Turkey's Misunderstood Moderate Muslims

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey warrants serious analysis and attention, not misguided generalizations.

The constitutional amendment that would lead to direct elections of the Turkish president, replacing the current election by parliament, is in the interest of the United States. This course is best followed despite the fact that direct elections are likely to lead to a head of state who is an observant Muslim.

The parliamentary election of an observant Muslim, Abdullah Gul, was recently annulled by the Turkish high court following a brazen ultimatum from the military. The military insists on secular heads of state, making a mockery of the much-vaunted Turkish democracy.

Mr. Gul is not some kind of a maverick or rabble-rousing mullah, not even an Islamist. He currently serves as Turkey's foreign minister. Neither he nor his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has worked to insert religious beliefs into public policy in the four years since the party came into power. Not a single law has been enacted that violates the strongly secular Turkish constitution. True, Mr. Gul's wife wears a headscarf, but so do 55 percent of all Turkish women, and she is not up for election. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Turks believe that it is wrong to ban such headgear.

There is no need to deny that the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP party, did initially support criminalizing adultery, but he quickly relented. He also favors creating alcohol-free zones. One should note that several states in America still criminalize adultery, with penalties ranging from fines to prison sentences, and the United States long had dry states. Yet no one in his right mind would call for the Pentagon to protect the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause by threatening a coup if such religious measures were not rescinded, not to mention deny a president-elect the White House because he plans to enact faith-based initiatives. Stephen Kinzer, a former Istanbul correspondent for TheNew York Times, put it well when he said that the "so-called ‘Islamist'" AKP is "extremely moderate by worldwide standards", and its members would be "ostracized as infidels" if they were to be transplanted to Afghanistan or Iran.1

Importantly, the Turkish majority favors a moderate Islamic society and is no longer enamored with a dominantly secular one. (After all, secularism was imposed on Turkey, in the first place, by a fierce autocrat and the military.) When the AKP won an outright majority of seats in Parliament in 2002, it became the first non-secular Turkish party to have done so in 15 years, signaling a significant religious attachment among the Turkish people at large, despite eighty years of state-imposed secularism. Denying the majority a political expression is likely to alienate these voters who favor a moderate Islamic government, pushing them toward the extremists.

Most importantly: the same change of strategy must be applied to much of the Muslim world. Large segments of it will not be satisfied with secularism; to counter Islamists it is best to support the moderate Muslims found in droves in nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, rather than merely secular parties. Just as Social Democrats were often a better antidote to Communists than the conservatives, so the texts and leaders of nonviolent, moderate religious parties are the most promising way to curb Islamists. Indeed moderate religious parties are found as key participants in numerous democratic societies in Europe and in Israel.

President Reagan used to say that God should not be kept out of the classroom-as if a bunch of educators could prevent his presence. Politicians should take note: they cannot keep God out of politics, either. The only choice they have is which of His messages they will object to if sought by the voters: those that sanctify suicide bombers and car bombs-the God of the terrorists-or those that call for humility, modesty, teaching of the scriptures and non violence? Those who call for jihad as a holy war to kill all the infidels, or those who see jihad as a spiritual journey of self improvement?

Amitai Etzioni is professor of sociology and international relations at The George Washington University. This article draws on his new book, Security First: For a Moral, Muscular Foreign Policy, just published by Yale University Press.