Mosque and State

Mosque and State

Seyla Benhabib on Turkey’s recent election

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking to supporters. Photo: Turkish Government.

AFTER TURKEY’S PRIME Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nominated fellow AK Party member Abdullah Gul for the country’s presidency, protests erupted throughout the country and several secular military officials threatened to prevent Gul’s installment because of his religious background. The results of July 22’s national elections, however, reaffirmed Erdogan’s popular support–the AK Party received 47 percent of the country’s votes–and raises questions about his secular opponents. Daniele Castellani Perelli talks with Yale political scientist and Dissent contributor Seyla Benhabib about the AK Party, Turkish nationalism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and what’s next for Turkey. –The Editors

Daniele Castellani Perelli: There have been protests in Turkey against the presidential candidacy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Islamist Abdullah Gul. Do you think that these worries are legitimate? Or not?
Seyla Benhabib: In the case of Abdullah Gul, I don’t think that he was about to change the form of the state, nor that he was about to forsake Turkey’s secular state. People were also disturbed about the fact that his wife wears a headscarf, so for many it seemed that the country was undergoing a transformation symbolically from laicism (the Turkish version of the strict separation of religion and the state) to some form of Islamic law. I personally do not think that Abdullah Gul was other than a fairly moderate individual or that the AK Party was about to change Turkey into an Islamist country. I think that there maybe other elements within the AK Party who had such illusions and intentions, but I do not think that in the case of Abdullah Gul such fears were justified. The conflict between the secularists in Turkish political life, represented by the CHP (The People’s Republican Party), and the Islam-inspired AKP (The Party of Justice and Progress) was growing, a conflict which had been coming for many, many years, and this suddenly exploded around the issue of the election of the President, the symbolic head of State. In many ways I do not think it is all that bad that the question is now being squarely faced. How far can the Islamic project in Turkey really go and what kind of modus vivendi are they are aspiring to?

DCP: Is Turkey more religious today than it was in the 1960s when you were young?

SB: I don’t think so. I think that what has happened is that religion is much more publicly visible and expressed. The model that I grew up with–the model that one inherited from Atatürk–was that religion is a private affair, that it does not belong in the schools, that it does not belong in the public sphere, and that it certainly does not belong in politics. The situation has changed radically, basically starting in the 1980s. Throughout the 1980s there was a transformation. Undoubtedly there has also been a worldwide resurgence of Islamic attitudes as well. I personally think that the rise of Islam in the public sphere does not necessarily correspond to an increased religiosity among the people themselves, but that Islam has simply become more visible now.

DCP: Can the rapidity and perhaps the violence of Atatürk’s religious policies be the reason for this strong return of Islam in the public sphere in Turkey?
SB: You know there is this phrase that we owe to Herbert Marcuse: “the return of the repressed.” So it is very tempting to interpret the rise of Islam in Turkey in terms of the return of the repressed. But I don’t think this would be quite adequate because what we are seeing is a worldwide phenomenon which has transformed Islam. The kind of Islam that Atatürk was dealing with was the Islam that was left over from the caliphates. In the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was also the Caliph, the head of the Islamic Sunni community, much like the Pope is for the Catholics. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Sultans also lost the title of Caliph, which I believe had moved to Egypt where there was the “Seyh-ul-Islam,” the chief religious leader for Sunni Muslims. This kind of Islam represented a mixture of religious doctrine and statecraft.

Atatürk also confronted educational institutions that were not secular. All the educational institutions in the old regime–or at least the majority of them–were in the hands of religious organizations and they were very powerful “lodges,” secret organizations within the structure of the state. This kind of religion geared to statecraft should be distinguished from the religion of ordinary people who were very pious and observant. The peasantry, for instance, had their own forms of Muslim religiosity and conservativism.

So what Atatürk was dealing with was the structure of an ancient empire in which religion was part of the self-understanding of the state. I think that what is happening right now, and Turkey is part of it, is a worldwide resurgence of Islam stemming in part from the crisis of the nation-state and, in part, from globalization.

DCP: Can we also talk about the resurgence of religion in the Western world. Western analysts, for example, are obsessed with the kind of religion that influences Turkish politics. But does religion in Turkey play a bigger role than it does in the United States or in Italy?

