Ahmet T. Kuru*
In the last decade Turkey has experienced a rapid process of transformation in terms of its political and socio-economic systems.
Some pundits in the Western media, and even some academics, have defined recent political debates in Turkey as the mere reflection of a struggle between two forces: the declining secularists, including the military, and the rising Islamists, especially the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Gülen movement. One example of this point of view is a recent report from the American think tank Stratfor titled “Islam, Secularism and the Battle for Turkey’s Future.” There are three main problems with depicting contemporary Turkish politics as a clash between the secularist military and the Islamist AK Party and Gülen movement.
First of all, as I explained in my book “Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey” (Cambridge University Press, 2009), the main debate in Turkish politics is not about secularism and Islamism, but between two types of secularism. Islamists, who seek to make Islamic law the basis of the legal system, are marginal in Turkey. According to surveys, 92 percent of people in Turkey support the secular state (see the 2006 survey by Çarkoglu and Toprak). Yet there has been a polarization between the Kemalist military and judiciary, on the one hand, and the majority of the Turkish people and right-wing parties that have won elections since the 1950s (Menderes’ Democrat Party [DP], Demirel’s Justice Party [AP], Özal’s Motherland Party [ANAP] and now Erdoğan’s AK Party), on the other. The Kemalist bureaucrats have aimed to protect a French-style “assertive secularism,” which requires that the state play an assertive role to exclude Islam, in particular, and religion in general from the public sphere and confine them to the private domain. However, supported by the majority of the people, conservative groups such as the Gülen movement and right-wing parties, including the AK Party, have tried to introduce an American-style “passive secularism,” which would tolerate the public visibility of religions. The assertive secularists have imposed policies such as the headscarf ban in all educational institutions and discrimination against public Islamic (imam-hatip) school graduates in the nationwide university entrance examination. Again, according to surveys, about 80 percent of Turkish society opposed these policies, but Parliament and governments have not been able to lift them so far because of the assertive secularist dominance of the military and the judiciary.
Second, those who regard the recent political developments in Turkey as a power struggle between the assertive secularist military and the Islamist AK Party and Gülen movement miss the real wrangling between two coalitions in Turkish politics. The first coalition includes actors such as the military that benefit from and, therefore, defend, assertive secularism and the old way of politics. The “old generation” in the bureaucracy is the main component of this coalition. On the other hand, there is a coalition of passive secularists, which include a broad range of actors, from conservatives (AK Party and Gülen movement) to liberal intellectuals in the media. The “young generation” in the bureaucracy, even within the military and judiciary, seems to be supporting this coalition. This coalition has pursued a demilitarization and democratization agenda and it has been the main force behind the recent judicial activism against military personnel who are suspected of planning coups against the AK Party government. The Taraf daily, which includes agnostics, ex-socialists, liberals and conservatives among its editorial board and columnists, is a prime example and a very active member of this coalition.
Finally, to depict the political debates in Turkey as a struggle between the secularist military and the Islamist AK Party and Gülen movement would be a misleading analysis in terms of agent-structure relations. Such an analysis would neglect important structural factors, such as globalization, the European Union membership process and urbanization, which have shaken the old semi-authoritarian political system and its powerful actors in Turkey, while bringing new socio-political actors to the forefront of the changing Turkish political system. Moreover, to attach too much importance to the AK Party and the Gülen movement as monolithic actors while explaining the transformation of Turkish politics would be inaccurate. These two actors have differences from each other, in addition to internal disagreements within their own ranks. Moreover, the AK Party and the Gülen movement, in many cases, seem to be results of societal demands, rather than the cause of socio-political behaviors. Even if there had been no such personalities as Erdoğan and Gülen, there would have been parties and movements to challenge assertive secularism in Turkey, because the majority of people have been discontent with assertive secularist policies.
* Ahmet T. Kuru is an assistant professor in the department of political science at San Diego State University.
Published on Today's Zaman, 30 August 2010, Monday