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Religion and Society

Turkish democracy: not a mirage but a work in progress

A wide-ranging conversation with Mustafa Akyol, one of the top editors in Turkey, allows us to touch on some of the most pressing problems in the country: the conflict between the AKP party and the Hizmet movement, the difficulties of a democracy in progress, the character of Turkish Islam and its relation to the sharia.

A conversation with Mustafa Akyol by Martino Diez and Maria Laura Conte



Martino Diez: Some years ago, Hakan Yavuz conducted a survey into the view Turks have of religion in their own state. To summarise, Yavuz found that Turks believe that In Turkey Islam exists without Islamic law, sharia. Some of those interviewed even said there might be shariah in some countries without Islam. How do you see the relationship between Islam and Law?



Mustafa Akyol: We should think again about Islamic law. In Turkey sharia is not applied, therefore we do not have any particular problem with it, but even where it is applied it needs to be revised and reformed, especially where freedom is concerned. It is only through freedom that you have a genuine, heart-felt religiosity. The example I always give is Saudi Arabia. When I go there, every woman is fully covered. But when women get on a plane and come to Turkey, half of them have reduced their clothes to miniskirts before they leave the airport. If covering up makes them good Muslims, this shows that the aim in not achieved. The only thing we can do is to propose Islam, share it with the world, but we cannot impose it. When we do, we offend people and this creates hypocrisy and presents Islam as an authoritarian religion.


I believe that we make a mistake when we look at the actual political tension between the West and the Middle East, whether it is Al-Qaeda or other groups, as a conflict between Islam and the Christian West. We are talking really about a political movement against a political reality. Groups like Al-Qaeda have existed under the banner of Communism. Hamas in Palestine is now an Islamic movement, but as it is a political and territorial issue, there were others with a similar agenda before Hamas. We should not see everything under the banner of religion, although actors may sometimes use religious rhetoric. This defuses tension between the East and the West. I also believe that there is a sense of threat on both sides. I have seen many publications about an Islamic attack on Western civilization, claiming that «we have to protect ourselves against it». The curious thing is that in the Middle East there is exactly the same idea: the West is attacking us by occupying countries, by supporting Israel, by supporting dictatorships. The sense of attack and threat is thus on both sides. Therefore, when I speak to both sides, I always say that it is not as simple as we think. I often say to Muslims: look at what is happening to Christianity in some parts of the world, such as people being killed. Would it make us happier if it were the other way around? We have some problems which we must recognize. But the West has to see its faults as well. I believe firmly in interreligious dialogue, but I do not like the “sweet talk”, of the «we all love each other» variety. That sounds great but there has to be some sincere talk about religious-political issues, terrorism and other topics.



Maria Laura Conte: Writing in the Foreign Affairs journal in January, Steven Cook used the word “mirage” to define Turkey’s democracy. In fact he sees two main obstacles: the fragmentation of political parties and the lack of convergence between Islamists and secularists. Is democracy a mirage here in Turkey?



Mustafa Akyol: It is a work-in-progress. We are going through different phases but we have a political crisis right now. In the last decades we had moved forward in certain fields, for example, where human rights are concerned. The police system has also improved, the Kurdish community has been given rights and Christians have more rights. Many of these improvements have taken place thanks to the European accession process. In the past few years, though, there are more reasons for concern. First of all the Government became more preoccupied with consolidating its power rather than making reforms. Tension between the military and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s AKP was the reason why the AKP implemented some reforms. Once the military was defeated, they became less interested in the reform program, inclining towards state authoritarianism. Erdoğan has been using provocative political language that it is very intimidating for his political opponents. He has accused people of betraying the country, which makes the opposition more and more fearful and angry. We are a democracy in a sense but when it comes to rule of law, civil law, freedom in the media, we still have great difficulties. Erdoğan’s AKP was a party that used to improve the situation, but not any more. Recently he has been intoxicated by power. In the meantime, the Gülen movement also deserves some criticism, because it has become too politicized. It is a religious movement, where tolerance and morality are understood. But inside Turkey, it has become a bitter rival of Erdoğan, after being his most passionate supporter. I think that this political engagement is bad for the Gülen movement, which has an admirable network of schools, NGOs and charities all around the world.


Until now, tension has existed between secularist and conservative thought, but now we have two conservative camps bitterly fighting one against the other through the media and the social networks. This is a very peculiar conflict in which I think it is wrong to take sides; instead we should look at it objectively. It is a very bad situation for Turkey because it is killing the trust in the institution of the State.



Maria Laura Conte: Do you think that Erdoğan has a good chance of winning the next presidential elections? What is his new political plan?



