Parliaments, Kings and Tribal Councils Does 'Islamic Democracy' Exist?

By and

Part 4: Turkey's Great Leap Forward


The Ottoman-Turkish situation continued to be an exception in the Islamic world. The reforms introduced by sultans who had been inspired by developments in Europe went much too far for many members of the old establishment, particularly in the Arab-speaking provinces of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The Arabs soon came to view their Turkish brothers as Muslims who had fallen from the faith.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha, better known to us as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, temporarily cut Turkey's ties with the shared political legacy inherited from Islam. What he thought of the religion that determined every aspect of life in the Ottoman Empire he expressed in words that one might have been more likely to attribute to Voltaire than to a highly decorated Turkish general: "For more than 500 years the rules formulated by an old Arab sheikh (a reference to Muhammad) and the abstruse interpretations of generations of ignorant preachers in Turkey have shaped our civil and penal laws. Islam, this absurd theology created by an immoral Bedouin, is a decaying cadaver that is poisoning our lives." He termed any politician who needs religion to rule an "imbecile."

Remaking Turkey in the Image of France

Atatürk launched a cultural revolution of a kind never before seen in the Islamic world. He ended the Sultanate. He abolished the Caliphate that had existed for 1,300 years. He replaced sharia law with European civil and penal law and the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian calendar. He prohibited the use of the Arabic alphabet as well as the wearing of religious robes and fezzes, which he considered symbols of backwardness. He ordered Turks to accept the Latin alphabet, Sunday as their day of rest and equality for women.

"There are different cultures, but only one civilization," Atatürk said, making it clear that he was not referring to Islamic civilization: "We Turks have always gone from east to west."

The German writer Emil Ludwig called him a dictator right to his face in an encounter in 1929. But this was not the kind of image Atatürk wanted for himself. He detested Mussolini and later Hitler as well. In 1930 he ordered the creation of an opposition party to stimulate a free exchange of views in parliament. In the final analysis, he was seeking to remake Turkey into a country that would bear a resemblance to France or Great Britain.

Atatürk's experiment with an opposition lasted only three months. However, after World War II his successor, Ismet Inönü, continued the work begun by the founder of the Turkish Republic and did what no Arab head of government had ever done. He permitted the formation of a political opposition, declared an election, lost, and stepped down.

Sixty years later the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism has still not been decided in Turkey. Three times the military has putsched, three times the generals have handed the reins of power back to civilians. Just this summer the secular establishment employed judicial means in an attempt to push democratically elected Islamists out of the government. And earlier this year, the constitutional court in Ankara handed down a ruling in favor of the secular traditionalists and the ban on women wearing headscarves at universities is again in place.

No matter how this power struggle ends, Turkey has taken a great leap forwards after a long history of having a deeply rooted connection to Islam. If Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses in an election it will step down and assume an opposition role.

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