A plague on both your houses July 22, 2007Posted by smiffy in European Politics, Uncategorized.
In the current religion versus atheism debates, mostly fought out on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free pages and occasionally on here and elsewhere, it’s easy to fall into the black-and-white “Religion + politics = bad, secularism = good” mindset. We rightly see the mixture of religion (particularly religious fundamentalism) and government as anathema to liberal democratic values; we might, therefore, make the mistake of thinking that secularism, of any stripe, is worth supporting against an alternative. Secularism, we might think, represents Enlightenment values, the tradition of Voltaire and Paine, of Jefferson and the American Revolution, of the United Irishmen, of Darwin, Huxley and Russell. All good stuff, yes?
Well, as Gershwin might say, it ain’t necessarily so. While secularism is, obviously, a necessary aspect of a modern, functioning liberal democracy, today’s elections in Turkey remind us that it isn’t a sufficient one.
The political crisis of earlier this summer, which forced these premature elections (which it looks like the incumbent AKP party is likely to win with an increased share of the vote) put the issue of secularism centre-stage and was watched closely by those in Europe troubled by the idea of a Muslim-majority state acceding to the European Union. The mass protests against the AKP attempt to install Abdullah Gul (he of the headscarf wearing wife) drew admiring glances from those who prize secularism above all else, an indication that Turkey was a modern, forward-looking democracy rather than the backward, semi-Islamist state that some opponents of the Turkish EU big might have one believe. The veiled threat from the Turkish military that it might intervene (again) if it didn’t like the actions of the elected politicians was passed over as an unfortunate faux pas, but with little further comment.
Turkish opponents of the AKP (literally the Justice and Development Party), particularly the Kemalist CHP (or Republican People’s Party) but also many in the smaller parties and the establishment media, like to portray it as a hotbed of Islamist reaction, cunning enough to play the game of democracy as long as it suits, but ready to jump at a theocracy as soon as the opportunity arises. There’s certainly some merit in the charge; many in the AKP, including Gul and Tayyip Erdogan the party leader have chequered histories when it comes to far-right religious politics. However, since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey hasn’t descended into Taliban-esque religious tyranny. On the contrary, with the opening of formal negotiations aimed at EU membership, the AKP government has been continuing along a path of slow (indeed, painfully slow as well as grudging and inadequate) reforms designed at bringing Turkey into line with EU norms in a wide range of areas, not just economically.
That said, the AKP is a right-wing conservative party; if not Islamist then in line with traditional Christian Democrat parties across Europe (ignoring the obvious, glaring difference). One would like to hope, then, that its main opposition would come from a liberal, leftist position – the kind of ‘secular’ values outlined above. Which is why the current political climate in Turkey is so depressing.
The two main opposition parties (based on the expected outcome of the election) are the CHP and the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) which while ostensibly secular is moving towards a hardline, nationalist, quasi-authoritarian position, particularly in relation to the Kurdistan issue (which surprisingly arose prominently during the election campaign) as well as growing in scepticism towards the project of EU membership. Indeed, it’s important to remember that it was the CHP, and its predecessors (or the assertively secularist military), that were in power during the most oppressive years since Turkey gained its independence. Worse yet is the MHP, essentially a neo-fascist, far-right nationalist party complete with its own quasi-paramilitary group, the Grey Wolves. Based on the figures released so far, the MHP is likely to receive around 15% of the vote, an increase of over 50% on their 2002 result.
So where’s a wet liberal secularist like me to turn? What would I do if I were Turkish? On the one hand we have the religious right, on the other we have extreme nationalists. Any party that comes close to any position with which I might identify receives a negligible amount of votes. What does this suggest for the future of Turkey?
The issue of EU membership is, I think, crucial. Despite franklittle‘s compelling criticism of the European Union (while I don’t agree with everything he writes, I’m at one with him on the institutionalisation of neo-liberal economic policies) I think the only hope for a liberal genuinely democratic Turkey is for the negotiations to succeed and for the Turkish state to institute the kind of reforms (e.g. strengthening of human and civil rights, reduction of the power of the military, normalising its relationship with Cyprus, to touch on just a few) required of membership. And with the question of Turkish accession likely to be a key factor when it comes to national ratification of the Reform Treaty, as well as the election of Sarkozy, a staunch opponent of the Turkish bid, that membership is far from assured.
All of which leaves us with a situation where the best hope for a genuinely secular and democratic republic in Turkey is the success of the religious party over the avowedly secular ones.
If only they could all lose.