Mixing religion and politics


Secularism and muslim democracy in turkey
M Hakan Yavuz
Cambridge, 2009,
$ 90

In recent years there has been a great deal of debate about whether ‘Islamist’ movements can democratise, move into mainstream politics and govern Muslim states.

This is why there is considerable interest in the career of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, the most aggressively secular Muslim state. The AKP, a party with roots in Islamist parties banned by the Turkish military, took power in 2002 and increased its representation in parliament in 2007 in spite of obstruction from the military, the bureaucracy and secular parties.

Yavuz gives several reasons for the success of the AKP, which he compares to the BJP in India and Christian Democrats in Europe. The party was a fresh entity, formed shortly before the 2002 election. Its object was to rebel against the bungling and corrupt politico-military elite. The AKP took its stand as a ‘conservative’ rather than an ‘Islamist’ party to avoid being overthrown by the military which in 1997 ousted the coalition led by the avowedly ‘Islamist’ Welfare Party, the AKP’s predecessor. The AKP garnered mass support from the conservative, devout Anatolian bourgeoisie, the Kurdish minority and the disaffected urban working class. These groups were attracted by the AKP’s claim to represent ‘Islamic’ values and the ‘conservative’ lifestyle of its leaders. The AKP did not adopt an ideology.

Instead, it governed pragmatically, earning the cudos of the wider public by lifting the country out of an economic slump. The AKP also pursued Turkey’s European Union membership bid by liberalising the economy and passing legislation to harmonise Turkey’s laws with those of the rest of the Union.

The Turkish example shows that a moderate party with ‘Islamist’ roots can rule democratically without imposing its conservative ‘social culture’ on secularists in the society while addressing the demands of party constituents. The Turkish case must be compared to the example of Jordan where the monarch has contained the Muslim Brotherhood and made it a viable opposition party. Turkey’s experience must also be contrasted with that of Iran where dictatorial clerics seized power 30 years ago and imposed their version of Muslim behaviour on the country and with that of Pakistan which introduced ‘Islamization’ in the 1980s and now risks ‘Talibanization’: becoming a failed state because government and military has lost control of the ‘Islamization’ process.  

This book is an essential read for those who wish to understand how religious parties can be transformed into mainstream political groupings able to reform their societies for the better by promoting morality and justice on the political scene.  

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