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We must wish the Turks well in their struggle for Islamic democracy

Turkey is a great friend of Britain, but still has its problems. If Prime Minister Erdogan can overcome these he will go down as the greatest Turk since Suleiman the Magnificent

By on Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh with President and Madame Gul Photo: Chris Jackson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh with President and Madame Gul Photo: Chris Jackson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The President of Turkey is paying a Sate Visit to this country, and has been received by the Queen. The Daily Telegraph has a report but otherwise I have not seen much coverage in the media. Nevertheless this is an important event. The President is a largely ceremonial figure, real power residing with the Turkish Prime Minister. Abdullah Gul has been both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey; he was the former, keeping the seat warm for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after their party won the elections back in 2002, because Mr Erdogan was at that time banned from Parliament having received a jail sentence for reciting a poem. The poem was judged to be inflammatory. In fact this jail sentence, and the previous banning of his political party were all politically motivated manoeuvres designed to keep Mr Erdogan and his Islamic friends out of power.

When Abdullah Gul was first proposed as President, this was blocked by the courts. One of the objections to his candidacy was that his wife wears an Islamic headscarf. Anyway, Madame Gul has accompanied her husband to London and been received at the Palace, wearing her Islamic headscarf, which must be very distressing for Turkey’s secularists. There are photos of her accompanying the Telegraph report, and I have to say that Madame Gul looks very smart indeed in what may well be Sharia-compliant fashions, and seems to be sporting a very arresting pair of shoes.

All of this goes to show what an interesting country Turkey is, and how different from our own. Turkey is of course a member of NATO, wants to join the EU, and has been a longstanding ally of Great Britain, as well as being an object of considerable fascination to the western mind. It is an astonishingly beautiful country, with a wealth of heritage, architectural, archaeological, cultural and of course religious. Turkey, whatever way one looks at it, counts for a great deal.

But all this squabbling about headscarves reveals that Turkey has rather a lot of baggage from its past. It is lumbered with the heritage of Atatürk, who, while unquestionably a great man, bequeathed Turkey with a far from ideal political system, and a personality cult that makes any questioning of that system problematic. Just as Gul and Erdogan have suffered at the hands of the law (as has Madame Gul, who was banned from a public university on grounds of dress), so have numerous others. There are dozens of journalists in jail, Christians suffer legal discrimination, and God forbid anyone should mention the Armenian Genocide, criticise Atatürk or insult the Turkish nation (an offence that is liberally interpreted and which carries a jail sentence, which is a wonderful way of silencing people you do not like.)

Turkey is changing, and needs to change further – and will change further, though the process may well be fraught with difficulty. Turkish history is littered with failed reform movements, as I have mentioned before now. But one thing is clear: we must wish the Turkish people well in their efforts to become a fully functioning democracy. What is happening in Turkey is just as important as current events in Egypt, if less spectacular, for it represents the emergence of the first Islamic democracy, a style of government that is religious in inspiration, but democratic in form; a reconciliation between revealed religion and worldly pragmatism. If Mr Erdogan succeeds in this (and if that is what he is attempting to do, which I think it is) he will go down in history as the greatest Turk since Suleiman the Magnificent, which will have huge benefits for Turkey and the rest of us as well.

  • ms Catholic state

    Well that’s what I wish for Catholics….a Catholic democracy or state.  I’m tired playing second fiddle to secularism and secular governments who control us and our taxes for all their latest unChristian wheezes and less and less religious freedom!

    Thanks but no thanks.

  • Cassandra

    You really Father so very so shortsighted and your bias is so typically, western European! Turkish Democracy! Don’t make me laugh!!

  • Lee Der Heerskinderen Lovelock

    Turkish democracy in this context equals a Turkey that is increasingly looking back to its Ottoman past with a religious zeal that would make their immediate predecessors look agnostic. Sorry but I have to say that this article seems to be welcoming a country which is a threat to Europe via many means rather than noting the caution we must approach this country. As for Madame Gul been allowed to keep her piece of cloth on her head when meeting HM The Queen is in some ways a non-starters as both are technically heretics ! 

  • Anonymous

    “If Prime Minister Erdogan can overcome these he will go down as the greatest Turk since Suleiman the Magnificent…”

    ## Not a hope :) – not given the *very strong* personality cult of Kemal Ataturk. An indication of its strength is that it is propagated even in comics. Kemal is the Father of modern Turkey, its Augustus; no mere politician could compare in status with that.  

  • Cjkeeffe

    Islamic democracy, is this not a contradiction in terms? Islamic theology sees no distinction between state and faith. Whilst Sulieman provided a degree of relief fro christians and Jews in teh Ottoman empire he nonethless engaged in wars of agression with Christian easter Europe.
    I would like to see the Turkish PM succeed like Attaturk who formed a democratic Turkey. As for his wife upseting moderaterse by wearing a headscarf, i’m sure teh sight of her in the ratehr un Islamic high heels would have made them smile.

  • Confusedof Chi

    Agreed…what exactly is Islamic “Democracy”? 
    Why are the Copts leaving Egypt?  Are Christians happy in Iraq? Pakistani Christians targeted and left defensive by the state. Define Islamic democracy

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Quite so… our best hope of an Islamic democracy emerging is in Turkey.
    And by the way, Ataturk was no democrat in our sense…..

  • Richard Collins

    I believe that Turkey is a deeply troubled country but that the trouble is below the surface. It will not be long before it materialises and, I am afraid that Islamic democracy will not be much in evidence.

  • Ignatius

    I am less enthusiastic about ‘Islamic democracy’ in Turkey. Erdogan’s AKP Party has its roots in political Islam, and its real agenda is about gradual Islamisation of society. Already this seems to be well underway. Even the once staunchly secular military is becoming more Islamised; hence its support for the ‘rebels’ in Libya and Syria. Turkey, with the support of the West, is trying to rediscover its past Ottoman past and act as some kind of model for the Middle East. Punching above its weight in world affairs, and trying to dominate the Middle East, Turkey’s influence is likely to be more controversial than benign.

  • Auricularis

    Yet another wet article by Fr. Lucie Smith. Perhaps he should talk to some “moderate” Muslims and see what they think of democracy.

  • History Buff

    Absolute nonsense Fr Lucie Smıth. Why on earth pronounce about matters of which you are seemingly totally ignorant? Ataturk’s long term aim of making Turkey into a Western democracy was discussed by him with a visitor (Alfred Rawlinson) in 1922. Yes he certainly was authoritarian and could be harsh and did hang some opponent on slender evidence, but he always made his preference for multiparty democracy clear, in 1930 trying to create an opposition party [it got too popular and so was closed] but his successor, acting on instructions from Ataturk, allowed opposition parties again in 1946 and resigned after an election defeat in 1950. His authoritarianism was tempered by his charisma and enormous popularity as the (genuine) saviour of his nation–something which is indisputable. Ataturk did not believe in allowing the military into politics by the way, even though he was a soldier by profession. The military were strictly ring-fenced from politics during his presidency: this arrangement broke down after the 1960 military coup, more than two decades after his death.

    I tend to agree with the comments above about the trend of present developments in Turkey.

  • History Buff