A Divided Nation: Islam and Politics in Turkey

Analysis, posted 06.20.2011, from Turkey, in:
A Divided Nation: Islam and Politics in Turkey (Photo: Qantara.de)

Burak Özal is 28 years old. He studied business administration at Harvard and now works for a major consultancy in New York. His Facebook profile picture shows the founder of the Kemalist Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in front of a Turkish flag. Özal is a fanatical defender of the Kemalist republic and its secular values. Özal is one of many.

Denizli is a city in the southwest of Turkey. It has a population of nearly half a million and is dominated by the textile industry. Most of the holding companies are Islamic and follow the rules of the Koran, for example the prohibition of interest. Women seeking work here should wear a headscarf, men should see that their wife does. None of the downtown restaurants serves alcohol. Denizli is one of many, too.

As far as the role of religion is concerned, Turkey's regions and population groups are deeply divided. Nevertheless, the country is politically stable, and other nations consider it a good partner. As regimes teeter and topple in the Arab world, Western as well as Arab journalists wonder whether the Turkish model can be applied to other Muslim countries.

An Islamic bourgeoisie

The Turkish model is largely defined by the ruling AKP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This politician and "his" AKP are dividing Turkey ideologically and geographically into two camps – fierce opponents and passionate supporters. In the cities and on the Mediterranean coast, the Kemalist establishment and intellectuals like Özal have the people's ears, defending secularism and voicing opposition to the AKP.

In Anatolia and the rural areas of western Turkey – areas like Denizli Province – the AKP has the support of a kind of Islamic bourgeoisie, the new religious-minded middle class.

So what kind of party is the AKP, a party that splits the nation but is perceived as a good partner by many heads of government, a party that is pushing – albeit less and less energetically – for membership of the European Union, a party that implements reforms and presents itself as modern and democratic yet in the weeks before the elections has ordered the arrest of journalists and critics on an unprecedented scale?

Its election manifesto states that the party is neoliberal. But it is also committed to its conservative Islamic roots and values. Supporters often draw parallels with the conservatism of Germany's Christian Democrats.

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By Maren Zeidler

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