Mustafa Akyol: Nobody knows what will happen. He can run for the presidency in the summer. If he wins, we will be faced with two options. One option is that Abdullah Gül will become the Prime Minister, and the second option is that he will attempt to become more powerful, choosing a loyal and reliable Prime Minister. If Erdoğan does not feel very confident of winning the presidential elections, he could just continue as Prime Minister and not run for the presidency. Erdoğan’s plan is to rule Turkey until 2024, at least. If he is elected President in the August election, he could then be re-elected for two terms, and that would mean 5 years plus 5 years so he could have a chance of going on until 2024. However, the more Erdoğan increases his power, the stronger the reaction against him becomes. The secular camp is also reacting, and Gezi park was an example of this, and now even the Gülen movement is disputing even among the conservatives. What is Erdoğan’s reaction? He blames the outside world, the West, in a conspiracy theory to explain why there is such fierce opposition against himself. The reaction to this makes Erdoğan even angrier, while at the same time the opposition groups become more bitter. This polarization is not very healthy. What we, the Turks, fundamentally need to understand is that democracy works not only when you have elections, but when there is a culture of consensus, a culture of dialogue, rather than disputes and arguments all the time. A softer political culture is necessary, but this is very hard to achieve. Erdoğan is now focused on winning the ballots. Once he wins, he can do what he wants. All this is creating lots of reaction which has a bad impact on the economy, for instance on tourism. Internally, the situation is turning into an intra-state war, as prosecutors want to arrest Erdoğan’s son, while Erdoğan thinks prosecutors are spies. How will the citizens choose who to trust, the Prime Minister or the judiciary, since they both say that the other is the Devil?



Maria Laura Conte: What is the role of the press in this situation?



Mustafa Akyol: The media does not help much because it is divided. It is divided between those who categorically support Erdoğan and those who categorically support Gülen. There are a few third parties, but certainly the media is divided. Hürriyet is the Dogan group, the secular mainstream. In 2008, after a dispute with Erdoğan, they had a very big tax investigation and they were given a 3 billion-lira tax penalty. The thing is that the media is owned by bosses who are also in business. So, if you make Erdoğan too angry, he can interfere with your business. For instance, you could be prevented from getting a state contract, which you would normally get, and you will be checked by a commissioner. This is why bosses try to get on with Erdoğan. Of course there are some bosses who are openly against Erdoğan. Those journalists who are in prison are not against Erdoğan, however. They have been arrested because they supported the PKK. Most of them are Kurdish or Marxist-Leninists. You do not go to jail for criticizing the government, but you could lose your job, unless you work for a small website or a blog. This creates fear but, again, the Zaman newspaper does not care. There are areas of influence. If you are in an area under the influence of AKP, you need to be careful. If you write in Sozcu, which is a passionate anti-Erdoğan paper, you do not have to worry.



Martino Diez: Has there been a particular event that provoked the change in Erdoğan’s politics and political attitude?



Mustafa Akyol: It has happened gradually, he has always been an authoritarian personality. When he came to power he had to try to find a balance as he was dealing with many issues: military power, the need to prove himself to the world, the European Union reforms. The more he was successful, the less concerned and the more self-confident he became and his authoritarian language became more obvious. Besides, the opposition against Erdoğan became very harsh. There has been a gradual increase in his authoritarian rhetoric. And it must not be forgotten that Erdoğan is loved by many for this. There is a famous slogan used for Erdoğan that says: «Stay strong, don’t take a step back». It is also a matter of political culture that loves these strong, threatening leaders. It is unfortunately a part of our political culture.



Maria Laura Conte: Can an Islamic party in power succeed in changing a society or, better, the religious sense of the people?



Mustafa Akyol: My argument about Erdoğan is not that he is too Muslim. The problem is his authoritarian and defiant character rather than the fact that he is Muslim. The AKP does play a role in making the society more Islamic, even though this is not the only source of tension. The Gülen movement does not have a problem with this, they are even more Islamic. Erdoğan tends to impose conservative standards in Turkish society by building mosques everywhere, by showing more religion, but imposing the shariah in Turkey, this is unthinkable. He thinks that inserting more Qur’an in schools, teaching about the Prophet Muhammad’s life, will basically change people’s attitude to religion. But this is not going to happen. Certainly, religious people are becoming more powerful but this is creating a wave of secularization. The religious part of the society is becoming more modern, for example you see girls wearing headscarves and fancy jeans at the same time, and many businessmen emerging. At the same time, secularists are resisting Erdoğan and becoming even more secular because they despise this religious trend. I do not expect Turkey to become like Iran. I just hope we will not be like Russia, with a super-authoritarian political leadership. The real problem is this struggle for power.



Martino Diez: In Saudi Arabia we can see mega-malls as in the West, but inside them there is the call for prayer. Do you think that this is a sign of a real form of religion?



Mustafa Akyol: Islam does not have problems with consumerism. The great ethical criterion for most people is what is Islamic and what is not, what is licit and what is forbidden. Of course, in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates there is a lot of Islam and a lot of consumerism. Though there are many reflections on consumerism among Islamic thinkers, generally speaking they look at it through the lens of halal/haram, licit or forbidden. Instead, Muslims, Christians and Jews should have an ethical criticism of consumerism. We are not there yet and do not forget that Islamic societies are mostly poor societies. They see wealth now and they are excited about it. There is a kind of new wealth as well. I am in favor of economic progress and wealth, but also we should morally think how it should be distributed. Turkey needs to think a lot about this and criticisms of this Islamic-justified consumerism are emerging. But now the biggest issue is the political tension and we have to focus on that.