Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Turkey, the Arab Spring, and Islamic Democracy

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


October 28, 2011
by Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

For many years, Turkey has represented the hopes of the Western world for the Middle East:  a secular government in a Muslim country, working its way towards mature democracy as it works its way towards membership in the European Union.  In the context of the Arab spring, the death of Gaddafi, the recent elections in Tunisia, and the upcoming elections in Egypt, the example of Turkey is more relevant than ever.

I came face to face with the paradox of Turkey on a recent vacation.   In a country where the fear of Islamic fundamentalism and a commitment to 20th century modern secularism have driven almost all aspects of public policy, Turkey’s western coast feels very European—complete with Western-style music videos and bars on every corner. Yet in Istanbul, home to the palaces of the Sultans, Islamic relics, and the Blue mosque, Turkey’s Islamic heritage is palpable.

Many in the West have praised Turkey’s forcefully secular government, while at the same time urging the burgeoning democracy to improve freedom of the press and freedom for Turkey’s minorities.  Yet in recent years, the desire of the Turkish people to more fully express their religious commitments has also surfaced, bringing Turkey to a crossroads.  For decades, the Turkish military has fiercely opposed any attempts to bring religion into public life.  In a telling example from 1999, a female member of a pro-Islamist party who wore her head scarf as she took her seat in Parliament was subsequently forced to resign and her party was later shut down.  Yet only three years later, another, newly reconstituted moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party or AKP, came to power, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  The AKP, who deliberately disavows the term Islamist, has been slowly pushing for reforms that allow greater expression of Islamic faith in public life.  In 2008, for example, a decades-old law banning head scarves at Turkey’s state universities was overturned.  

Of course, as the Center for Public Justice argues in its Guideline on Religious Freedom, it is impossible to completely ban religion from public life.  In fact, in many respects, Turkey’s repressive insistence on secularization has only fomented Islamist fervor.  In order to realize its democratic potential, Turkey will need to develop institutional checks and balances that will allow the Turkish people to fully express their faith while protecting against Islamic theocracy.  Erdogan recently won a third term as prime minister, demonstrating popular support for his reforms.  Many analysts are hopeful that Turkey’s decades-old experience with limited democracy and its rich heritage of religious and ethnic diversity—dating back to the Ottoman Empire—will spur Turkey towards a more democratic future.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are similarly attempting to wrestle with the desire for democracy in a majority Muslim context, looking to Turkey as an example. In fact, in Turkey, the government has tasked Islamic scholars at state universities with the development of a theology of governance that is compatible both with the tenets of Islam and with fundamental democratic ideals.

In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won over 40% of the votes in last week’s election, presaging Islamist wins in Egypt’s elections as well.  Ennahda—which also distances itself from the term “Islamist”—insists that while it wants to base the constitution on Sharia law, in so doing, it will respect the rights of women and minority religions. In Egypt, Christians are running for Parliament alongside members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And, following the death of Gaddafi, Libya’s interim government is vowing to place Islam at the center of its governance. 

The success of these inclinations towards Islamic democracy remains to be seen, and the outcome will dramatically shape US foreign policy in the 21st century.  A genuine commitment to religious freedom and principled pluralism must be rooted not in a superficial attempt to mimic Western-style democracy, but in a robust view of human dignity that can be applied to all areas of public life.  As Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya begin to draft their constitutions, even as they look to Islam to shape their view of the common good, it is essential that minority cultures and religions be given equal treatment under the law.   The very role of government must be clearly defined—not as a tool for imposing or spreading Islam, but an instrument for guaranteeing justice and the common good for all.  And those of us in the West must be patient with our friends in the Middle East, remembering that our own view of pluralism and religious tolerance has matured over decades.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary, a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice, and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill.




“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”