[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
When people discuss Turkish politics and speak about “the Islamists,” they often refer to the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Yet the folks who really fit into that definition are those of the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which still clings on to the ideas that the AKP broke away from a decade ago.
The differences between the genuinely Islamist Saadet and the post-Islamist AKP are obvious. The AKP has been a champion of the EU cause, Saadet denounces it as a “Christian club.” The AKP has blessed and advanced free-market capitalism, Saadet denounces it as “a system of exploitation that serves Zionism.” The AKP is keen on preserving Turkey’s alliance with the United States, Saadet sees the latter as a “global tyrant” that should be defied. Even the AKP’s tough stance on Israel is too soft for the Saadet folks; they want a complete breakup with the Jewish State.
A change some believed in
Tellingly enough, the social surveys which keep finding that only less than 10 percent of Turkish society subscribes to Islamism is confirmed by Saadet’s marginal popularity: in the general elections of 2007, the party won a mere 2.5 percent of the vote. In the local elections of 2009, they won 5 percent.
There was obviously a rise here, but its cause was not a hardening in Turkish society but rather a softening in Saadet. In October 2008, its leadership was taken by Numan Kurtulmuş, a professor of economics, a beacon of courtesy, and an advocate of change. Kurtulmuş stopped ranting about AKP’s “treason,” and started to criticize it on more reasonable grounds such as nepotism and corruption. He also took quite liberal positions on thorny issues such as the Kurdish question.
Kurtulmuş also said things that countered the categorically anti-Western sentiment in his party, such as his remarks in an anti-Israel rally they organized during Israel’s devastating “Operation Cast Lead” on Gaza. While the crowd was chanting for a “Muslim front against Israel,” he showed them the photo of Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect Palestinian homes in Gaza. “This is not a matter of Muslimness,” Kurtulmuş said from the stage, after explaining Rachel’s heroic story. “It is a matter of humanity.”
Such moves – including his decision, along with any other democrat, to say “yes” in the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments – made Kurtulmuş only more popular. But soon he faced resistance within his party and, most notably, from the godfather of the whole Islamist movement, Necmeddin Erbakan. The 84-year-old Erbakan, who is banned from politics, was ruling the Saadet via loyal yes-men before Kurtulmuş. And tension had been piling up between the two since the latter proved to be independent-minded.
The rift turned into a clear struggle last month when Saadet Party had its grand congress in Ankara, at which the central committee was re-elected. The conservatives issued a “green list,” which included Erbakan’s son, daughter and his most loyal apparatchiks. Yet Kurtulmuş’s “white list,” despite a lot of trouble, prevailed. “Erbakan lost the Saadet Party,” newspapers wrote, “Kurtulmuş won it.”
Yet Erbakan’s team was not willing to give up. Hence, in the past two weeks, we have been listening to their war of words – a quite telling one. Erkakan’s 31-year-old son, Fatih, publicly accused Kurtulmuş for “disobedience” to his father, to whom he apparently wants to be heir. This revealing accusation was just the tip of Erbakan’s politico-religious doctrine. It defines him as the “commander of the faithful” – a title held by the early caliphs of Islam – and preaches that it is a religious obligation to follow his “orders.”
This is, alas, theocracy. In other words, it is a usurpation of God’s authority, as some commentators in the Turkish press, including myself, have argued. The Islamic political ideal is not theocracy, in which rulers get their authority from the divine. (Only the prophet Muhammad had that mandate, and he passed away a long time ago.) The Islamic political ideal is, rather, a nomocracy – the rule of law – in which everybody, including the rulers, are equally subject to the same legal and moral principles.
End to theocracy?
Numan Kurtulmuş seems to represent the latter vision, so his success will be a step forward in Turkey’s Islamist movement. I still find some of his ideas – particularly the socialist and anti-globalist ones – wrong, but that’s fine. I also think he can change those over time. He has proven, after all, to be a man of reason, balance and integrity.
As for Erbakan and his folks, now word has it that they are getting ready to form a new party called “Huzur,” or “Serenity.” I hope he will do just that, and become even more marginal.
As for Kurtulmuş, some say he will join forces with the AKP, others expect him to be a principled opponent to it. Both sound fine. What is even finer is that political Islam in Turkey continues to evolve and adapt to the rules of democracy. That should be good news for all – except Erbakan and his son.