout but to secular urban working class. Country's economy growing about 9% yr, Turkey is no doubt an emerging power in Islamic world.A model that clearly demonstrates - Islam is compatible with democracy.
Khochinsky Jun 20, 2011 02:46am
Ours is not a religious society,rather a superstitious society, closer to Hindu inhibitions than the faith and confidence Islam want its followers to have in themselves...
G.A. Jun 20, 2011 03:42am
Some 18 years ago I attended a talk at a U.S. university where followers of the Iranian Bahai religion informed us of their escape to Turkey and Pakistan after the revolution. I very clearly remember one remark from a Bahai "Pakistan is a very tolerant country!". But that was 1993.
M. Uzair Sukhera Jun 20, 2011 05:13am
How about you pay a visit to Malaysia and present their perspective to us too Mr. Paracha? They are great example too and they have done it the other way around! I believe their economy was in much better shape (and they were called asian tigers) and Malaysia is even more attractive tourist destination. All those virtues you admired in Turkey are (i'm sure) abundantly available in Malaysia as well :)
Hameed Jun 20, 2011 06:27am
Great to know that Nadeem paracha managed(??) to take a survey of majority of Turks about HarunYahya by sitting in a Istanbul hotel !!!
Bakhtawer Bilal Jun 20, 2011 06:39am
Thank You for bringing the picture of life.
Sultan Khan Jun 20, 2011 07:19am
The military of a country is like a lion.It should remain in the cage but treated with respect.If someone pokes it in the ribs it will surely retaliate.Erdogan, an enlightened leader,knows how to keep a balance between civil and military and so is successful.Let the "kizgins" of Pakistan ponder over the strategy of Recip Tayyp Erdogan
rishi Jun 20, 2011 07:31am
Awesome elucidating article ..NFP u r a genius breed indeed .Keep it up !
jagreet Jun 20, 2011 08:35am
Thanks, Turkey seems to be nice place to visit. I come to this site usually to read your articles. Is there any chance can you write same for TimeofIndia or some other India news papaer? Yes, I belong to other side of Loc.
Hamid Uddin Kazmi Jun 20, 2011 08:39am
You are hurting those who are behind the current condition of our day to day affairs with poisionous speeches almost on every Friday's afternoons. May GOD be with you always & save you from these valtures.
Ayesha Jun 20, 2011 08:58am
Fortunately Paracha Sahib Turkey doesn't border Afghanistan, something you might have forgotten!! This is no excuse for what we are going through but history hasn't been very kind to the region.
vamshi (hyderabad) Jun 20, 2011 09:23am
For that to happen, pakistan will have to first open up and popularize the symbols of a secular society, permit foreign movies and music till it can redevelop its own, convert madrasas into schools while still giving religious education, encourage sufism, and most importantly first start a war and wipe out the terrorists. If they don't have weapons, they will not be heard. This war against TTP will be a very important factor, just like the war to remove saddam.... the first few years were horrible, but 20 years later, people will say that the war that removed saddam was the turning point for iraq.
salem lane Jun 20, 2011 09:25am
About time you guys learnt few things from the Turks...Life is short, no one knows for sure whats going to happen after death...there are moslems, chrsitians and hindus and all proclaim to know the true God...give life a chance...have fun
imran Jun 20, 2011 09:26am
truly a success story, FDI is all time perhaps highest in the world. I travelled through the country from southern Syrian border to Istanbul. Mosques had followers just like any other majority muslim nation. Had a great time Nadeem, what do you think of Allama's shair "jo na ho deeN siyasar meiN to reh jati hai changezi"
Khalid Usmani Jun 20, 2011 09:56am
Can we learn from Turkeys experience. Turkeys success is testament to the fact that secularism and religion coexist perfectly. That is exactly what Quaid e Azam wanted for his Pakistan. Can we get there?
siddiqui Jun 20, 2011 10:08am
"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." what drug are you on these days?
Shikhar Jun 20, 2011 10:26am
For Pakistan to be in a similar situation it will need a generation if they start now. Right now most of the Pakistani youth squirm at the idea of being called 'secular'.
Ravi Jun 20, 2011 10:48am
Dear Nadeem The scenes you described of Turkey also apply to India to a large extent. At the time of independence, Pakistan had the opportunity to become the beacon to the Islamic world as a modern state with a muslim majority. One hopes that Pakistan recognizes this opportunity and makes the necessary efforts to realize its potential.
vamsi Jun 20, 2011 11:14am
I wish the Author should also travel to India. He doesn't need to write an article, he just needs to change Turkey with India in the above article and send to Dawn for reprinting it!!
