Turkey’s transition away from secularism

Turkey is often looked upon by the West as a model state for other predominantly Muslim nations. It’s a functioning democracy with a strong economy, and its citizens enjoy wide array of freedoms relative to other non-Western countries. Turks are free to practice any religion they choose, and they can voice their grievances with the government, which they do quite frequently.

I had the opportunity to travel to Istanbul last summer, which is Turkey’s largest city and home to nearly 10 million people. The city is full of Greek, Roman, and Ottoman historical sites, the most famous of which being the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which is preserved as a museum in viewing distance of the Blue Mosque. Istanbul even won “Europe’s Leading Destination” at the World Travel Awards in 2010. The architecture is beautiful, the people are warm and friendly, the streets are clean, and the shops are bustling. And yet at the same time are growing concerns over the direction Turkey is going in.

Prior to Rick Perry dropping out of the race, he found himself at the center of controversy for condemning the Turkish government during the Fox News South Carolina debate.  He was asked whether Turkey should continue to be a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) despite its Islamist leadership. Perry answered:  “When you have a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens, then yes. Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.”

Although this was an obvious gaffe by Perry, who doesn’t appear to be very knowledgably when it comes to foreign affairs, there is a grain of truth in it. But in order to understand why some analysts are concerned about the future of Turkey, it’s important to know its past.

What we know today as the Republic of Turkey was forged out of the rubble of WWI under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, who was later granted the title of “Atatürk” meaning “father of the Turks.” He fought a war for independence against the occupying Allies from 1919-1921, and in victory, established a modern secular state based on six principles: Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism, and Revolutionism. He went on to impose regulations on Islamic clothing, making it illegal to wear the Hijab inside government buildings or universities. He replaced the Arabic script with a Latin alphabet for the Turkish language, and barred Islam from being at the center of Turkish public life. Most importantly, he allowed equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, including women.

Until recently, secularism has been enforced by a strong military, but changes in the demographic makeup of Turkey have had a major impact on the Turkish identity. The secular Turks adopted dismally low Western birth rates, while the Islamist factions have continued to multiple. The results have been landslide election victories for the Justice and Development Party (AK) in the last decade, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

Under Erdo?an’s leadership, Turkey has become the world leader in imprisoned journalists, ahead of even China. He has also made disparaging remarks about Atatürk on the commemoration of the former leader’s death, saying the holiday was “Much ado about nothing.” Moreover, the Prime Minister is on record as having said he wants to “turn all our schools into Islamic religious schools.”

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Erdo?an’s worldview is impacting Turkey’s foreign policy as well. He recently praised the racist, genocidal, terrorist organization Hamas, calling them “freedom fighters,” which has soured the historically friendly relationship between Turkey and Israel.
One would assume that many of Erdo?an’s outbursts would galvanize opposition to his party; however, the Turkish economy is growing at a phenomenal rate due in large part to free market reforms, and so the population is largely content. Islamists armed with free markets, a truly frightening combination.

Yet despite the current electoral dominance of the AK party in Turkey, it is certainly still a nation to be admired. Unfortunately, the freedoms which have made the country great are under siege. As a Westerner, I can only hope that Atatürk’s dream of a modern, secular Turkey will continue to live on. The trends, however are troubling.