Many were surprised a few days ago when, during his visit to Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “one must not distrust secularism.” The people who were most surprised were those who, in the past few years, constantly said that Erdoğan and his Islamic Democratic Party for Justice and Development (AKP) had a secret agenda whose goal it was to overthrow the secular institutions of the Turkish republic and replace them with an Islamic caliphate. The commentators were also surprised, who having continuously repeated their misinterpretations ended up believing them and thus attributed a change in heart to Erdoğan’s pronouncement.
The reality is that, for the past decade, Erdoğan and his followers have been repeating these words. It is only that many, especially in the West, pretend they never heard these words spoken. They have preferred to believe that the policies of the AKP are just seeking the goals of old style Islamic politics by different means.
Instead, during his visit to Cairo, Erdoğan calmly repeated what he thought about democracy, pluralism of faiths and Islam. “I am a non-secular Muslim,” he said, “but I am the prime minister of a secular state and I say, ‘I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt.’ One must not be afraid of secularism. Egypt will grow in democracy and those called upon to draw up the constitution must understand it must respect all religions, while also keep themselves equidistant from the followers of all religions so that people can live in security.”
A part of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most Islamic, perceived these words as a threat. Another part, the moderates, greeted them as liberating. What is hard to deny is that for Erdoğan’s AKP these concepts of democratic and secular institutions are part of its DNA. The Justice and Development Party was born from a cultural and political break that took place inside the Party of Virtue, which was linked to the historical leader of Turkish Islamism, Necmettin Erbakan. At a certain point in that party some members began to feel constrained. The old concept of political Islam and modernity began to appear to them incapable of staying up with the times.
Thus, Abdullah Gül, who is currently the president of Turkey, and Erdoğan, two of the most charismatic men of that group, began citing the example of the United States of America in their speeches. This was not only because in America they found respect for religion they saw lacking in Turkey (both used the example of the fact that on American university campuses women can wear the veil, while in Turkey this was not possible), but because the greatest appeal of what was most important and democratic of the West was needed to affirm that fact that they wanted to be modern, that they were not anti-West, or anti-capitalist, which is what characterizes all Islamic movements.
A closer examination shows that Erdoğan’s objective, and that of his party, has never been the overthrow Turkish republican institutions, nor to impose religious law. Their primary desire from the beginning has been to reconcile Turkey’s Muslim nature with the secular institutions of the republic, allowing a space for religion in the political arena. Obviously, this was strenuously opposed with all force possible by the Kemalist establishment, not only in the centre of power that is found around the army, part of the judiciary and other organs of the state, that feels it must defend at all costs the secular vision of the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk. There are those who see the recognition of the right to religion in the public arena as a mortal threat to the system.
Three consecutive governments presided over by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the last one was elected to power in June) have effectively succeeded in greatly reducing the power of the generals. Now that things have changed in Turkey, AKP’s strategy is to raise the country to the level of regional power, exporting, along with goods and influence, their original model of Islam joined with democracy. Only time will tell if this model will bear fruit. The fact is that Erdoğan and his followers have understood for some time that in order to have any effect on the world today, they had to clearly define the limits of the state and religion, without leaving space for any ambiguity on respecting other faiths, on promoting pluralism and defending republican institutions. As Niyazi Oktem, a professor of the Philosophy of Law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, explained to ResetDoc, “the speech on secularism that Erdoğan made in Cairo is decisive, not only for the future of the Middle East, but also to truly understand the weight of innovations the AKP wants to introduce into the Islamic world.”
Translated by Francesca Simmons