‘A great Islamic democracy’

‘A great Islamic democracy’

According to the EU minister, Egemen Bağış, “it is indisputable that Turkey is now closer than ever to EU standards in terms of democracy, human rights and economic developments.” According to the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey is not a second-class democracy” – against which this columnist once wrote that Turkey must walk a long way and reform its crippled electoral democracy to earn that title.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Turkey is a hybrid regime, a ranking that comes below “flawed” democracy. But in an interview with the Italian daily Corriera della Sera in 2010, President Barack Obama referred to Turkey as “a great Islamic democracy.” 

Why did/does Mr. Obama not refer to his own country, or to his western European allies as “great Christian democracies?” Or why did he not refer to Turkey simply as “a democracy?” Why did democracy come with a religious prefix in Turkey’s case? Events after the Obama interview have powerfully illustrated that the president’s wording was not arbitrary.

In a speech during the weekend, the popular, elected leader of the great Islamic democracy once again roared about what he understands about democracy, “Whatever my nation wants, whatever direction it wishes… shall be implemented.” That is the heart of the matter with “a great Islamic democracy.” 

Now, to test the merits of his great Islamic democracy, Mr. Erdoğan can put to referendum a number of subjects: Should Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, be hanged? Should Turkey invade the rest of Cyprus? Should the government abolish the income tax? Should the price of gasoline be reduced by 80 percent? Salaries be doubled? Non-Muslim Turks be expelled and their properties confiscated to be distributed to Muslim Turks? Apostates be jailed?

In fact, “whatever my nation wishes…” is a populist politician’s nicely-wrapped wording for the great Islamic democracy which a prominent Islamic intellectual described in his column recently. Hayrettin Karaman, a professor of theology and a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Şafak, wrote that, “The governments cannot protect, through law and order, any behavior the majority would dislike or view as harmful, illegitimate and ugly. The minority will have to give up some freedoms (disapproved of by the majority). The remedy… is democracy with a reference to Islam. Otherwise, the majority, whose values could be violated by the minority, will have a right to apply the neighborhood pressure [on the minority] (“Ignoring the majority,” Hayrettin Karaman, Yeni Şafak, Nov. 8, 2013).”

This seriously problematic understanding of democracy is perfectly legitimate for Mr. Erdoğan, as evidenced by his governance regarding issues that most Muslim Turks would probably view as “ugly, harmful and illegitimate,” like alcohol, dissent, opposite-sex dating, co-ed housing and even rock music. 

But who, how and with what authority will decide what does and what does not look “ugly, harmful or illegitimate” for the majority? Ten referenda every week? And where is the pluralism and diversity that makes a democracy a democracy? But that’s precisely what separates a democracy from an Islamic democracy or, as in Mr. Karaman’s wording, “a democracy with a reference to Islam.” 

Turkey is a great Islamic democracy; not a great democracy or even a democracy. And it is a “great” Islamic democracy, not just because Mr. Obama opted for his usual euphemism when dealing with the Middle East, but because that adjective denotes Turkey’s better democratic credentials than all of the Muslim countries in its region.

There is one problem, though, about the present state of Turkey’s great Islamic democracy, a major fault that may have prompted Mr. Karaman to complain about the minority’s “ugly, harmful and illegitimate” behavior. It is still too little Islamic, or too secular with millions of drinkers, protestors and crumbs of law.

For instance, in Mssrs. Erdoğan and Karaman’s Islamic democracy, journalist/lawmaker Mustafa Balbay could have been hanged by popular vote because of his “ugly, harmful and illegitimate behavior.”
Luckily, in the ¾ pious and ¼ secular Turkey, Mr. Balbay is –temporarily- free and will be paid compensation of $1.40 for each day he spent in prison because the Constitutional Court ruled that his lengthy imprisonment amounted to a violation of the law and of his right to be elected.