Turkey’s religious bent

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In his Blowback, “My party is good for Turkey,” Egemen Bagis does what can only be described as a hatchet job on Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Bagis, who is a foreign policy advisor to the Turkish prime minister, calls Cagaptay a “self-proclaimed Turkey expert,” but this kind of language is nothing new to Bagis.

In November 2005, he dismissed a warning by Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, concerning Turkey’s current account deficit as “entertaining.” But now the chickens have come home to roost. Turkey’s current account deficit is close to an annual $40 billion, and the ongoing credit crunch combined with the political turmoil in Ankara could have foreign investors heading for the door. As those investors plug a large portion of the deficit and sit on 72% of the shares traded on the Istanbul Stock Exchange, their departure could precipitate a crisis similar to the one Turkey experienced in 2001.

And incidentally, Bagis seems to be nowhere as thin-skinned as his boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a report by the Turkish Publishers Union two years ago, Erdogan had already earned around $90,000 in compensation by suing journalists and authors for “violating his rights and freedoms.”


When Bagis claims the governing Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, is “upgrading the country’s democratic standards,” this is construed differently by the secular opposition. In the words of columnist Cüneyt Ülsever, the party is engaged in “the formation of a religion-based state,” which is different from the concept of a secular democracy enshrined in the Turkish Constitution.

One of the leading principles in that constitution is Article 10, which concerns gender equality and explains the opposition to wearing head scarves at universities and in schools and public offices. Bagis claims that letting women wear them is a sign that Turkey is an “advanced democracy,” and that otherwise, women wouldn’t go to university. But as the European Court of Human Rights noted in a November 2005 ruling allowing the prohibition of head scarves, “[The head scarf] appeared to be imposed on women by a religious precept that was hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality.”

The head scarf is also perceived as the banner of political Islam. Erdogan remarked in January: “Even if [the head scarf] is a political symbol, can you ban political symbols or can you say that wearing a symbol is a crime?” Furthermore, recent research shows that only 1% of female students say that head scarf concerns stop them from enrolling in universities.

The AKP is replacing the top echelons of the educational system -- along with state administration and the judiciary -- with its own followers. It intends to give religious school graduates the same access to universities as state high school graduates as part of this process, so that students primarily trained to be imams can replace secular leaders in the bureaucracy.

As far as Turkish foreign policy is concerned, the last word still belongs to “Bearded Celal,” a little-known Turkish philosopher who wrote 50 years ago that “Turkey is a ship heading for the East. Those aboard think they are heading for the West. In fact, they are just running westwards in a ship sailing eastwards.”

Among examples of the reorientation of Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Middle East are the visit to Ankara by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in February 2006 and the cordial reception given to Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in January. And when Erdogan visited Khartoum two years ago, he declared that no assimilation or genocide was committed in Darfur.


On the visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Turkey in August 2006, Abdullah’s foreign minister declared Turkey to be Saudi Arabia’s new strategic partner, and this entente was enhanced when Abdullah was awarded a state medal of honor from Turkey last November.

This cordial relationship undoubtedly has to do with the level of Saudi investment in Turkey, but there is a more sinister element. Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has researched the influx of money into Turkey from wealthy Islamist businessmen and Middle Eastern states and concludes that this is “an engine for Islamist parties to whittle away at Turkey’s secular traditions.”

Therefore, it would have been helpful if Bagis had spent time substantiating his assertions instead of attacking Cagaptay. As I learned at school when playing rugby, “Go for the ball and not the man!”

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish press and in the Turkish Daily News.