Mustafa Akyol

Fascism, anti-Semitism and all sorts of Turks

30 Mayıs 2009
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a man full of surprises. He surprised the world four months ago in Davos by bashing Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing children" in Gaza. The way he stormed the international forum came as a relief to most Middle Easterners, but raised eyebrows among many Westerners. Last week Erdoğan made another surprise move, defending the right of an Israeli company to invest in Turkey, and criticizing the history of his own country, and his own political tradition, for having a "fascist mindset." While this comment came as a relief to Turkey’s liberals, it not only raised eyebrows, but also prompted heated protests among the country’s more numerous nationalists.

Border as ’honor’

The issue at hand was the minefield on the Turkish-Syrian border. This 500-meter wide and 510-kilometer long "security zone" is full of thousands of landmines, a relic from Turkey’s "enemies, enemies everywhere" era. The mines have not only been lethal to nearby villagers, they have also rendered this fertile strip of land useless. Moreover, the Ottawa Treaty that Turkey recently signed obliges the country to clear all its mines by 2014.

Something had to be done. The government asked the military, and learned that clearing the mines would necessitate the purchase of very expensive technical equipment that would be used only once. So outsourcing the job to an expert company made more sense. That would cost a lot of money too. But the government had a smart idea: Turkey could make back the expenses of de-mining by leasing the land to the same company for some 49 years, or perhaps less, for organic agriculture. We would get rid of the mines, people in the region would find new jobs and the foreign company would make money. Everybody would be happy.

But, well, it is hard to make Turks happy. Sharp criticisms arose that accused the government of "selling Turkish land to foreigners" Ğ particularly, to the not-much-loved Israelis. That is what brought about Erdoğan’s comments on "fascism." He rightly tied these reactions to the phobia against minorities and foreigners, and said:

"Something has been done in this country for years. People with different ethnic identities were expelled. Have we gained anything by this? No. This, in fact, was the result of a fascist mindset."

Erdoğan also explained the logic of free-market capitalism:

"Money has no religion, nation or ethnicityÉ Global finance wants to come and invest in our country. But some people say, ’No, we don’t want that, that is Jewish finance.’É Look brother, let him come and invest in the country, whoever that person is. They will create jobs for our own citizens."

Needless to say, I fully agreed with the prime minister on both approaches, political and economic liberalism. Yet for many people in Turkey, both are treacherous ideas. No wonder speakers from both opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, made furious comments about how unpatriotic the prime minister is. CHP member Canan Arıtman, who recently "accused" President Abdullah Gül of being of Armenian descent, summarized the opposition’s position by saying, "Our borders are our honor; we can’t sell them to foreigners!"

What was more interesting was the reaction Erdoğan received from some pundits in the Islamic/conservative camp. Four different columnists in Yeni Şafak, an Islamic-leaning daily that is often pro-AKP, raised strong objections to the possibility of an Israeli company getting the job. Daily Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan argued that this rift might bring some extra votes to the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which holds to the old-school Islamist line. He is probably right.

After all these criticisms, and also some apparently valid objections involving the nature of the complicated job, Erdoğan backed off. The draft law about the mines will be written again in the Parliament. And I am really no expert on most of the technicalities that people are speaking about.

What I know a bit better is the underlying mindsets in these debates. And this recent one highlights what I have been arguing for a long time: The most crucial gap in this country is the one between nationalists and globalists. You can find both Islamic and secular figures on both sides. And the AKP, to its credit, is still the least nationalist political party on the scene.

Taking my leave

Finally, I must apologize to regular readers of this column, because I am taking a book leave for the next four months. I am working on a book on Islam and liberalism, so I really need to spend the summer concentrating on it, and not much else. In other words, my next column in the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review probably will not appear before October. So, have a nice summer and "see you" soon.
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When the judiciary doesn’t serve justice

27 Mayıs 2009
Yesterday was May 27, the 49th anniversary of Turkey’s first military coup. It was launched against the first non-Kemalist, center-right political party of the Republican era: the Democrat Party. The Democrats had come to power in 1950, after a quarter of a century of single-party dictatorship, with an impressive slogan: "Enough! The nation has the word!" But when they won three elections in a row, the powers that be decided to say "enough" to them, too.

