Every semester, I help oversee a general education course on democratization. Out of all the misconceptions that inevitably arise, one of the most common (and frustrating) for me is the belief many students have that Islam is inherently hostile to democracy. Of course, this is not the fault of uncritical freshmen; the notion that liberalism is incompatible with Muslim beliefs has been articulated by luminary scholars ranging from Samuel P. Huntington to Slavoj Zizek. This is utter nonsense, of course. Religion in virtually every culture is utilized as an instrument of social control by traditionalists who want to maintain or restore autocratic forms of governance. Conservatives in the West often cite Christian reasoning in the imposition of restrictions on abortion, for example, but rarely do we hear the argument that Christianity is fundamentally inimical to democratic values. Granted, two of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Iran — feature a strong overlap of clerical and political power, but these countries are not indicative of the region (much less the entire Muslim world) anymore than the state politics of Kansas or Oklahoma are of national politics in the U.S.
(Israel also likes to claim it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a dubious claim given the poor political inclusion characteristic of parties that represent Palestinians, several of which are often banned or faced threats of being banned.)
I usually pointed to Turkey as an example of a country with a majority Islamic population that has made great strides in embracing a multiparty democratic system. If anything, the main obstacle to Turkish democracy has not been radical Islam, but rather repeated interventions by the military, which has sought to preserve the secular nature of the state envisioned by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. In his desire to bring his country into a position of development relative to the West, Ataturk adopted a number of reforms, including the abolition of the caliphate and the separation of religion of politics. This principle has prompted generals to overthrow democratically elected governments and to ban political parties if it was believed they had an overly religious orientation.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put a stop to this tendency. A social conservative party, the AKP has long resisted being described as “Islamic.” It represents the interests of the Sunni Muslim majority, and so in that sense, its ideology conforms to a traditionalist Sunni worldview. In terms of an actual agenda, however, the AKP has focused on the provision of public goods, encouraging economic growth, and good relations with Europe and the United States — not the imposition of sharia law, the restoration of the caliphate, or any such goals of Islamic State of al-Qaeda. When voters drifted away from the party last year, the AKP acknowledged its loss in the national legislature, going from the majority party in power to forming a minority government.
If these were positive signs for Turkish democracy, recent months indicate we should be far more pessimistic. The AKP-led government, back in a majority position, has detained journalists and academics critical of official policies. The President of Turkey and long-time AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that freedom and democracy have “no value” in the country. A four-term prime minister, Erdogan has stated his intention to expand the executive power of his new office, creating a “super-presidency” not dissimilar to Putin-era Russia. Why this sudden shift away from democratic politics and the erosion of civil rights and personal freedoms? Where is the opposition to all this?
The answer is that Turks are trading their liberty for greater security. The country has rocked by a series of terrorist attacks, including several this weekend, in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The violence is spilling over from nearby Syria, where the chaotic civil war there has fueled two groups sharply opposed to the Turkish government: the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels seeking their own state. Despite the pervasive anxiety in the West over ISIS, it is actually the latter group that Erdogan and the AKP are most eager to confront.
The Kurds are an ethnic group found in Armenia, northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan achieved a sort of semi-autonomous existence within the federal Iraqi state. Turkish Kurds, however, have tasted little fruit in their struggle for self-determination. A militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has used violent tactics against the Turkish government since the 1980s; Ankara has relied on state-sponsored violence to quell the PKK, and prior to the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan and the splintering of Syria, the pendulum was swinging in Turkey’s favor. Turkey benefited from being a strategic ally of the U.S. in the Near East, and Washington saw little benefit in aligning with the PKK “terrorists.”
The rise of the Islamic State and its exploitation of the Syrian civil war has changed the status quo dramatically. After wasting a considerable amount of money funding “moderate rebels,” the U.S. has come to recognize that Kurds in Syria have been the most effective at stemming the tide of ISIS expansion. Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have managed to set up a region called Rojava in northern Syria. Not only does the YPG find itself fighting ISIS soldiers, but it also has to deal with bombings launched by Turkey. Yes, Turkey is bombing its ally in the fight against ISIS, because the YPG and the PKK share a common goal: the foundation of an independent Kurdish state that encompasses all territory where the Kurds have sizable populations. The slew of recent suicide bombings linked to Kurdish independence groups has incensed most Turks to the point where they are willing to permit Erdogan his dream of a “super-presidency,” provided that he keeps them safe from the Kurdish “threat.”
Unfortunately, in addition to undermining Turkish democracy, this new war between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists also does damage to the significant inroads made by non-violent pro-Kurdish parties like the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the party that mainly benefited from the AKP’s electoral losses last year. The HDP, with its platform of social democratic economic policies and promises to seek better deals for ethnic minorities in Turkey (including the Kurds), reached a breakthrough by appealing to non-Kurdish voters. Sadly, events largely outside of the control of the HDP have sent it into retreat; much as all Muslims were (and continue to be) in the United States post-9/11, the Kurds are the scapegoat for the fear and resentment paralyzing Turkish politics.
The Arab Spring of a few years ago flourished in countries that were internally troubled but still relatively peaceful; protests died on the vine, however, in countries beset by external and domestic violence, as people preferred placid dictatorship to the whirlwind of a changing society. It is an ongoing tragedy that the Kurds have failed to realize the full dream of their self-determination, made all the more regretful but the setbacks of the HDP and the political calculus that has turned Turkish munitions against the YPG and not fully against ISIS. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s “super-presidency” has not yet been realized; hopefully the autocratic encroachment can be reversed rather than consolidated.