Turkey & Islam

Lest anyone think I’m pessimistic about Turkey’s future, I’m not. The AKP will probably continue to do a fine, moderate job, particularly because it knows that the military is all too eager to fire up the tanks. Turkey will continue to function reasonably well, compared with other Muslim countries. Istanbul will still be a glorious place to live. Most Turks are either moderate Muslims or moderate authoritarians; true extremists on both sides are in the minority, and when the military takes power, it has always given it back after a time.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that “secular” here means “liberal, democratic and friendly to the West.” That, it decidedly does not.

Claire Berlinski offers a very interesting analysis of the secular/Islam tension — how have things changed since the AKP took power. Claire is the author of “Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too”, an important reference on the current situation in Europe. An excerpt

The AKP’s opponents say they don’t want Turkey turned into another Iran. But it is not clear that the AKP has any intention of doing that. What is clear is that it poses a threat to the power, bureaucratic privileges and economic interests of the secular ruling class, of which a dismaying number are authoritarian ultra-nationalists.

This is not to diminish their concerns about the AKP, whose origins in radical Islam are not a matter of dispute. Erdogan’s political mentor was former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who came to power promising to “rescue Turkey from the unbelievers of Europe,” wrest power from “imperialists and Zionists,” and launch a jihad to recapture Jerusalem. But the AKP says it has outgrown these sentiments and is now fully committed to democracy and a looser version of secularism. It swears it does not seek to impose a fundamentalist tyranny.

I would not have believed them before. But I have lived here for the past two years. There have been no public floggings, no amputations of limbs in the public square, no jihad against Zionists and American imperialists. The government has confined its enthusiasm for Islamic law to the most modest of sops to its Islamic base; its most egregious offense has been a desultory attempt to criminalize adultery that was quickly abandoned.

Meanwhile, Istanbul has become visibly more prosperous. In the past year, three Starbucks stores have opened on Istanbul’s largest boulevard, which hardly suggests a curtailment of Satan’s Western influence, although it does suggest how many Turks can now afford to spend $5 on a cup of coffee. The billboards still feature half-naked women; the transvestites still swish down the streets. New construction is everywhere. Roads have been repaired. Decaying neighborhoods have been gentrified.

The AKP has thrown Turkey open to foreign investment. Last year almost $20 billion rolled in, twice the amount of the previous year. It has deregulated the economy; since the AKP took power, it has grown by a third. It has tamed inflation, stabilized the currency and presided over a jump in per-capita income from $2,598 in 2002 to $5,477 today. The state sector, controlled by the secular bureaucracy, has been reduced. Margaret Thatcher would not have disapproved.

The AKP was in fact elected in large part because previous secular governments had for so long, and so badly, mismanaged the economy — before the last election, a huge banking scandal wiped out Turkish savings and sparked a complete economic collapse.