Time to Bid Farewell To Turkey’s 'Muslim Democracy'

The social explosion caused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian policies and narratives is not only a political defeat for him. This uprising also shows that he finally suffered an unequivocal and major ideological defeat. This defeat is a historic one whose effects will be felt in the region and across the world.

We have already lived through issues as outlawing abortions and banning alcohol or religious influence on education before the Gezi Park uprising. The crucial question whether "moderate political Islam" is compatible with "democracy" has already been answered in the negative.If we try to summarize this defeat in a few words, what we are experiencing now is the collapse of the "Muslim democracy paradigm." The ambition of AKP [Justice and Development Party] Turkey to be a model for the Middle East has been invalidated by the social explosion. The collapse should be partly attributed to this phenomenon.

On May 31, the day when police attacked with tear gas and pepper spray a few hundred civil society activists who were opposing removal of the trees from Gezi Park and building of a concrete replica of an Ottoman military barracks in their place, the topic of my article in Al-Monitor was about anti-freedom alcohol bans under the title "Moderate Political Islam is Steering Turkey to Moderate Shariyah."

The next day, when hundreds of thousands of young people occupied Taksim Square and all the roads leading to it, no one in the world could call the regime Erdogan had wanted to establish in Turkey a "Muslim democracy" any longer.

When I was mulling these thoughts, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the cover of the June 8-14 edition of The Economist.

A painting by Constantine Kapidagli in 1803 shows Ottoman Sultan Selim III sitting cross-legged on a divan with prayer beads in his hand, cloaked in a majestic caftan and a turban on his head. The sultan’s face had been removed and replaced by Erdogan's, by means of Photoshop. Although the title asked "Democrat or a Sultan?" The Economist editor replied "Sultan" to his own question with the cover's illustration.

The "Sultan Erdogan" cover of The Economist reminded me of a news report in the Feb. 17, 2011, issue of the same magazine. The title was "Elections in Turkey — Muslim Democracy in Action." Its subtitle read: "Popular uprisings in the Arab world again draw attention to Turkey’s democracy example."

The magazine was referring to the then approaching June 12, 2011, elections. Erdogan’s AKP won those elections with a 50% vote.

The Economist which must have detected authoritarian inclinations in its edition before the elections ironically called on Turkish voters to support the secular main opposition Republican Peoples Party [CHP] in what appeared to be an effort to balance this so-called "Muslim democracy."

The purpose of raising the "Muslim democracy" concept in the context of the Arab Spring could be to promote a perception by bringing together the words "Muslim" and "democracy" and thus encourage the Middle East’s Muslims who are not known to be favorable to secularism to adopt AKP’s "Turkey model."

To say "Muslim democracy" was based on the assumption that Islam and democracy would go well together. But now they are learning by experience that political Islam and democracy do not go well together at all.

To brand Turkey a "Muslim democracy" because it was being governed by a reformed Islamist party was nothing else but to sacrifice Turkey’s problematic but important secular democracy experiment for the salvation of developments in the Arab world. This was unfair and wrong on many counts.

First of all, to say "Muslim democracy" is to attribute permanency to the rule of Erdogan and the AKP. This simply meant ignoring democratic change that is a pillar of democracy or at least denying it to Turkey.

Tomorrow, if the AKP loses power through elections, Turkey will remain Muslim.

Another objectionable aspect of calling Turkey a "Muslim democracy" would be the legitimization of Erdogan government’s Islamic conservatism policies. These policies have certainly played parts in the social explosion and the consequent instability.

For a moment, let’s dream that all the issues that requires democratization in Turkey — above all, freedoms of religion and convictions — were overcome through reconciliation and peaceful change and it became a country where Muslims live happily governed by a social democratic party.

We would not be calling that country a "Muslim democracy" but simply a "democracy." That means that the origin of affixing "Muslim" to today’s democracy is because the neo-Islamic AKP is in power.

Moreover, also the concept of "Muslim democracy" is groundless. That is an oxymoron. Neither Islam nor any other monotheist religion can be compatible with democracy. Religions are not democratic. They cannot exist without dogmas and dogmas are not open to criticism. To expect religion to be in harmony with democracy is first of all unfair to that religion.

Second, there can be no case of a "Muslim democracy." You cannot define democracy by linking it to religion. If you do that, that regime will not be a democracy. Democracy, by definition is secular.

Those who described Turkey as a "Muslim democracy" and suggested that regime as a model to turbulent Arab countries must have been embarrassed because the progress is from democracy to authoritarianism.

Will they now be saying "Islamic authoritarianism" instead "Muslim democracy"?

Those masses that took to the streets on May 31 have shown the country and the world that Erdogan’s Islamic conservatism pressures will henceforth backfire and cause instability.

The dilemma Turkey now faces is this: Turkey will either continue on its way as a "secular democracy" and cope with needed political changes, or the Turkish regimes will undergo an authoritarian transformation.

In both cases, there is no way to defend the "Muslim democracy" nonsense. If Turkey is to be a democracy, after the popular opposition voices it views in the street, it will have to be a modern and secular democracy.

It is time to understand that by Middle Easternizing itself, Turkey cannot be a model to the region.

Kadri Gursel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam

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