SB: I don’t think so. On some very deep level, there is more symbolic religious politics in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Take a very interesting example: the abortion question. There are never discussions about the abortion issue in Turkey and I can tell you why–because there are partially differing theological attitudes. Islam, like Judaism, does not consider the foetus to be a person. I am not sure if all religions do. Certainly, Catholicism does, but for Islam, as well as for Judaism, the question of abortion is ultimately a question in which the health of the mother takes precedence, and so you don’t have discussions about abortion in a country like Turkey. You do have discussions about women’s appearance in the public sphere which, like the headscarf debate, becomes a crucial issue. And you also have discussions about who should educate clerics and who should be in charge of their education.

In Turkey, there is a Ministry of Religious Affairs that is in charge of the schools that educate the clerics. This is similar to the French model of laïcité. But in this sense you could say that religion is not really independent of the state–that the Muslim religion in Turkey is not separate from the state. Minority religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, have their own institutions but for the Muslim majority there is state education.

In the public spheres in the United States or in European countries you have issues like abortion and stem-cell research. And, of course, in France you have had the whole discussion about “l’affaire du foulard.” All these issues, with the exception of the wearing of the headscarf in certain public places, are less of an issue in Turkey, where religiosity does not dictate specific moral and political choices.

In this sense, it may be a little difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand that Islam does not dictate specific moral and political resolutions to controversial issues. There is no Islamic discourse on stem-cell research. It is simply wrong to assume that because a party with roots in religion–in the Islamic religion–is in power, religion necessarily dominates Turkish politics more. There is a general sense of piety–and a general sense of being observant. But the kind of moral and religious conflict and issues that we are used to in the Western public sphere do not govern the Turkish public sphere.

DCP: Do you think that the struggle between the two big Turkish parties is a cultural struggle between the religious and secularists, or is it more a power struggle between the old and new political elites?

SB: It is both because the CHP, the People’s Republican Party, is Atatürk’s old party and represents the military, the civil service, the judiciary, and teachers. These are all the secular elements that built the Turkish Republic and, if you want, their politics has a lot of Jacobinism in it–not in that they are revolutionary, but that they believe the state to be everything, the republic to be everything, and the individual to be nothing.

And they feel extremely threatened and displaced. At the end of the 1950s, the first challenge to this party came through the rise of an industrial and financial middle class in Turkey, which later became the Democrat Party. This military-bureaucratic-civil elite was first challenged by the rise of an indigenous bourgeoisie–the capitalist class–that came to power in the post-War boom period, independently of the power of the state.

So this was the pattern in the 1960s. Now an indigenous low-middle class has also developed in Anatolia. I am talking about people who may own an auto-parts store, or a larger grocery store, individuals who may be running hotels in the tourism business, and so on. The basis of the AK Party is this petty bourgeoisie. It is not exactly the industrial and financial bourgeoisie but the merchant class and is very much oriented to middle-class values. They are deeply anti-left, anti-communist people who believe in private property and who have a piece of land as well as a house and a car.

This new Anatolian bourgeoisie never played a role in Turkish politics, and was rather represented by the elite–either the big Istanbul bourgeoisie and industrialists, or the military. But now Anatolia has spoken. As Turkey has developed, and as Anatolia has ceased to be the hinterland, it is becoming integrated economically. This is where the social class basis of the AK arty comes from. This is their class basis.

DCP: Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recently written about Turkey in the Los Angeles Times. She writes: “The proponents of Islam in government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party, have exploited the fact that you can use democratic means to erode democracy. After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997, when the military engineered a ‘soft coup’ against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power. They surely realize that Islamicizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain control of the army and the constitutional court. Well-meaning but naive European leaders were manipulated by the ruling Islamists into saying that Turkey’s army should be placed under civil control, like all armies in EU member states. The army and the constitutional court are also, and maybe even more importantly, designed to protect Turkish democracy from Islam.”

SB: Miss Ayaan Hirsi Ali has now assumed a public role of exaggerating and driving Islam and everything related to Islam into the corner of fascism or a kind of theocracy. Her statement is simply uninformed. It is not a statement that can be taken seriously by anybody who is a democrat. First of all, there is no danger of Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I can assure you there will be a civil war in Turkey before there will be a theocracy.

