Turkish and Arab political Islam ‘differ in secularism’

Turkish and Arab political Islam ‘differ in secularism’

Turkish and Arab political Islam ‘differ in secularism’

The Islamic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt worked against it, as Islamophobia was one of the main factors in the West’s reaction to the coup in Egypt, says former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Looking at Egypt, it becomes obvious how Turkey’s secular system has worked as an advantage, according to a former Turkish foreign minister.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) founders established the party based on the principle that it would not fight the secular system and decided to embrace the majority in Turkey rather than its core pious constituency, said Yaşar Yakış, a career diplomat who also served as ambassador to Cairo.

Had other Islamic movements been inspired by the sociological engineering of the AKP, events could have unfolded differently in the Arab Spring countries, Yakış, a founding member of the AKP, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

What’s your take on developments in Egypt?

Maybe they were inspired by Turkey on the basis of the message that governance is not just about elections. Perhaps they have gone too far. But there is a difference in how Turkey and the world see events in Egypt. The mood in Turkey is as if the army hit the wall, but the world does not have that type of reading.

Let’s go back a bit; what was your assessment of the Arab Spring?

It had to happen. But if you had asked me at that time whether I saw such a possibility, I would not have been able to say yes. The Muslim Brotherhood [MB] had no experience on governance. Perhaps this is behind the current problem. It was unable to satisfy the expectations of those that had initially filled Tahrir Square. There is a tendency in Turkey to evaluate it with general terms. But we need to see the nuances. Some of those who have voted for the MB have probably quit supporting it. But I am also guessing that even between the military intervention and today there must be people switching sides. In Turkey we tend to see it as the country divided between Morsi supporters and Morsi opponents. But there isn’t a situation in Egypt where there are movements with clear cut positions in the political map. The position of the army will determine the developments. [Egyptian General Chief of Staff] al-Sisi probably thinks that if Morsi is reinstated, he will be punished; therefore he will do his utmost to prevent his return.

In this case you would think that Turkey’s initial efforts to have Morsi back are not realistic.

We need to compare the risks facing Morsi and al-Sisi. If al-Sisi loses he might be executed or condemned to life in prison whereas if Morsi loses, the same outcome is not definitely valid for him. Therefore al-Sisi will do whatever it takes to struggle. We are not talking about a struggle between two groups on equal terms. This dimension is overlooked in Turkey.

What do you say about debates on naming it as a coup?

There is no doubt it is a coup. Every country makes its assessment according to national interests. That is valid also for the United States and European countries. I believe Islamophobia was an important factor while they made their assessments.

So the Islamic characteristic of MB has been a disadvantage?

It worked against them because the West is uneasy about seeing political Islam coming to power. In Egypt they are concerned about the Copts [Christians] as well as the security of Israel. In view of the two concerns it doesn’t suit their interest to have the MB in power.

Are the concerns about political Islam justified?

In politics perceptions matter more than reality. There is no need to discuss whether there were justifications for those concerns or not. If there are such perceptions they will act according to those perceptions.

But don’t you think some of the concerns were alleviated due to the performance of the Justice and Development Party [AKP]? Isn’t the AKP considered as political Islam?

Some do some don’t. In Oxford I am often asked to compare political Islam in Turkey and the Middle East. The perception is increasing recently that Turkey is sliding toward political Islam due to the spreading of Islamophobia.

Don’t you think the AKP created a perception of blending political Islam with democracy?

At one stage yes; but this perception has weakened over the years.


Because of Islamophobia. As pious people started to come to power in the region, they started to be more concerned.

You do not share the view of those who argue that the AKP became authoritarian.

If there is such a perception for some, for them that becomes the truth.

How do you answer when you are asked to compare political Islam in Turkey and the region?

