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Turkey’s Constitutional Court has decided against disbanding the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and ruled instead to cut the party’s public funding. This sent a clear signal that the AKP is now on probation, and may yet be shut down if it pursues what ardent secularists view as a policy of creeping Islamization.
These decisions echo beyond the Middle East. From Istanbul to Paris, and from Cairo to Jakarta, the conflict between Muslims who want to tighten versus loosen the mosque-state link is escalating. In Middle East countries that have pursued modest political reform, this elemental dispute is undercutting democratization. But even where democracy is on firmer ground, the battle between Islamists and secularists is eroding the quality of democratic governance. The stakes are enormous.
Consider Turkey and France. While it may seem odd to put them in the same basket, the political systems of both countries have long been guided by elites who champion an ideology of state-enforced secularism. Although upheld as a key ingredient of democratic life, this ideology was animated by a profoundly illiberal impulse: to keep any display of faith out of the public sphere. This arrangement worked so long as the vast majority of French and Turks favored or acquiesced to it. But in recent years, social, demographic and economic changes have enhanced the clout of a new generation of Muslims–many of whom are not ready to fold up their headscarves when they walk into a public university or government office. Alarmed, the defenders of “laïcite” and Ataturk-style secularism are striking back.
Thus in France, political leaders left and right have applauded the recent decision by that country’s highest court to deny citizenship to a Moroccan woman because, among other reasons, she wears a burka (a full body cover traditionally worn in Afghanistan). This clothing, the Court stated, is “incompatible with values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes.” Echoing a similar logic, Turkey’s Constitutional Court cancelled an amendment proposed by the AKP that would have allowed for the wearing of headscarves in public universities. The Court went a step further when it considered a proposal to disband the AKP itself. But while the Court has stepped back from the brink, a hobbled AKP must now tread carefully between its desire to promote “religious freedom” and the ardent determination of secularists to confine that freedom to family or the mosque.
In France and Turkey, unelected courts have intervened in ways that ignore or defy the voice of elected parliaments. But at what cost? France’s democracy will certainly survive. But it is a huge leap of state authority for France’s highest court to deny citizenship on the grounds that someone’s religious values clash with prevailing notions of gender equality. While French intellectuals are busy debating whether the burka-clad woman in question suffers from false consciousness, they should ponder the broader implications of the Court’s actions (particularly in a country that practically invented the term liberté).
By contrast, the decisions taken by Turkey’s Constitutional Court may –or may not– create a space for the deepening of democracy. Much will depend on whether moderate political leaders on both sides of the Islamist-secularist divide can use this fragile moment to craft a mutually acceptable vision of secularism.
It won’t be easy. It may be that AKP leaders genuinely believe that allowing headscarves is not part of some grand conspiracy to Islamicize society. But many secular Turks think otherwise. After all, they argue, the issue is not merely freedom of religion but freedom from religion. Open up the universities to headscarves and many secular women may feel growing social pressures to wear religious garb. Islamicization will come, not out of choice, but out of a fear.
While such concerns may be exaggerated, they should not be dismissed. True, the banning of the AKP would have been a disaster not merely for Turkey, but for the wider Middle East, where a new generation of Arab Islamists has been inspired by the AKP’s quest to forge a pluralistic vision that is also attentive to conservative religious values. Yet Washington should not romanticize the AKP by ignoring or downplaying the tensions and fears provoked by its efforts to advance a post-Islamist secularism. Instead, the U.S. should take a cue from European leaders, who are now encouraging the AKP to address the concerns of secular Turks, many of whom voted for the party only to wonder about its ultimate intensions.
By Daniel Brumberg |
August 7, 2008; 10:09 AM ET
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