It’s rare to find YouTube clips of a Muslim Head of State like Recep Erdogan reciting the Qur’an from memory with perfect recitation (tajweed) or supplicating (du’a) in flowing poetic Arabic. In 2014 Erdogan became the President of Turkey having held the office of Prime Minister for 11 years. During his leadership, Turkey has become widely seen in the Muslim world as a vanguard of a pragmatic and accommodating symbiosis of secular state and Islam. Sure enough, when Erdogan said, ‘there is no such thing as moderate Islam, Islam is Islam’ it is quite evident that he is steeped in religious literacy, and more to the point, someone proud of, and finds confidence in, his Islamic identity, history and faith.
Erdogan and his AKP government’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/‘Justice and Development Party’) attachment to Islam, however, is not welcome by some who seem to conveniently problematise them as Islamist. In doing so, Turkey itself is often interpreted as having a latent schism where apparent Islamists are at loggerheads with the rest of Turkish society. This narrative runs deep in many analysis and reports about Turkey in mainstream Western news outlets.
Once a generalised label like Islamist is put out there it is often difficult, if not impossible, to undo. The power of corporate media can at times be an incredibly undemocratic medium in modernity through which public perceptions and tastes are constructed. Of course, also, human psychology has a tendency to look for things that confirms rather than negates. Unfortunately, the tiger in the media’s influence often remains obscured until perhaps one is directly affected by an uncomfortable news article framed in a consciously dishonest way.
Whilst secular and Islam are contradictions, faith (iman) still has implicit obligations which are relevant in one way or another even in secular contexts. The Quran, for example, contains many such stories. And so there are interesting overlaps and differences which are playing out in Turkey.
Besides these considerations, since being elected into government the AKP has delivered impressively on a whole raft of economic and welfare securities as well establishing basic liberties that we take for granted in Western Europe. Under Erdogan, debt reduced to 33% of GDP output (which compares well to say the UK’s c. 84% in May 2016) and there has been a huge boon in economic growth, consistently around 5%. Turkey has also invested heavily in public infrastructure introducing a “People First” programme of free healthcare for the poor, more than doubling the number of airports to over 50, and delivering a huge number of highways and railways, while education spending has also soared. Quite simply this level of investment and civil engineering has not been seen since the days of the greatest Muslim architect, Mimar Sinan (1489-1588).
Some of the seemingly more contentious things like ‘Islamic finance’ established under Erdogan have been actively promoted by Western Governments for some time. This isn’t surprising; modern Western democracies have the maturity to know that economic activity through ‘Islamic finance’ isn’t an ‘Islamist’ tendency per se, but about demand, risk, bricks and mortar economy, ethical investments etc. Similarly, much like the high street ‘Muslim Pound’ isn’t an ‘Islamist’ takeover; the lifting of the hijab ban under Erdogan ought to be interpreted as correcting the militant secular law that had been for many decades completely misaligned to the many Turkish peoples’ faith-based value of dressing modesty.
In one sense, then, under Erdogan’s leadership the strategy has been, arguably, to leverage state interventions to correct and synergize Turkish society: from the militant secularism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to a much more tolerant, moderate secularism. Looking back at what Ataturk did, you’d think his secularization policies were authoritarian formed on a hatred of historic Arab and Islamic influence. Ataturk introduced a new code of law that banned the hijab, abolished the Arabic script, even banned the humble fez cap because it was seen to be too religious for public viewing etc.
If we judge by Voltaire’s (1694-1778) standard of state secularity and the role of religion, it seems, this is exactly the position Erdogan is repeatedly landing on. In this sense, Erdogan’s leadership could also be interpreted as a vanguard of European Enlightenment. Voltaire, in his famous Treatise on Tolerance remarked, ‘Mankind has always been in need of restraining influence … wherever society is established, religion is essential.’ It seems much like Voltaire believed that The Church should be subordinated to the needs of the State, that Islam’s ascendency on to the political scene if it’s to survive in modernity (unlike in the recent example of Egypt) may well need the helping hand of a tolerant secular state.
It’s difficult to know if journalists who criticise Erdogan and the AKP government can extricate themselves from the going discourse and see this normalisation process too. Though, granted, the fear that change could lead to a slippery slope of eroding the Ataturkian standard of secular is understandable in a country where Ataturk’s ideas have had a hypnotising effect for almost a century. As neuroscientists have found, our brains don’t reveal the world as it is, but rather rely on past experience to form interpretations of what is going on around us.
There are of course major risk factors for Erdogan and the AKP government, and indeed the development of Turkey in general. First, the pragmatism of maintaining a fruitful accommodation between moderate secularism and freeing people to practice Islam is a delicate matter requiring a great deal of diplomacy, patience and wise counsel.
Second, there is a need to continue reforming the Turkish military so that it becomes subservient to democratic and political processes. This isn’t an easy fix. Even in Turkey’s precursor, the Ottoman state, successive Caliphs repeatedly failed to curtail the power of the Janissaries (military corps).
Third, the war in Syria and the Kurdish question are simmering tensions that if badly managed can risk igniting wider insecurity and instability inside Turkey. If France could be targeted so wilfully, the militant threat is even greater for Turkey.
Fourth, Erdogan and the AKP government need to be seen to be treating journalists, political dissenters and coup plotters with due tolerance and fair judgement.
Fifth, there are signs that the economy is slowing, and the recent coup attempt will only add a further downside on tourism and, in turn, the Turkish economy. In response, macroeconomic policy interventions and greater spending to promote tourism may be needed.
Sixth, there is the matter of reconciling Erdogan’s and the AKP’s fallout with Fethullah Gulen’s movement Hizmet (‘The Service’). On paper because they share so much – as testified by their past alliance and friendship, it’s difficult to fully pinpoint the exact nature of the fallout. Is it a clash of personalities, sheer rivalry, or feuding factions within Hizmet and the AKP intent on escalating a climate of mistrust and power struggles?
These are just some of the obvious challenges that Erdogan and the Turkish government will need to carefully manage. But if there is one Muslim government that can, it’s got to be Turkey. In putting down a military coup within just 12 hours of starting – by God’s Grace, Turkey’s government and its people demonstrated something of a first for the Muslim world.