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How 'Islamist' is the AKP?

HDN | 12/3/2010 12:00:00 AM | MUSTAFA AKYOL

Four years have passed since US Ambassador Ross Wilson, as we learned via WikiLeaks, noted that Turkey’s governing party is not 'Islamist.' Has anything changed?

One of the interesting documents on the WikiLeaks archives is a political assessment by U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson, made in 2006. The U.S. diplomat focused on the debate about the “Islamism” of the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and came up with a sober conclusion. “AKP critics can only muster circumstantial evidence of an AKP Islamist agenda,” he noted. “[The party’s] record to date describes a center-right, conservative party with Islamic roots that has modestly advanced … Westernization and modernization.”

Four years have passed since that observation, and the record to date continues to confirm Ambassador Wilson’s observation. If “Islamist” means not “a Muslim who takes his religion seriously,” as Turkish secularists often use term, but rather someone who wants to impose Islamic law by establishing an “Islamic state,” than the AKP really cannot be described as such.

[HH] Adultery and alcohol

This is not that hard to see. The AKP has been in power since 2002, and life in today’s Turkey is no more “Islamic” than eight years ago. There are no fewer bars, nightclubs, alcohol-serving restaurants or bikini-rich beaches. Big cities such as Istanbul are actually more cosmopolitan and hedonistic than ever.

This is not a big surprise, for the AKP has never tried to impose Islamic law. Most of the legal reforms the party realized during its rule were actually not shariah-compliant but EU-compliant — in other words, compatible with European Union norms. The 2004 reforms to the Penal Code, for example, established full gender equality and women’s sexual autonomy. The 2010 amendments to the Constitution even introduced positive discrimination for women.

One controversial issue in the 2004 Penal Code reforms was the AKP’s failed attempt to criminalize adultery — which became the main proof of the party’s craving for the shariah. But that was an overstated case. First, adultery used to be a crime in Turkish law, since the beginning of Atatürk’s Republic, and it was only abolished in the late ’90s. The AKP’s draft was only about restoring this article. Secondly, the punishment would be two years in prison, not any corporal penalty. Third, the proposal was criticized not only by the liberal-minded but also some ultra-conservative Islamic figures who realized that the law would, by default, also criminalize polygamy, which is illegal in Turkey, but is still found in some underdeveloped areas. At the end, Prime Minister Erdoğan backed off from the idea and adultery remained legal.

Another controversial issue has been the consumption of alcohol. In fact, figures show that more alcohol is consumed in Turkey than before, since the AKP privatized alcohol production, which used to be a state monopoly. But several AKP municipalities, especially in the more conservative towns Anatolia, have been timid in giving alcohol sale permits to new restaurants. In a few cities, the AKP municipalities also tried to create dry zones by giving alcohol sale permits only in selected areas where there are no schools or residential neighborhoods.

As conservative as these policies are, they are probably no more conservative than the ones applied in the dry counties of the U.S.’ Bible Belt.

Besides these highly popularized but hardly alarming issues, other “anti-secular activities” of the AKP, as Turkey’s secularists see them, are in fact nothing but efforts to soften Turkey’s exceptionally rigid secularism. The headscarf controversy is the perfect example. Since the early ’80s, the headscarf has been banned in all schools, universities and public jobs — due to a Constitutional Court decision on the meaning of secularism. Yet not just the AKP but also many secular liberals see this ban as discrimination against veiled women, who make up some 60 percent of Turkish society. Hence came the AKP’s modest effort in 2007 to allow the headscarf in the universities, which led to a closure case against the party from which it only barely survived.

In other words, the AKP is not arguing for the abolition of secularism. It only argues for a more liberal interpretation secularism. Erdoğan publicly said they “prefer the U.S. model over the French model.”

[HH] Rise of the conservatives

But besides all those legal issues, there is really a big transformation in Turkey on the societal level: the socio-economic rise of the religious conservatives, which, for decades, used to be the underclass or the rural poor. The change began with their migration to big cities, and then the rise of “Muslim Calvinists,” as a Western think tank called them. These are religiously conservative but economically entrepreneurial businessmen who have successfully engaged in regional and global markets. The AKP is more a result of this new middle class rather than its cause — but it is further enhancing its ascendance now by using the power of the state in their favor. (Nepotism is a well-established Turkish tradition.)

In other words, the AKP is not imposing “shariah” on Turkey, but it is helping conservative Muslims to be more influential in public life. The secularists are shocked by this change, which they see as the end of the good-old hyper-secular Turkey. But the ideological Islamists are shocked, too, for they think that their fellow Muslims are becoming too pragmatic and worldly. And that is perhaps where the most interesting part of the story lies.

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