After the military coup, all MPs of the Democrat Party were imprisoned on Yassıada, one of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. A show trial was set up, and they were tried for "high treason." In one of the sessions, a remarkable scene took place. One of the accused, Samet Ağaoğlu, objected to one of the peculiarities in the case and asked why. The president of the court, judge Salim Başol, gave a bold answer. "It is that way," he said, "because the power which brought you here demands that way!"

Protecting the state
In other words, Mr. Başol was serving not justice but the power that executed the military coup. He was his master’s gavel.

Mr. Başol is dead today, but his spirit lives. There is a very strong tendency among Turkey’s judges and prosecutors to protect "the regime" rather than the rights of its citizens. They in fact proudly declare that they are not impartial when it comes "to the principles of the Republic."

A recent study that sheds light to this problem is the survey titled, "Justice Can Be Bypassed Sometimes: Judges and Prosecutors in the Democratization Process." Authored by Mithat Sancar and Eylem Ümit Atılgan, both of Ankara University’s Faculty of Law, and published by TESEV, Turkey’s leading liberal think-tank, the report is based on interviews with 51 Turkish judges and prosecutors. "I am the prosecutor of the Republic," one of these men says, "of course I will not be impartial when the state is involved."

This should explain why so many people or organizations that happened to clash with the state ideology have been persecuted by courts in Turkey. It should also explain why criminals within the state (such as torturers, coup makers, extrajudicial killers) have almost never been sentenced. The legal system is designed to protect the state from society, not the other way around. The crucial point here is that this is not just a system, but also a mentality. As seen in the TESEV report, many men of justice genuinely believe that their first and foremost duty is "to protect the state."

But where does this mentality come from?

One common answer is that, with some notable exceptions, Turkey’s judicial class has not been able to internalize the liberal democratic norms of the modern West. That is definitely true. But it only explains why the problem remains unsolved. It does not explain its origin.

To see the origin, we have to look at history. And when we do, we see something very interesting: The unsuccessful transition from the shariah, i.e., Islamic law, to modern law.

Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard University, has an interesting analysis on this in his book, "The Fall of Rise of the Islamic State." As he explains, shariah, as a God-given law "discovered" and interpreted by independent scholars, served as a check on political authority during the Islamic Middle Ages.

When Ottoman Sultan Yavuz (the Grim) decided to convert all Christians under his empire to Islam, for example, the gatekeeper of shariah, the Sheik-ul Islam, had objected by noting, "This is against shariah." No one, including the Sultan, could rise above this divine code.

From shariah to tyranny
"But the scholars did not manage to retain this role," Feldman recalls, "at least not in the Sunni Muslim world." And he explains the consequence: "The judicial function was eventually taken up instead by a new class of judges trained in modern law, which is to say Westernized law. Unlike the scholarly class, the new judges had no tradition (however attenuated) of independence from the state.

To them, Law emanated not from God but from government; and ... this worldview often translated into a reluctance to treat the organs of the state as subordinate to the law."

This is the origin of the tragedy of Turkey’s judicial class. They have abandoned the traditional divine norms of justice, but have not been able to grasp its modern liberal norms either. The type of modernity they adhere to is strictly authoritarian, and therefore their justice is designed to serve the authority they uphold.

Is there any way out of this problem? I am not sure. And not very optimistic, either.
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The latest attack on President Gül

23 Mayıs 2009
Article 105 of the Turkish Constitution notes that a president can only be tried for "high treason." And that is possible only "on the proposal of at least one-third of the total number of members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly." The reasoning behind that legal shield is obvious: The president is the very symbol of the Turkish Republic and his status should not be infringed upon unless there is a very compelling case for a very serious crime such as high treason.

No wonder no president, except the current one, has ever been tried for anything. Even Kenan Evren, the maker of the 1980 coup, during which thousands of people have been tortured, has never ever seen a courtroom.