The Virtue Party [of which AKP is an offshoot] was divided into reformists and conservatives. From that time on there emerged a different approach in Turkey. Mr. [Abdullah] Gül, [currently president of Turkey] said “we cannot achieve a thing by fighting the secular regime. When we start working in the parliament we give our sermon saying we will remain loyal to Turkey’s secular regime.” As such he gave the direction of the party. The AKP is the product of that decision. Obviously, the party became stronger. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. When we started to feel stronger in power, we try to act as a strong player and many perceive it as a threat.

So you believe the main difference between Turkey and the Middle East is that political Islam avoids clashing with the system?

When making comparisons, we can say that some developments in Turkey could be an inspiration for Middle Eastern countries. One such development is the transformation of the AK Party. Had they undertaken a similar transformation, maybe they would have now handled it like Turkey.

When you look to the streets of Egypt; there are secular practices, it is an emancipated society. In Turkey you cannot base any law on religion whereas in Egypt, there was an article in the constitution that stipulated that a law can’t run contrary to the shariah. The military [after the fall of Mubarak] could not take the article out of the interim constitution. Nearly all parties, except a few ones, wanted to maintain that article. When you compare Turkey and Egypt; had Egyptians endorsed a secular constitution, they would have been somewhere else than they are today. Egyptians got stuck on secularism. We see how big of an advantage it is to be secular in Turkey when you look to Egypt. Secularism brings about different outcomes. Secularism is ingrained in the constitution; this is not the case in Arab countries; they did not succeed [in that sense] even after the Arab Spring.

So secularism is the main factor differentiating Turkey from other regional countries.

Definitely, and the strategic decision taken by Mr. Gül. At that time we had made a public opinion poll which showed us 46 percent were unhappy with existing parties. The [Virtue] party’s support rate had gone down from 23 to 13 percent. As the party was divided, we [the reformists] could have tried to appeal to half of the party constituency. But we decided to appeal to the 46 percent. I am one of the 6 persons who penned down the party program and we did not mention religion. Opinion polls showed us that many saw issues like unemployment and security as main problems. While the headscarf issue was heatedly debated at that time, it did not appear as a priority in our polls. We wrote the party program under those findings.

We [the AK Party] won the elections with 34 percent. We have aimed for the right target by doing a very good sociological engineering. Had the Arab Spring countries undertaken such social engineering and read correctly their peoples’ expectations. It could have been different.

But secularism is not popular in the region, even the MB reacted to Prime Minister Erdoğan when he talked about it in Egypt.

That shows how big of a distance we have taken.

What do you think of Turkey’s official reaction?

It was very good. The Prime Minister acted as a responsible leader; he criticized it but stopped there. I am afraid we may run into the same difficulties we face in Syria, if we were to go beyond and start helping the MB. Egyptians are to decide who will rule the country. Our interlocutor is the one that is recognized as the state. The Egyptian ambassador in Ankara takes his instructions from the army; so we can’t tell him, we don’t recognize you.

What kind of a relationship is there between the AKP and MB?

They have a similar world view. It is only natural that they stay side by side; just like European Christian democratic parties grouping under the EPP [European People’s Party, in the European Parliament].


Born in 1938, Yaşar Yakış is a graduate of Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Science.

He entered the Foreign Ministry in 1962 and subsequently served in Anvers, Lagos, Brussels and Damascus before being appointed as ambassador to Riyadh in 1988. He worked as a deputy undersecretary responsible for economic affairs between 1992 and 1995. In 1995, he was appointed as ambassador to Cairo before becoming Turkey’s permanent representative at the United Nations’ Vienna office in 1998.

In 2001, he retired and became one of the founding members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), working as a deputy leader responsible for the AKP’s foreign relations. He served as a member of Parliament between 2002 and 2007, becoming the AKP’s first foreign minister before leaving the position to Abdullah Gül one year laterIn the Parliament he served as the head of the EU commission, the EU-Turkey mixed Parliamentary Commission and the Friendship Group with France.

He is the co-chair of a Turkish-British forum, as well as a member of several international forums and think tanks. He is also currently a senior associate member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where he has been giving lectures for the past year.