Who’s the fundamentalist now?

The humble headscarf has become a key symbol in the simmering debate over Turkey’s secular future. In August this year it nearly brought down the government when the army opposed Abdullah Gul’s presidential bid because of his scarf-toting wife. The liberal middle classes of Istanbul and Izmir cite the AK Party’s apparent support for the garb, which although seen on every street in the country is banned in public buildings, as evidence of its Muslim fundamentalist intentions.

I spoke to a number of these critics when the AK Party first came to power in 2002. They predicted that it would try to turn Turkey into an Islamic theocracy. Even though the party’s manifesto promised to uphold secularism, its murky past persuaded the urban elites that it was lying. The party’s leader Tayyip Erdoğan, for example, was once locked up for inciting religious hatred in a poem he read at a public meeting. The offending verse? “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks.” Nothing too vindictive in there, you might think, but he deliberately omitted a verse praising the army (who are a sensitive bunch) and his final stanza, “our journey is our destiny, the end is martyrdom,” is admittedly a bit scary.

Turkey looks no more Islamic today than it did five years ago, however. The headscarf is still banned in schools, universities, the courts and government offices (Tayyip doesn’t even take his bescarved wife to official functions). The country has taken steps to get into the EU (despite the latter looking increasingly like an exclusively Christian club). And the generals – the staunch defenders of Ataturk’s secular legacy – remain powerful.

Unmoved by all this, secular liberals are still trotting out the same arguments. Gul’s presidential run gave them the perfect excuse for some breastbeating. A million people came out on to the streets of Istanbul to show their support for the secular state and disdain for the headscarf. Don’t be fooled, they tell you, sounding increasingly shrill, sharia law is on its way.

Part of this is frustration that the urban establishment’s long grip on power has weakened. AK represents a more conservative side of Turkey – the Anatolian steppe rather than the cosmopolitan coast. Economic advancement in the hinterland goes hand in hand with religious piety and a rejection of the corruption of the country’s liberal leaders. The majority of Turks, whatever else they think of him, see Tayyip’s honesty as a refreshing change.

But the nature of Turkey’s secularism is also to blame. Merve Kavakci, who in 1999 was stripped of her citizenship after turning up to take her parliamentary seat in a headscarf, has called it “secular fundamentalism.” Mustafa Akyol explains:

“Theirs is an intolerant version of secularism imported from France in the early 20th century, a time when the anticlerical zealotry of French revolutionism was at its zenith, and the Nietzschean claim “God is dead” was the intellectual norm.”

Interestingly, Akyol observes that this “authoritarian secular nationalism” meant that Turkey “was never really a convincing example of the compatibility of Islam with modernity for Muslims in other nations. At the problem’s heart is the lack of real democracy.” Maybe only now, with a democratically-elected government that respects both secularism and the religious faith which is so widespread in the country, can Turkey take its place as a role model for the rest of the Muslim world.