The unwanted president

Yet the current president, Abdullah Gül, is a curious exception. He was first tried in the closure case opened against the governing Justice and Development Party, AKP, last year. The indictment was asking that he should be banned from politics for "violating secularism."

The court did not accept that appeal, and the infamous closure case ended with the president’s acquittal.

But it was a scandalous event, for that the very Article 105 of the Constitution, which prevents any trial except for "high treason," was violated by the very Constitutional Court of the country.

And more was to come. About a week ago, the First Criminal Court in Sincan, a province of Ankara, took yet another unbelievable decision by ruling that the president needs to be tried for his possible role in what is publicly known as the "missing trillion case."

That case comes from the closure of the Welfare Party, or RP, in 1998. As you might know, the draconian courts of the Turkish Republic often close down the parties whose ideologies they find deviant. And when that happens, the state not only ends the life of a political party, but it also confiscates its funds. To avoid that, apparently, the RP emptied its own funds, and transferred the money to personal accounts. Some of the administrators of the party, including its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, were later tried later for this sleight of hand and sentenced for a few years in prison.

Gül was not responsible for financial matters

Abdullah Gül was a high level administrator in the RP at the time. But since his membership in the Turkish Parliament continued, and that gave him legal immunity, he was never tried for the "missing trillion liras."

Yet Abdullah Gül was only responsible for the party’s foreign relations.

Moreover, the court that sentenced Erbakan and a few other party officials in the "missing trillion lira" case decided that those who were not responsible for financial matters were not guilty.

So, although Abdullah Gül was never tried, it is very safe to assume that he was innocent, because he was not responsible for financial matters.

Moreover, he is now the country’s president, who is protected by the Constitution!

But none of these matters, apparently, for the judge in Sincan. He refers to the president five times in his indictment as "suspect Abdullah Gül," and asks for his trial.

What is really going on here?

Well, you decideÉ I should just note three facts:

1) The creators of Turkey’s political regime have designed the presidency as a post reserved for Kemalists. No wonder that most of our previous presidents were either retired generals or their best friends. Abdullah Gül is the first president whose political views fall outside the Kemalist camp, and whose wife wears what the Kemalists can’t stand to see: the Islamic headscarf.

2) Just a few weeks before the Sincan decision, Abdullah Gül noted, "The Kurdish question is the biggest problem of Turkey," and implied that it needs to be solved in a liberal and peaceful paradigm. Since then, the Kemalist/nationalist media has been attacking him. One such newspaper, Yeniçağ, even implied that this might be the very "high treason" that the Constitution is speaking about.

3) The Sincan judge who decided that Abdullah Gül should be tried, Osman Kaçmaz, is known to be a committed Kemalist. Kemal Kerinçsiz, the ultra-nationalist lawyer who sued dozens of liberal intellectuals for "insulting Turkishness" and who is now a suspect in the Ergenekon case, is apparently his good friend.

In the Ergenekon indictment, there is a tapped phone conversation of Mr. Kerinçsiz, in which he says that he met Mr. Kaçmaz in the 11th Turkish World Conference held in Baku, was very impressed with his views, and said, "Our country needs judges like you."

Perhaps not "our country," but the Kemalist autocracy definitely needs judges like Osman Kaçmaz and lawyers like Kemal Kerinçsiz. They are the ones who make the legal system serve their ideology and prevent it from serving what it should really uphold: justice.
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Controversy over the ’hadith reform’

21 Mayıs 2009
If you are well versed enough in the Turkish language to follow the Turkish media (and also happen to have the stomach for it), I strongly recommend reading Milli Gazete. The daily newspaper of Milli Görüş, the Islamist movement of Necmeddin Erbakan, which is currently represented by the marginal Saadet, or Felicity, Party, Milli Gazete acts almost like a party organ. It often tries to convince its readers that the 82-year-old Erbakan’s victory over the forces of "global Zionism" is imminent. The writers of Milli Gazete dislike two groups in Turkey. The first, as you can guess, is the hard-line secularists. The second group, which you might not guess right away, is what the hard-line secularists themselves most despise: the "moderate Islamists," such as the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Islamic individuals or groups with "modernist" attitudes. For Milli Gazete, these misguided Muslims are the enemies within who dilute the Islamic cause and make it subservient to the demands of the Western infidels.

