Talking to Turkey, but Islam is listening

“They say we are at war with Islam. This is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame. ... We are not at war with Islam. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us. ... When I am president, that will change.” -- Barack Obama, August 2007

When President Obama addresses the Turkish parliament on Monday, he will have the chance to fulfill a campaign promise. Before the secular legislature of a Muslim-majority country -- and with the entire Muslim ummahummah listening -- he can state plainly that the United States is not at war with Islam.

To make this claim plausible, the president need not trade on his ancestry or his Arabic names. Rather, he need only point to a gradually emerging, too little noticed congruency between the political traditions of the United States and those of Turkey regarding religion.

The United States has no established national religion. What it does have is an established national way of dealing with religion -- namely, the distinctive American combination of government neutrality in matters religious coupled with the guarantee of free exercise of all religions.

Turkey, like the U.S., is a highly religious society with a constitutionally secular government. Turkey’s official secularism was imposed during the years after World War I by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president.

But Turkey’s brand of secularism has lacked the balancing “free exercise” component of the American compromise. Its government, rather than stopping at religious neutrality, has often been anti-clerical in the French manner or even aggressively anti-religious in the Soviet manner. Women, for example, may not wear head scarves in government-run schools and public buildings, and men may not wear the traditional fez.

Lately, however, Turkey has begun to approach a new consensus in favor of what in the American tradition would be called free exercise of religion alongside its state secularism. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (abbreviated AKP in Turkish) has sought to enlarge the scope for the public practice of Islam in Turkey.

For its troubles, the AKP has been the target of ferocious attacks by Turkish hyper-nationalists and anti-clericals, many of them in the once all-powerful military.

Last year, the AKP’s opponents initiated a jaw-dropping attempt to depose the entire government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by petitioning the courts to declare the party unconstitutional. Had it succeeded, the move would have thrown Turkey into social chaos and potential economic collapse.

But the court ruled the AKP constitutional, and in just-concluded Turkish elections, the party, though shaken, came in first. And so, after a titanic struggle, the Erdogan administration now seems well positioned to push forward on its agenda.

As regards the religious part of that agenda, the AKP understands itself to be offering Turks a political option comparable to what is on offer in Europe, through religiously denominated social democratic parties such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. But a good many in Europe see an extremist attack on state secularism in some of Erdogan’s actions -- such as restrictions on serving alcohol by the drink in liquor stores and cafes. These concerns have retarded the admission of Turkey to the European Union.

Here is where Obama faces a unique opportunity. By reasserting long-standing American support in favor of EU membership for Turkey, he can offer help to an important ally.

As he does so, however, he can also declare that, consistent with U.S. law and practice, his government endorses the free and open exercise of religion in Turkey. To underscore that this is no mere personal gesture, he can quote President Eisenhower, speaking at Washington’s Islamic Center in 1957: “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion.”

In the same spirit, of course, Obama would be obliged to challenge Turkey to live up to its own ideals by promising non-Muslims no less than Muslims “no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2:256) and state protection for the free exercise of their faiths.

Is the AKP administration prepared to go so far? At a moment of epochal transition in Turkey, there is reason to believe that it is. Erdogan’s party has long sought to rewrite the militarily imposed constitution of 1982, not just to ease restrictions on the free exercise of Islam but to eliminate the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” which has repeatedly jeopardized free speech in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate in literature, is only the most prominent of many who have been indicted on that charge. Pamuk, indicted for speaking out about the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I, was acquitted. But others have been punished.

In another sign of growing ethnic tolerance, the Erdogan administration has begun an unprecedented new push to excavate mass graves believed to hold the remains of victims of military atrocities perpetrated during Turkey’s 25-year struggle with Kurdish separatists.

If the AKP succeeds in liberalizing the permitted public practice of Islam in Turkey while imposing restraints on violent hyper-nationalism, and if, even as it does this, it is admitted to the European Union, Turkey and Europe together will have taken a key step forward in the reconciliation of the West with the Muslim world.

The U.S. State Department has tried to keep expectations low for Obama’s promised and eagerly awaited speech, but as the moment approaches, excitement will surely mount.

In the West, all eyes have lately been on London, the economy and the G-20 summit. But as the president approaches the lectern in Ankara, millions of eyes in other parts of the world will be on Turkey.

Jack Miles is professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine and senior fellow for religion and international relations at the Pacific Council on International Policy.