Turkey's Dilemma

Can democracy survive the closing of a major political party – the ruling political party in the country? Imagine if the Supreme Court had convened to discuss banning the Democratic Party. Something no less momentous is happening in Turkey this week.

Turkey’s constitutional court convened last Monday to discuss charges that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling party in that country, should be closed down. The party is charged with trying to destroy Turkey’s secular government and impose Islamic law. Al-Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid estimates that the court should take “at least three to 10 days” to come to a decision.

Closing down political parties has long been a means by which Turkey’s highest court has protected the increasingly fragile secular system established in that country by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. The court has shut down over twenty parties over the years – including the foremost proponents of the establishment of Islamic law in Turkey. The AKP is the linear descendant of the Nationalist Order Party (MNP), which the court shut down in 1971 because of its agitation on behalf of political Islam; the Welfare Party (RP), which was banned for the same reason in 1998; and the short-lived Fazilet Party (FP), which RP Parliamentarians established shortly after their party’s demise and was likewise closed down shortly thereafter.

The Turkish court has good reason to suspect that the AKP is working to undermine Turkish secularism and impose Islamic law over the country. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), while Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s (and a prominent member of the Welfare Party), Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against Turkish secularism. “If the people want it,” he declared, “of course secularism will go away. You cannot rule this people by force; you don’t have the power to do that. This [i.e. secularism] cannot work in spite of the people.” And the people, he suggested, wanted Islamic law: “But the fact is that 99% of the people of this country are Muslims. You cannot be both secular and a Muslim! You will either be a Muslim, or secular!…For them to exist together is not a possibility! Therefore, it is not possible for a person who says ‘I am a Muslim’ to go on and say ‘I am secular too.’ And why is that? Because Allah, the creator of the Muslim, has absolute power and rule!”

His saying that Allah “has absolute power and rule” was not merely an expression of piety. Islam has historically always been a political and social system as well as an individual religious faith. Islamic law, Sharia, is a comprehensive system governing every aspect of individual behavior. It also contains laws for the governance of the state and the ordering of society. If it is imposed in Turkey, women and non-Muslims would be subjugated under a system of institutionalized discrimination; the freedom of conscience and of speech would be restricted; and the relatively Westernized aspects of Turkish society would wither away.

Oddly enough, therefore, the closing of the AKP, while not administering a definitive defeat to the forces of political Islam, may be necessary in order to safeguard Turkey’s relative democratic pluralism. And if that is not enough, the Turkish military may ultimately have to intervene, as it has done before. Under the Turkish constitution, the military has the obligation to preserve democracy against the establishment of theocracy.

Can democracy possibly be protected by the court-ordered closing of a political party, or even by a coup d’etat? If democracy is simply head-counting, then no, it cannot. But Turkey now faces the possibility that its secular system and relative (and I do mean relative — relative to Sharia, that is) equality of rights for all its citizens can only be protected by these means.

Yet Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has warned the Turkish military, the historical guarantors of Kemalism, not to act against the government. There is no indication, however, that in this she has taken into account the fact that the AKP-ruled government is clearly moving to establish Islamic law in Turkey, and to destroy the elements of Turkish society that make it more of a natural ally of the U.S. than any other Muslim-majority state.

Is she not being short-sighted? Or worse?