Reform or reinterpretation?

One of the heavyweights of Milli Gazete is Mehmet Şevket Eygi. To his credit, Eygi has some good insights about pious Muslims in Turkey, such as his critiques of their "lack of a sense of aesthetics." But on matters of theology and jurisprudence, he is way too conservative. Any deviation from the classical sources and norms of Sunni Islam is, for him, a dangerous heresy.

For some time, Eygi has been harshly criticizing the "hadith reform," as he, and the Western media, call it. This is a project initiated by Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs (also known as the Diyanet) and its aim is to revise, re-catalog and re-interpret the sayings, or hadiths, of Prophet Mohammed. Right after it began in 2006, the project made global headlines because it aimed to deal with some of the misogynistic statements in the classical hadith literature, spurring Western media, from the BBC to the Christian Science Monitor, to start talking about a "reform" in Islam.

In the Western sense, that wasn’t an incorrect statement. One of the project’s goals was to put some apparently misogynist hadiths into their rightful historical context and thus keep them from being used in the modern world to suppress women’s rights. But the term "reform" does not sound nice to Muslim ears. When they hear this word, most Muslims think that it is about excluding a fundamental part of their religion for some secular, if not completely wicked, agenda. Therefore, from the very beginning, Diyanet officials took great pains to emphasize, "This is not a reform at all."

But they could not persuade Eygi. He has been repeatedly writing about "this treacherous project carried out by Orientalists, free thinkers and even atheists," and calling on fellow Muslims to take a stand against it. "They are deleting our Prophet’s words simply to succumb to the Europeans," he argued in one of his articles, continuing:

"O Muslims! You are in deep sleep. You sleep in bed, you sleep when you are awake, you sleep when you talk. You sleep on land you sleep on the sea. But they are not sleeping! They are working day and night to delete the prophet’s hadiths!"

This ranting went on for a while, and led Diyanet Deputy President Prof. Mehmet Görmez to write a long response, which Eygi published in his column last Friday. Prof. Görmez took great pains to argue that devout Muslims (rather than "Orientalists and Jesuit priests") were carrying out the project and that its aim was not to delete the hadiths of the prophet, but to interpret them rightfully. If Eygi continued with his "unjust accusations," Prof Görmez warned, he might be held responsible for this in the eyes of "divine justice."

Whether this will convince Eygi and other conservatives in the Muslim world remains uncertain. What is certain is their reaction to the idea of "reform." Since the 19th century, modernist Muslims have repeatedly faced this hostility: They have been accused of being paid agents of the West, crypto freemasons with sinister goals and apostates who sold their souls to the devil.

Two lessons

There are two lessons to be inferred from this. First, Muslim would-be reformers should be careful in how they frame their arguments. There are tools for change within the Islamic tradition, and using them is more legitimate and efficient than pushing for revolutionary steps.

The second lesson is for Westerners. They, too, should be careful with the language they use. And they should not engage in religion building that is really not their business. Their concern over extremely conservative, sometimes violent, interpretations of Islam is quite understandable. But they should also understand that they only empower those interpretations by appearing, at least in the eyes of oversensitive beholders, as the architects of reform in a religion they don’t subscribe to.
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Revisiting Kemalism’s ’Western orientation’

16 Mayıs 2009
One of the narratives about Turkey that we hear very often these days is the "Western orientation" of its Kemalist revolution. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, we are told, Mustafa Kemal and his followers emerged as the saviors of the country by recreating it as a modern republic and turning its face to the West. This story is often followed by alarmist comments about the current destination of Turkey under its current government. The Kemalists are not in power anymore, we are warned, and the new non-Kemalist elite is changing its orientation from the West to the East.

Unfortunately, the commentators who publicize this narrative hardly note the fact that most Kemalists in contemporary Turkey have become diehard opponents of the European Union accession process. They also rarely speak about the fact that the latest Kemalist attempt to overthrow the current government (aka "Ergenekon") was also planning to make the country an ally of Russia and China rather than the EU and U.S.

