Today's date:
Summer 2007

Don't Disarm Secularism

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali immigrant, feminist and former Dutch legislator, recently published her memoir, Infidel. She now lives in the United States.

New York —Secular and liberal Turks have had a rude awakening from years of deep slumber. Kemal Ataturk's heritage is about to be destroyed—not by an invading power, but from within by fellow Turks who yearn for an Islamic state.

Ever since Ataturk, Turkey has been divided into those who want to run state affairs on Islamic principles and those who want to keep Allah's will from the public space.

The proponents of Islam in government such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party have been remarkably successful. They have understood and exploited the fact that you can use democratic means to erode democracy. With this insight, they have employed a powerful strategy. Three pillars of that strategy are worth discussion.

The first is Dawa, a tactic inspired by Islam's founder, Muhammad. Dawa simply means to preach Islam as a way of life, including a way of government, perpetually and with conviction. Every convert is subsequently obligated to preach Islam to others, which creates a grassroots movement.

The secularists in Turkey have underestimated this pillar and thus neglected competing with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of the electorate. Now they are faced with the shocking reality of polls that suggest that 70 percent of voters may elect Gul as president if Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, succeeds in changing the constitution so that the president can be elected directly. Any protest from the secularists against this evident popular will sounds irrational and undemocratic.

The second pillar is the improvement of the economy. No one can deny that when the secular parties were in power, the Turkish economy was in tatters. Ever since Erdogan took office, the growth of the economy has been strong, with inflation down and foreign investment high.

The third pillar is taking control of two types of institutions in a democracy: those designed to educate the civilians (education and media) and those designed to keep law and order (police, justice and the secret service). In other words, the Islamists control the information that you get and have the power to shut your mouth.

After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997 when the military engineered a "soft coup" against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power.

They surely realize that Islamizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain control of the army and the Constitutional Court, the two institutions that have—until today—lived up to Ataturk's expectations to preserve Turkey's secular state.

The current Constitutional Court ruling annulling the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency after the military warned that it is the guardian of secularism is only a temporary setback for the Islamists. Erdogan and Gul have another trick up their sleeve.

If they show the same restraint and patience that has brought them this far, they may achieve their aim by continuing to court EU membership. Naive but well-meaning European leaders were manipulated by the ruling Islamists from the onset into saying that Turkey's army should be placed under civil control like all armies in the EU member states.

Seen from this perspective, Erdogan and his party have earned their success. Condemning them for getting as far as they have is a petty display of sour grapes and certainly not effective in preventing them from getting total control of all power in Turkey.

In hindsight, Turkey's secular liberals have only themselves to blame. They have underestimated the power of Dawa, they failed at growing the economy under their reign, and they have not realized that members of the EU have been manipulated.

An important trait of liberalism, however, is the opportunity to learn by trial and error. The fact that Turkish secular liberals have erred does not mean they cannot try again to preserve Ataturk's legacy and create the opportunity for progress of the Turkish democracy based on Western values.

Turkish secular liberals must devise a plan to start their own grassroots movement, one with the message of individual freedom. They must restore the confidence of the electorate in trusting Turkey's economy to them, and they must re-conquer the institutions of education and information, police and justice.

They must also make EU leaders understand and respect the fact that the army and the court in Turkey—besides defending the country and the constitution—are also, and maybe even more importantly, designed to protect Turkish democracy from Islam.

Bringing back true secularism to Turkey does not mean just any secularism. It means secularism that protects individual freedoms and rights, not the ultra-nationalist kind that breeds an environment in which Hitler's Mein Kampf is a bestseller, the Armenian genocide is denied and minorities are persecuted. Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor, was murdered by such a nationalist.

It is this mix of virulent nationalism and predatory Islam in Turkey that makes the challenge for Turkish secular liberals greater than for any other liberal movement today.

Other liberal democracies in the West must stand by Turkey's liberals in this difficult time. It is only a seeming paradox that support has to start by recognizing that the Turkish army is not like any other. The military has the unique task of safeguarding Turkey's secular character.