Ratnam Jun 20, 2011 12:14pm
Mr. Paracha, I always enjoy your articles. They are sane and often filled with anguish. I can empathize. And this article is very well-written, because it points to a model (Turkey) that Pakistan can achieve. The only comment I wish to make is this. Pakistanis and Indians share an ethnic and cultural history that makes us far closer that Pakistan and Turkey. What you see in Turkey you can very well see in India. It is not that India is a paragon of secularism, but that India is much closer to Pakistan than Pakistan cares to admit, and it is much closer in every sense of the word to Pakistan than is Turkey. In India too you will find, as in Turkey, the kind of freedom that practicing Muslims enjoy. Pakistan shares it too because culturally they are the same. It is just that Pakistan has either forgotten it, or not dared to let it happen. There is a real and historical basis to the secularism of South Asia. It is a secularism that not only separates faith from the state, but it is a secularism that includes all religions. This is unlike Turkey where the only religion that they have to contend with is Islam. And they have done an admirable job. This is a credit to them. Perhaps Pakistan could look to its uniquely South Asian roots to find answers to secularism. Its stares Pakistan in its eyes. Why look elsewhere?
ramalla Jun 20, 2011 01:14pm
Perfectly said. But I wonder if any Pakistani has that big heart to understand/capture the essence of it.
Mustafa Jun 20, 2011 03:37pm
The cast system in India, poverty & corruption level in india, humanright violation in Kashmir and the zulm with women & minorities are some example of its difference with other World. How the Moodi butchered muslims in Gujrat and still enjoy the rule. How the indian movies of great sixtees have modernised to become bolly or hollywood with vulgarity are the actual secular face of india which is totally against hindu/muslim culture & civilization of India. Would sane Pakistani like to follow this example. Our example is & should be Saudi Arabia with change as Islamic Republic and democratic nature.
genda kaka Jun 20, 2011 03:48pm
nadeem paracha i recall talking to the turkish ambassdor in copenhagen. her opinion was that pakistan would not emulate turkey. pakistani,s were danceing to another tune. even turkey is a devided country- poor and islamic , and rich and secular . however the former is moderate. aatish taseer has written a book about his travel in 6 muslim countries, amongst them was turkey. it is a good book forserious readers. now i hope that my post will not be removed forthwith- furthermore why are my posts moderated. i am not a member of rss, or the ku klux clan.
Hameed Jun 20, 2011 04:20pm
This is the reason why muslims are becoming their own enemy. Views like that of yours which is dragging us behind. Other civilizations are advancing both intellectually and scientifically and we are letting ourself live in delusion and false reasoning. I think we should do following: 1)Being muslim is very personnel thing and we should not segregate ourselves using our religious believes from the rest of world. 2)Dont see other person as muslim/non muslim but as human being and treat the same. 3)Give our children good education based on rationality and scientific reasoning. Teach them about religion (if you really want to)only when they are grown up enough to understand what is right.
EJAZ Jun 20, 2011 04:22pm
Well was'nt Ram a good politician? How about Krishan and Arjun who fought Mahabharat? Did'nt they mixed religion into politics? Politics is a part of religion my dear. In history read about crusades. Pope ordered the crusades I, II and III. Did'nt the Aryans when entered India from central Asia killed cold bloodedly the Dravedians and drove them into the south of India and made them slaves and shuders becasue they wanted to rule the country and have all its wealth. Aren't not the dravedians that helped Ram to fight abainst Ravan referred to as monkeys in 'Ramayan'? Think about it.
salim Jun 23, 2011 08:50am
Good reply Hameed!
Ahmed Waheed Jun 27, 2011 02:57pm
Dear Indians commenting on this article. I've got nothing against your country except that it is no Turkey. You don't have hordes of religious extremists tearing down mosques or protesting the fact that one of 'their' girls married a pakistani. Modi's butchering of Muslims in Gujarat and free hand given to Hindu nationalists like the Shiv Sena, the caste system and the treatment of Dalits is a far, far cry from the example of secular Turkey.
palash Jun 27, 2011 03:06pm
well, i don think india is the ideal model for secularism.Basically secularism in india is can not be fit into western definitions.we call it 'sarvadharma samabhav'ie equidistance from all religions,which is contrary to the concept of west secl whr religion is kept aside from all affairs.although it(the word) is in the preamble of our constitution ,india has a long way to achieve some one mentioned above our problems are unending.fascist n right wing powers are still stronger n better not to utter a word abt internal conflicts .