Which West?

But that is the smallest of the flaws in their argument. The bigger problem is their dismissal of the problems in Kemalism’s "Western orientation."

Let me explain what I mean. Today when we use the term "the West," the political system that comes to our mind is often liberal democracy. But during the formative years of Kemalism, i.e., the late 20s and 30s, that was not the case. In fact, liberal democracy was a growingly marginal model in Europe at time. The ascendant model was totalitarianism, as exemplified first by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. And these two had some considerable influence on Kemalist ideology and practice.

First came corporatism, the economic model of Fascist Italy, which was based on Mussolini’s fundamental idea: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." As scholars Taha Parla and Andrew Davison explain in their book, "Corporatism in Kemalist Turkey," Turkey adopted this state-dominated way of organizing the economy by orchestrating social segments and interest groups. The authors, as the book’s publisher note, illuminate "Kemalism's emphatic and self-conscious, corporatist ideological core," and "require a rethinking of its democratic, secular, and modernist reputation."

But this was not the most problematic theme that Kemalism incorporated from "the West." A worse one was racism. Although they never became a full-fledged policy, racist theories that gloried the "Turkish stock" became popular among the Kemalist elite in the 30s. In 1932, the First Turkish Historical Congress was held in Ankara under the auspices of Atatürk. Afet İnan, one of Atatürk’s protŽgŽs, presented a "scientific" paper in which she argued that the Aryan race, whose "brachycephalic skull" made it superior to others, included the ancient Central-Asian Turks. Another speaker at the same congress, Dr. Şevket Aziz Kansu, shared his extravagant studies on the features of the "Turkish skull." He had measured the skull sizes of 50 "pure Turks," half male, half female, and found them to be of pure European "Alpine race."

These nutty race theories influenced official policies. Some government advertisements in newspapers for new personnel noted that applicants had to be from "the Turkish stock," in addition to being a citizen of Turkey.

In 1935, the "third man" of the regime, Recep Peker, the general secretary of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had a long trip to Nazi Germany, and came back with a deep sense of admiration. He wrote a long report suggesting that Turkey should adopt the principles that made this new Germany so "efficient." He also started to promote the idea of "disciplined liberty" and denounced liberalism as a deviant idea. In 1936, Turkey adopted the hallmark of all totalitarian regimes: The unification of the ruling party and the state.

The heads of CHP’s local branches became governors of their cities.

Nasty stuff

Luckily, Atatürk did not really embrace these racist and totalitarian visions. After toying with them for a while, he decided to take a more moderate path, which was paralleled by his decision to approach Britain, rather than Germany, on the eve of World War II. When he died in 1938, however, the fascist tendencies within the CHP were still alive and were soon emboldened by the Nazi’s initial success in the war. In 1942, in tune with the zeitgeist, the CHP government issued the infamous "wealth tax," a very heavy levy on the non-Muslim, especially Jewish, minority. Some who failed to pay were sent to a labor camp established in eastern Turkey.

When the Nazis started to lose the war, the CHP government silently changed sides, and soon accepted a multi-party system in order to cope with the new global trend. But it never questioned the nasty stuff in its past.

Regrettably that nasty stuff still lives on among Turkey’s dogmatic Kemalists, who still idealize an authoritarian state, a xenophobic nationalism and a tyrannical secularism. Drifting away from their understanding of Kemalism will only be a blessing for this country.
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Turkish nationalism vs. Kurdish ’solution’

14 Mayıs 2009
Can Turkey make peace with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is defined as a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington and Brussels? That very idea is heretical to many Turks, who believe that the only way to deal with the PKK is to kill its militants one by one. But that is an option that we have tried, and failed at. In fact, since the mid 1980s, almost 30,000 PKK guerillas have been "captured dead" by the Turkish Armed Forces, but the organization has not ceased to exist.There are still an estimated 5,000 PKK militants, based mostly in the mountains of northern Iraq. And you can be sure that if they are eradicated, others will replace them soon, because the PKK is not a group of isolated bandits. It is an organization rooted in a sympathetic population. No wonder pro-PKK parties always get a little more than 2 million votes in Turkey’s general elections.

