Turkey is always highlighted when the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy comes up. The reason is not hard to understand. For all its deficiencies, Turkey has had a working democracy which has weathered three actual and one “post-modern” military coup.
The fact that the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 general elections and went on to increase its support base in three successive elections is taken as proof that Islam and democracy are compatible. But these electoral victories happened in a Turkey whose system of government is staunchly secular, despite the country’s predominantly Islamic population.
The fact that the AKP emerged under this system is no proof in itself that Islam is compatible with democracy. What will really determine the truth or falsity of that contention for Turkey is whether the AKP, with all the political power it has mustered, will respect “democracy” as this form of government is defined by political science.
Unfortunately, for all the talk of introducing “advanced democracy” emanating from the AKP, the jury is still out on that question. To the contrary, there are developments prompting liberal democrats to fear that, far from “advancing,” Turkish democracy is in regression.
The way the government has been trying to impose its ideological outlook on society by means of education, by trying to interfere in lifestyles or family rights, or by subjective definitions of concepts like the freedom of expression or press freedom, feed this concern.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s self-declared antipathy toward the “separation of powers,” despite his attempts at backpedaling after his remarks, has caused a storm, and the ongoing efforts by the AKP to change the parliamentary system into a presidential one – with the president enjoying unencumbered powers – are other developments that fuel suspicions about this party’s real intentions.
Meanwhile, the developments in the Middle East and North Africa have not provided any evidence yet that Islam is compatible with democracy. All the elections in Egypt and Tunisia have spawned so far are governments led by the Muslim Brotherhood which have demonstrated that shariah is their main point of reference.
The manner in which the Egyptian Constitution was exclusively drafted and put to a referendum by Islamists does not bode well for democracy in that country. Media reports that Egypt’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into accusations that opposition leaders are inciting an overthrow of the regime, on the other hand, appears to reflect a copycat tendency, inspired by the Ergenekon and “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) cases in Turkey, designed to silence the opposition.
Neither has Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, been inspiring much hope in democrats. He was quoted by Gulfnews.com saying that Islamist movements would eventually become the reference point throughout the Arab world.
Ghannouchi, who does not have an official position in the government led by his party, but is one of the most influential people in Tunisia, was also quoted recently by Al-Arabiya calling for flogging as punishment for people charged with slander.
His comments reportedly came after a female blogger accused his son-in-law of corruption and of engaging in an affair. It appears civil law is not sufficient for this Islamist who prefers Islamic punishment, thus reflecting a mentality whose logical conclusion is cutting hands for stealing and stoning for adultery.
In addition to all this there is hardly any indication to show that what will come out of Syria once Bashar al-Assad is toppled is democracy. The opposite is more likely. In the final analysis, deeds, not words, will show if Islam is compatible with democracy. So the answer to this question has yet to come.
But the indications are not encouraging for the Arab world, and worrying as far as Turkey is concerned.