Anyway, I don’t think that the AK Party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting, and watching very carefully, a party like them. But we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.

So I don’t fear an Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I don’t think that the Turkish people want an Islamic theocracy and I don’t think that the AK party wants an Islamic theocracy. There have always been some elements who may have dreamed of this but I can’t see it happening. The Turkish army has been involved in Turkish politics for the last half century and anybody who considers themselves a liberal democrat and who wants the return of the army to power cannot know the history of repression caused by the army in Turkey. [The Turkish military] effected a putsch in 1972 and again in 1981. They persecuted the left, repressing it in a way they never did with the right. And they tried to break the basis of the trade union movement. The army itself is infiltrated by extreme nationalist elements.

Miss Hirsi Ali’s language is a language of confrontation that basically presents a homogeneous, orthodox Islam as closed to reform and transformation. And it is a language that presents a unified, uncritical and un-reflectively positive view of liberal democracies–as if they didn’t have their own problems and reasons to be criticized. Miss Hirsi Ali has taken a decision to work with the American Enterprise Institute and to interfere politically and publicly through the American Enterprise Institute, which is a well-known right-wing think tank based in Washington. I have respect for her sufferings as a woman and as an individual, but I regret that this is the way in which she has chosen to talk about these issues that are very important to all of us. I hope that maybe after a couple of years in the United States she might change her mind.

DCP: According to the recently elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy there is no place for Turkey in Europe. What is your opinion?

SB: Well, I hope that Mr. Sarkozy sees it appropriate to be faithful to the Copenhagen criteria. The relationship of Turkey to the European Union is now a relationship that goes back to the Ankara accords of 1957-58. I believe it is a very old relationship. In rejecting Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership Mr. Sarkozy is relying on cultural stereotypes about Muslims and questioning whether they belong to Europe; I think that correct approach is not to trade in cutural stereotypes but to negotiate with Turkey on the basis on institutional and legal reforms as required of all candidates for membership. There have been reports about the progress made by Turkey in meeting the Copenhagen criteria. There are negotiations. Turkey was considered unsuccessful in meeting the Copenhagen criteria in nine areas and I hope very much that there will be a consensus within the European Union to proceed on the basis of this institutional analysis and critiques rather than these vague cultural generalizations.

Let me add one more thing. The relationship between Turkey and France is very interesting because in terms of France’s problems with its immigrants–which is what Mr. Sarkozy’s conversation really is about. The Turkish immigrants in France–as far as I can tell from some work that I have done–do not number more than about 700-800,000. There are more Turkish immigrants and “guest workers” in Germany and the Netherlands. France may be number three in the list [of European countries with large Turkish immigrant populations]. And Mr. Sarkozy has very often used Turkey as a metaphor for his own problems with the country’s Muslim immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and for the discourse concerning Europe and Islam.

DCP: So he is not talking about Turkey and Europe, he is talking about France’s Arab immigrants?

SB: Yes. I think that there is a displacement, what is referred to in psychoanalysis as the phenomenon of displacement. What are the specific criticisms that have been made of Turkey? There is a lot to criticize. For example, the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, the persecution of Orhan Pamuk, the fact that the Turkish judiciary is still so deeply infiltrated by right-wing elements who use the law in order to define their own understanding of the State, etc. Yes, as we can see, there is a lot to be criticized.

But these are not the kind of criticisms I hear, which could come under the Copenhagen criteria. Because if Turkey is serious about wanting to join the European Union, it still has to undertake tremendous judicial reforms. Take article 301, which makes it a crime to insult Turkishness. This has to go. Mr. Sarkozy should talk about more specific issues, but he doesn’t. He tries to raise the level of fear, he does his own version of fear-mongering against 70 million Muslims joining the EU.

DCP: Can Turkey be a model for other moderate Islamic countries like Morocco, Jordan and Egypt? If tomorrow’s Turkey can enter the European Union, why not Morocco the day after tomorrow?