leaders recognize this social base behind the PKK’s terrorist acts, the more they become open to the idea of a "political solution," rather than a military one.Just last week, journalist Hasan Cemal, one of the few liberal commentators for daily Milliyet, opened a new path for such a peaceful option. He went down all the way to the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where the PKK has its headquarters, and interviewed Murat Karayılan, the acting leader of the organization. (The real, and "eternal," leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in jail since 1999.)

In the interview, Karayılan said important things. The first time the PKK militants "went up the mountains," he acknowledged, their goal was to create an independent Kurdish state. But now, he said, they realize that this is unrealistic and instead seek political rights within the boundaries of Turkey. Moreover, he said that his organization is ready to bid farewell to their arms, if Turkey shows some goodwill and engages in a dialogue.

But dialogue with whom? "The first address is İmrali," said Karayılan, referring to the prison where Öcalan is being held. But he also gave other options. "If that is not accepted, then us. If we are not accepted, then the politically elected will," Karayılan said, referring to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, or DTP. "If that is not accepted either, then a council of wise men can be appointed, which will include people from both sides, and the state can take that as a counterpart."

This was an important breakthrough. Liberal commentators argued that it is time to consider Karayılan’s ideas. Prime Minister Erdoğan said that he "noted" the PKK leader’s remarks. And President Gül, who recently said that the Kurdish question is "Turkey’s most important issue," spoke of a "historic opportunity" to solve the problem. So, you may ask, is Turkey really on the verge of ending the PKK’s terrorism by adopting new liberal reforms and, perhaps, an amnesty for PKK members?

Well, it is possible, but don’t hold your breath. First of all, Kurdish nationalism is hard to satisfy. Moreover, there is another nationalism on the other side that sees any reconciliatory steps as "treason." I am talking about Turkish nationalists. Politically, this group is spearheaded by the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. The other day, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli gave a furious speech at the Parliament on this issue, accusing both the president and the prime minister of "high treason." He clearly opposed some possible reforms, such as Kurdish classes in schools, and characterized them as "the destruction of Turkey under the cloak of democratization."

The problem is not only that Bahçeli’s party gets 15 percent of the votes and that its grassroots members have a reputation for violence. The bigger problem is that with this fierce rhetoric, Bahçeli can discourage the government from taking the necessary steps. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, own electorate is not free from nationalism, and the idea that "the country is being sold to the PKK" could influence some AKP supporters as well. In other words, implementing the necessary reforms to resolve the Kurdish question might cost Erdoğan some votes.

The nationalist front

The other problem is that the other leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is not too different from the MHP. Actually, these two parties are similarly nationalist, with the only difference being the CHP’s slightly more polite and refined tone. Especially when it comes to "defending the foundations of the Republic," which include a bunch of authoritarian nonsense, the CHP is no better than the MHP. The only good news is that the Turkish military, which traditionally has been the main obstacle to reform, is acting a bit better these days. (Perhaps the purging of Ergenekon-related hardliners among the officers has been helpful.)

The chief of general staff is still behind the level of democratic attitude we need to see from the state, but, relatively speaking, he sounds open-minded. That is why we can be cautiously optimistic about a new and better era with regard to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish question. But for this to happen, the country needs political courage from its government, and especially from the prime minister. Does Mr. Erdoğan have that courage? I hope he does, but we will see...
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Islam, apostasy and ’Erdoğanists’ in Malaysia

9 Mayıs 2009
KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Erdoğan, as you would know, broke with his former guru Erbakan’s anti-Western, Islamist line to found the AKP and to follow a liberal policy. This transformation has had influence outside of Turkey as well. It has changed the terms even in a far country like Malaysia It is my first time in this fascinating city, and I just hope that it won’t be the last. Thanks to the invitation from a Malaysian think tank, a pioneering organization dedicated to popularize classical liberal ideas in Malaysian society, I had the chance to come here all the way down from Istanbul. And I was impressed by not just Malaysia’s common tourist attractions (gorgeous nature, great food, and diverse society) but also for the lessons it tells us about the interaction between Islam and modernity.

