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Turkey: Islam's Bridge to Religious and Economic Liberty?

You say there's a growing sector in Turkish society that is engaged with the market economy and that's a healthy trend. Do you see that trend continuing in Turkey?

Mustafa Akyol

There is in this economy a capitalist development, and this is important. In the past, generally speaking, the religious people were more of the peasant class and they were mostly in agriculture--not in modern industrial production. Generally speaking, the bourgeois, the people who were the capitalists, who were owners of production companies or industries, they tended to belong to the more westernized part of Turkish society. And there was a dichotomy of the rich seculars and the poor religious people. But now that is changing. You now have a religiously devout part of the society that has joined this new trend, and that creates a new consumerism culture. Right now in Turkey you have conservative companies, which are making very fancy and expensive products, and you have catalogs in which headscarves are being promoted by supermodels, and so on. Although secularists perceive this integration as something dangerous because Islam is penetrating into modernity, as they see it, I think it's something healthy. That's because things that have been considered modern, like capitalism, are being sensitized by Islamic values.

At the same time, you have observed that there is resistance in some quarters in Islam to capitalism because it's identified with this materialistic culture. You see the same thing in the West from religious groups. How will that work itself out in Turkey?

Models promoting headscarves in Turkey
Models promoting headscarves in Turkey

Well, this is an issue where there is much debate. Among some people in Turkey, generally there is an allergy to the word capitalism. The term free market, or market economy, sometimes makes more sense. This cultural allergy to capitalism is created in Turkey by the left, through cultural channels like movies. Turkish films are full of those kinds of corrupt capitalist caricatures. Some Muslims have been influenced by this as well, but now there is this new current, this is changing. And although people might still have these reservations about consumerism, they understand that you can start a business Spring 2008 | Volume 18 | Number 2 11 and you can use that for something good. Something for the benefit of society.

How are those benefits being felt?

Well, there's this idea of charities coming in. And this is good because in the old days, in the premodern Islamic states, there were so many charitable foundations. Some rich person or aristocrat would establish a foundation and that money would be spent to fund scholarships or soup kitchens, or other charitable purposes. When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, it created a very centralized government, and all these foundations were nationalized by the state.

There were also Christian foundations, were there not?

Mustafa Akyol doing a radio interview at Acton University
Mustafa Akyol doing a radio interview at Acton University

Yes, exactly. Now people in Turkey are speaking out about giving back some of these nationalized properties, and Christians have been asking about this for a long time. There has been a new law under the current Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish initials AKP, which would give these Christian minorities some of their properties back. And Muslims too, are, creating their own charity networks. The more we get away from the idea of the social state--in Turkey the welfare state is known as the social state--the more room there will be for these sort of charitable efforts.

Let's talk about religious freedom. There's a great tension between the modern secularist path of Turkey, going back to Ataturk, and the revival of Islam and its influence on politics. Will this be a winner take all battle, or is Turkey working out something a little more complex in the future?

I say there will be room for all of these views, and Turkey will be more pluralistic than it used to be. Actually, right now, the battle is between the people who want to create room for pluralism and those who want to keep it homogenously secular. Keep in mind that the founding idea of the Turkish Republic was very monolithic. It picked up the narrative of the French Enlightenment in that secularism would make the country safe from religious obscurantism and the forces of darkness. Hence came the closure of old traditional religious institutions while the state took control of religion by establishing the Directorate of Religious Affairs. That way, religion came under the control of the state and it would be permissible only in private sphere or, of course, in the mosques.

Skyline of Istanbul, Turkey
Skyline of Istanbul, Turkey

So religion left the public stage?

That was the idea [that] was imposed. But the religious people never really accepted that and now they have become much more refined in the way that they reject this secularist notion. In the past, they dreamed of going back to the old golden ages of Islam and getting rid of what they called "western systems." But I think at some point, thanks to their integration with the world and the global economy, these religious folk realized that actually what Turkey needs is not less Western-type democracy, but more of it. They understand that in the West, in Europe or the United States, people have more religious freedom than they have in Turkey. It's pretty simple. Now groups like the AKP understand all these things better and their policies are much more sophisticated. They say that the secular state is fine, but the secular state should give us more religious freedom. On the other side, the secularists think, oh, if we move an inch then we will lose everything and it will be the beginning of the end. This is what I call the doctrine of preemptive intolerance, which dominates the state approach.

Do you see any signs of movement toward more religious freedom?

In the recent years, there emerged more attention to the rights of Christians. That could be the right for missionaries to evangelize their faith or for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to call himself ecumenical or to reopen the Halki Seminary. Now, interestingly, most conservative Muslims are in favor of these rights, whereas the secularists are not. The AKP is much more open to accepting these reforms. Whereas, the secular nationalists think that these are all bad because, first of all, they think that the Greeks are the foreign element, the fifth column. Some secularists also fear that if you grant other faiths these rights, then Muslims will ask for them. So, they say, we shouldn't give in to any of them.

How do you assess the prospects for Turkey joining the European Union and what might be the current obstacles?

Hagia Sophia, a former patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia, a former patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey

Well, first of all, I should say that it is very interesting that Turkey's accession to the EU is being resisted by the French. It's an interesting lesson of history, because Turkey has been a "French wannabe" since the early twentieth century. The second point is that the Europeans who don't want Turkey say that it is not eligible to be part of Europe because it lacks the necessary level of democracy--and they're actually right. But Turkey is becoming more democratic, thanks to the EU process itself. Britain thinks that Turkey also needs to be better in its democracy, but Britain says, "OK, let's help Turkey get through this process which will make it much more democratic and prosperous and much more in line with EU norms." But France and Germany and Austria, to a degree, are sometimes using this argument in order to block Turkey's path forward. So, yes, we need reforms on many issues, including religious rights and religious rights of Christians. But Europe should be supporting Turkey precisely to help realize those reforms.

You say that Islamic culture has historically been very open to trade in the past, going back to the Ottoman and Byzantine periods. Today, Turkey is growing, it is attracting more foreign investment, and prospects are hopeful. Can Turkey be a catalyst for the economic development of the Middle East?

Turkish Market / Targ Turecki
Turkish Market / Targ Turecki

Well, yes and no. In one sense, Turkey is somewhat isolated from Middle Eastern countries because of the language issue. Turks don't speak Arabic and Arabs don't speak Turkish. And traditionally, Arabs have seen Turkey as a lost cause, a part of the western world that's not Islamic anymore. But that has been changing with the AKP government. Now Turkey looks more Islamic than it used to, at least in the way it's governed, and this creates actually more interest in Turkey among Arab intellectuals and Arab politicians. They may not be as modern, if you will, as the AKP, but there is some link there in terms of inspiration. I have attended several conferences in Istanbul in recent years in which Arab intellectuals come and try to learn about how the AKP made this transformation from Islamism to the Muslim democrat position. So Turkey will not change the world in one day, but if it shows that a Muslim society can achieve democracy and lives in peace with the western world, that will be a great example to the Muslim nations. We are seeing signs of that.