SB: Well, there are two questions here. Let us start with the second question, the one about the boundaries of Europe. Are they geographical boundaries, civilizational boundaries, or boundaries defined by history? If they are defined by historical inter-relationships, all the Mediterranean countries have profound inter-relationships to North Africa. It seems obvious to me that this European project–if you are a utopian political thinker (and sometimes as political philosopher I have argued this way)–can be looked at as a model for cosmopolitan federalism, as an emergent global federal structure of government. And, at that point, you can then see the European Union as some kind of a kernel that other countries could perhaps join or imitate.

This is a utopian project and an aspiration, and I don’t think we should ever stop thinking about it. But institutionally and organizationally it is clear that there are certain limits set for the European Union in its various capacities.

Now, I happen to believe that Turkey has been part of the economic and historical reality and substructure of Europe for a very long time and in a much more substantial way than Morocco, for example. That is why when Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel talked about Turkey she posed the model of a “special relationship,” because everybody realizes that this is an asymmetrical condition when compared to other countries. I would like to see the conversation proceed along the Copenhagen criteria and see how far that can go.

Now, can Turkey itself be a model? There was a time, after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923, when Turkey was a model for countries like Tunisia. Habib Bourghiba was very much inspired by Atatürk. Turkey was also a model in a very interesting way for Iran–until the Mossadeq period when the government was overthrown by the CIA–and also for Egypt. I think what has happened now, in general, is that the secular model of development through state-run elites, the model of Nasser in Egypt and, to a certain extent, the model of Atatürk and then Inönü in Turkey, has become frayed. It is not working. This model also inspired dreams of state socialism in the Arab world–the Nasser movement. To explain why this movement failed would require a very long conversation but part of the rise of Islam in the rest of the Arab world is also a reaction of disappointment to the failure of this particular model of development. There is, of course, the Arab military defeat in the 1967 Israel-Arab war, one that greatly contributed to this disappointment. But, at the end of the day, it is also a problem with lacking socio-economic development.

Jordan may be different in this regard, while Egypt appears to me fairly stuck and unable to progress forward. Turkey is interesting because it has a booming economy and it is a very youthful country, and so if it is going to be an example I am sure it is also going to be one along the model of economic development. The Turkish economy is today so much more advanced than the Egyptian economy. These are all things to be considered and I am sure that a lot of countries are watching Turkey closely. Maybe Syria is watching Turkey. Syria has a very long border with Turkey. We never talk about this but it would not be at all surprising to me if there were closer relationships eventually with Turkey and Syria and if Asad started transforming and opening Syria up a little bit more.

Dissent Editors: The AK party won an unprecedented 47 percent of Turkish votes in the July 22 election while the main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party, received only 20.9 percent of votes. In light of these results, is Turkey still a polarized country? Does the success of the AK Party grant Prime Minister Erdogan an increased mandate?This portion of the interview was conducted after Turkey’s July 22 election by the Dissent staff.

SB: The most dangerous development of the July 22 elections is the reentry of the ultra-nationalist, “Milliyetci Hareket Partisi,” (The Nationalist Movement Party), closely linked with the Grey Wolves Movement on the 1970’s and 80’s, into the Turkish Parliament. They now have 14.29% of the vote, as opposed to 20.85% for the CHP and 46.66% for the AKP. While the AKP’s mandate has increased, so has the polarization in the country between Islamist and secular nationalist forces. Clearly, some disaffected voters of the CHP, particularly threatened by talk about the Armenian Genocide and the outpouring of national sympathy after the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, have now moved further to the right.

The irony is that in this National Assembly there will also be more independent Kurdish delegates than ever before – roughly 24 in number. Will the AKP be able to form a coalition government with other smaller parties and these independent delegates or will they be willing to go into coalition with the ultra-nationalist MHP? If the latter, there will be an explosive mixture of nationalist, Islamist, anti-European and anti-American discourse in Turkey. If the former, we will see a moderate Islamic discourse which is pro-European, pluralist in the sense of respecting Kurdish and other ethnic cultural rights, and pro-American and anti intervention in Iraq. This is a very crucial choice that will shape Turkey for years to come.

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Daniele Castellani Perelli is the online editor of Reset‘s Dialogue on the Civilizations. Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics. This interview originally appeared on Reset‘s Web site.

Homepage and feature photo courtesy of the Turkish Government.