Let’s start with a little bit of encyclopedic information. Malaysia is often defined as an "Islamic country," but Muslims make up only 51 percent of the population. The rest is Chinese with 27 percent, Hindu with 8 percent, and many other smaller groups. What is curious in this composition is that "Chinese" is an ethnic category, while "Muslim" is a religious one.

That apparent contradiction has a reason: Here, in a way which is a bit similar to Bosnia, being a Muslim corresponds with an ethnic identity: that of the Malays, the dominant group.

Heresy, heresy!

In other words, it is in the very definition of being a Malay to be a Muslim. And this is not just custom, but also law. Article 160 of the Constitution defines a Malay as "a Muslim Malaysian citizen born to another Malaysian citizen."

But what happens if a Malay wants to change his religion, and became, say, a Christian?

What happens is a big problem. The ex-Muslim is required to take "permission" from Islamic Shariah courts to convert. But since he or she is not a Muslim anymore, that is absurd. Moreover, the courts are generally not willing to give permission. The consequential limbo can last for a long time. Moreover, the same courts do not allow a Muslim Malay (which is a redundant term, actually) to marry a non-Muslim.

Since I learned a little bit about this problem, I decided to address the issue of apostasy at the speech I gave last Tuesday at a public panel on "the role of religion in a plural society." First I argued that a secular (not secularist!) political system is the best option for Muslims, because it allows them to practice their faith freely, without any compulsion from state. In return, I noted, Muslims should not exert compulsion on others, too. The latter idea included granting people freedom from Islam, if they decide to leave it. And what would we achieve, after all, keeping people in the faith by force other than hypocrisy?

The comments and the questions from the audience showed that this was a sensitive topic. And those who sounded critical confirmed my gut feeling: This was more of a political issue rather than a theological one. What would happen to "Malay identity" if some Malays stopped being a Muslim? Weren’t they threatening "national unity" by abandoning their faith community? And shouldn’t the state take precautions to protect this unity?

This was no surprise. The ban on apostasy in classical Islam came from political, not religious, sources as well. There is nothing in the Koran or the practice of the prophet that supports it. It rather came from the political wars of the early caliphs, during which the abandonment of religion was deemed synonymous with treason to the political community. In the modern world, in which a change of one’s belief system has nothing to do with high treason, Muslims should take a much more relaxed attitude.

But do these arguments make sense to the Muslim opinion leaders in Malaysia?

To some, definitely yes. One of them is Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and an important figure in PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

AKP as role model

We actually spoke on the same panel with Dr. Ahmad and he tended to agree with what I said on religious freedom. He further defined himself an "Islamic democrat" who strives for a democratic political system, not an "Islamic state." When I asked how popular these liberal views are in his party, he gave an interesting answer. "It is popular among the Erdoğanists," he said, "whereas the Erbakanists strongly oppose them."

These witty definitions clearly referred to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, and his former guru Necmeddin Erbakan. Erdoğan, as you would know, broke with Erbakan’s anti-Western, Islamist line to found the Justice and Development Party, or AKP and to follow a EU-oriented, liberal policy. This transformation has had influence outside of Turkey as well.

It has changed the terms, apparently, even in a far country like Malaysia.

That’s why the AKP experiment (that of synthesis between strong Islamic identity and democratic politics) is crucial for not just Turkey but the world.

It would only be a pity if it is sacrificed to the pettiness within AKP’s own ranks, or to the obsessions among Turkey’s secular fundamentalists.
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A more radical government? ... Not really

7 Mayıs 2009
One of the great things about the Hürriyet Daily News is that it opens its pages to differing, opposing and even battling views. If you are a regular reader, you might have already noticed this diversity in the paper’s opinion pages. But today I will take another step and explain you why I strongly beg to differ from one of our recent headline stories. That story was published on the Daily News’ Web site on Saturday and its gist was captured in its bold headline: "New cabinet revisions radicalizes Turkish government." The change of almost a dozen seats in the Cabinet had, according to the story, "radicalized the government with the appointment of conservatives to replace liberals."

