Thursday, April 08, 2004

Politics and Religion in Turkey (following March 28 elections)

It seems like what has been happening in Turkey over the past year and a half mirrors what has happened in India. The founding national party -- the center-left, secularist CHP -- has been steadily losing ground to a new religious conservative party, called the AKP (in English, Justice and Progress Party).

Here is an article in the Turkish Press on the situation. Unlike with India, the rise of the AKP has not resulted in major policy changes or social tumult. The biggest issue has been not the question of Hijabs (headscarves -- which are banned in universities and public office in Turkey), but the strained relationship with the U.S. In fact, it seems that the growing dominance of the ruling AKP is not being intepreted as a mandate for them to impose anything more than a vague religious agenda.

So Turkey is not about to become Iran. This perception is corroborated by Nur Yalman, a distinguished anthropology professor at Harvard, who spoke at the Future of Secularism conference two weeks ago. Most of Yalman's talk is philosophical in nature (the full text of the talk can be downloaded here), but he does offer a few bits of pointed political analysis. Yalman sees the AKP party's initial electoral victory as less than resounding, and interprets this as the reason for the new Prime Minister's caution:

What this [the victory of the AKP party in the 2003 elections] meant was that while the Islamists could claim a resounding victory, receiving a crushing majority in Parliament, in fact 66% of the electorate had not supported their cause. The leaders of the AK Party, very wisely, began a subtle but unmistakable move towards the supporters of other parties. They began to maneuver towards the center of the political spectrum. The Islamic rhetoric was toned down. At the risk of alienating their supporters among the ranks of the pious, Mr. Erdogan asserted that while he, personally was a pious Muslim, the party itself was not a religious party, but simply a political organization with a distinct program of economic and social development. It was, he said, merely an “Islamic democratic” party, just like those “Christian democrats” in Germany.

Christian Democrats in Germany, Islamic democrats in Turkey, and... Hindu democrats in India? I wonder if this might become a worldwide trend.

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