November 2002 News

Can Islamists Run a Democracy?

24 November 2002
Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

The symbolism was striking: After the landslide victory of Turkey's main Islamic-based party in elections this month, the first thing its soon-to-be prime minister did was swear to defend Turkey's secular state.

The next thing he did was declare his group an example for the entire Islamic world. And the leader of his party, who was once jailed for his doctrinaire beliefs, was off to Brussels to press the case for Turkey's inclusion in the European Union. "we want to prove that a Muslim identity can be democratic, can be transparent and can be compatible with the modern world," said the prime minister, Abdullah Gul, of the Justice and Development Party after taking the oath of office. "We will prove this. This will be a good gift to world peace, in fact."

To appreciate the significance of these events, consider the elections in Pakistan the month before. Pakistan is an Islamic republic that retains a secular legal system. Until recently, most voters never paid much heed to the mullahs who wanted to run the country.

Then the Islamic parties won an unprecedented number of seats in Parliament. One leader, Qasi Hussein Ahmed, was a vocal supporter of the Taliban. He has spoken of imposing sharia, or Islamic law, on Pakistan. And some leaders of the religious parties mince no words about scorning democracy.

Together, these parties in Turkey and Pakistan illustrate the fundamental philosophical rift in the Islamic world's response to the West.

One camp advocates coming to terms with the modern world and adapting Islam so the two can coexist. That usually means imposing some separation between state and religion, where, in theory, Islam does not for example by providing a basis for Iranian and Saudi officials to treat men and women differently as matters of Islamic law.

"The Koran is inadequate as a basis for legislation," said Nilufer Narli, a professor of sociology at Bogazici University in Istanbul. "There are too many places where it would conflict with the civil law."

The other Islamic camp preaches rejection. Modernity is a trap, the mullahs intone, and the Islamic world is best served by returning to the religion's purist roots. Bring back the veil. Smash the television.

Whether an Islamic political movement can preside over a democratic government is still an open question. Across the Islamic world, the clash of the two has produced one upheaval after another: civil war in Algeria, an authoritarian government under constant pressure from Islamist terror in Egypt, theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Iran's 20-year-old theocracy is divided between a reformist, elected president and his authoritarian, doctrinaire rivals.

In such tumult, the success or failure of Turkey's new Islamic leaders could have lasting resonance in the wider Islamic world.

The victory in Turkey of a political party with Islamist roots has been widely interpreted as a turning point for the Turkish republic, which was founded 79 years ago on strictly secular lines and is often held out as the place in the Muslim world where democracy has put down the deepest roots.

With Turkey in a deep recession, Mr. Gul and his party came to power less because of their Islamic agenda than because of their economic one, and his promise to push the question of joining the European Union drew wide appeal. Mr. Gul and his comrades also capitalized on broad dissatisfaction with Turkey's political establishment, and on the expectation that these pious men would be more honest than the ones they would replace.

Islamic movements from Algeria to Egypt to Afghanistan have often fed on the resentment of corrupt secular leaders. The challenge for Mr. Gul and his party's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be to prove it can face Turkey's problems while respecting democratic values.

"These guys understand that if they want to have a society that is more oriented toward religion, then they are only going to get that through the democratic system," said Ilter Turan, a professor of politics at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

There are reasons to be skeptical. Mr. Erdogan, the party leader and a likely prime minister in the future, once espoused hardline Islamist views: he celebrated the concept of sharia, expressed disdain for democracy and pushed a muscular brand of Islam.

Given Turkey's political history, the chip on his shoulder was perhaps understandable. The Turkish republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk, did everything he could to shackle the religion and drain it of its mystery - even shifting the weekly day of rest from Friday to Sunday.

As a result, much of the past 50 years has been marked by a tug of war between those who wanted to restore Islam's place in society and the guardians of the secular state, notably the military.

These days, Mr. Erdogan's old edge seems to have worn away. Visiting with Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, he even broke his Ramadan fast to have lunch.

What has happened? One theory is that he learned his lesson when he served four months in prison in 1999 for reading a poem that was regarded as inflammatory of religious hatred. But the real turning point may have come five years ago, when Turkey's first experiment in an Islamic-minded government ended in disaster.

In 1997, having won barely 20 percent of the vote, an Islamist politician named Necmettin Erbakan set a sharply Islamic tone for his coalition government. His first state trips included visits to Iran and Libya. He spoke of leading a worldwide alliance of Islamic countries.

After a year, the military forced him from office. His party was banned, and eventually reformers who included Mr. Gul and the changed Mr. Erbogan formed the Justice and Development Party.

Many political analysts here say that these leaders learned from the 1997 events that they could not fundamentally change the Turkish republic and that trying to do so would be suicidal. "We learned mainly that we have to be very careful," said Murat Mercan, deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party, "and that this country is not based on only one single force, on one single power. We have to balance all the powers in the country."

That, it seems, is the challenge not just for the new leaders of Turkey, but for religious-minded leaders across the Islamic world.


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