Well, that "radicalization" was news not just to readers like you, but also to me. Because, with the debatable exception of newly appointed Labor Minister Ömer Dinçer, I saw no trace of "radicals" in the design of the new government that Prime Minister Erdoğan announced last Friday. I rather saw just the opposite. You might think that I am a biased observer, but I should inform you that quite a few pundits in mainstream Turkish media agree with me. I am not speaking of people who are labeled as "AKP lackeys." For example, İsmet Berkan, a secular democrat and the editor-in-chief of Radikal, one of the very few papers in this country whose editorial line can come close to being defined as "liberal," wrote the following in his Tuesday piece:

"After his election victory in 2007 É the prime minister developed an exclusivist style: In his government, in his party, and in state administration, he was attaching no importance to views other than his own, he was confrontational, he was taking any criticism as an attack to his own personality, and he was totally dismissing political opposition. Now, many people, including myself, see the entry of Bülent Arınç to the Cabinet and the appointment of Ali Babacan to the management of the economy with extended powers, as a return back to Erdoğan’s first term, to his desire to become a reconciliatory prime minister who listens to everybody rather than seeks to confront them.

In the papers of Sunday and Monday, many prominent columnists who have written about this tend to see Erdoğan’s move as a sign of retraction from confrontationalism and thus give him one more chance."

But why, then, the aforementioned Daily News story saw a "radicalization" in the Cabinet? Its writer, Göksel Bozkurt, whose journalism I have great respect for, and from whose reports I often learn a great deal about Ankara politics, seems to have gotten a few signals wrong this time.

One of these is the entry of Bülent Arınç to the Cabinet, one of the three original grandees of the AKP, along with Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül. The Daily News story was alluding to Arınç’s "radical" thoughts on "the headscarf issue." But that would be valid statement only if you assume that the criticism of Turkey self-styled, almost-Soviet-like secularism makes one a radical. Because what Arınç simply did was to call for freedom to wear the headscarf on campus and suggest that the notion secularism that doesn’t allow this "needs to be refined." Yet in the past two years, Arınç has emerged as a voice of wisdom and deliberation even in the eyes of Turkey’s committed secularists. He criticized the growing corruption and nepotism in his party, and his modest personal life made his remarks highly credible. He is also known be to critical of Erdoğan when he sees necessary, and this is something very few, if any, can dare to do in the ranks of the AKP.

Therefore, Arınç’s inclusion to the Cabinet as deputy prime minister should be seen as Erdoğan’s willingness to work with someone who will not be his yes-man. That is in fact a liberal move, because the diffusion of political power is always an antidote to authoritarianism. Another significant revision in the Cabinet was the appointment of Nimet Çubukçu to the Education Ministry. This post is always a hot button in Turkey and a battleground in its culture war. Hüseyin Çelik, who had been the education minister since 2002, just added to the tension.

In fact, he was doing fine as a minister, but his religious conservatism and roots as a "Nurcu" (follower of late Islamic sage Said Nursi) had irritated the secularists. Çubukçu clearly lacks such baggage. Moreover, she is now joined by Selma Aliye Kavaf, the newly appointed state minister, to double the female power in a Cabinet of males.

Welcome to Davutoğlu

On a final critical note, the Daily News story also surprised me by defining state minister Cemil Çiçek as a "liberal." I have respect for Çiçek, but calling him a "liberal" would infuriate all Turkish liberals that I know. The best term for him, I believe, would be "nationalist."

If you ask my opinion, by the way, I would say the new Cabinet actually looks pretty good. And its most important name is none other than Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new foreign minister. This erudite and creative scholar had already been shaping Turkish foreign policy behind the scenes as a "top adviser" to the prime minister. Now he is in full charge. We can expect him to make Turkey an even more important "soft power" in its region. I wish good luck to him, and the whole not-so-radical new Cabinet.
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