Turkish Islamists stress Muslim values, not laws
PARIS (Reuters) - Abdullah Gul's election as Turkey's president is a victory for a strain of political Islam centered on promoting Muslim values democratically rather than imposing sharia, Islamic law, experts on the Islamic world say.
Asking if his Islamic-rooted AK Party aims for a religious state is the wrong question, they say, because it has already given up that goal in favor of secular democracy's respect for individual rights -- including the freedom to believe.
This school of conservative "Muslim Democrats" -- a term recalling the Christian Democrats of post-war western Europe -- emerged in the 1990s after Iranian-style radical political Islam failed to take root elsewhere in the Muslim world, they say.
Several analysts hoped Turkey would inspire Arab Islamists, many of whom dream of taking over a state and enforcing strict sharia, but Turkey's long history of secularism created a political climate not found in the Middle East.
"This is not about sharia, but about the great moral lessons of Islam," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East historian at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
"Arab Islamists have not been able to transcend their obsession with sharia and founding an Islamic state."
Warnings by Turkey's army that the AK Party threatened the secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s were a "red herring," said Boston University anthropologist Jenny White, who has studied Islamist politics in Turkey.
"The struggle in Turkey is not between Islamists and secularists, but between rival elites in a zero-sum game where the success of one diminishes the power and wealth of the other," she said.
PRAISE FOR ATATURK
Several analysts contacted by Reuters noted that Gul, in his inaugural speech, warmly praised Ataturk and repeatedly pledged to respect secularism and democracy -- words that would stick in the throat of any old-school Islamist.
"There is a difference between legal and ideological secularism," explained Olivier Roy, a leading French expert on Islam, noting the army used secularism as a rallying cry.
"Gul is a believer and very conservative, but he and most of the AK Party have internalized the secularization of politics."
Turkish democracy under the AK Party is "like a Bavarian or Polish-style democracy," he said, referring to two European regions where the Catholic Church is still quite influential.
Public debates about Islam and politics often miss important nuances because both Islamists and their opponents present the issue in either/or terms, the experts say.
"Is Turkey turning to Islamism? That is sometimes a misphrased and misconceived question," said John Voll, an historian of Islam at Georgetown University in Washington.
"Many people have forgotten the option of people believing in the separation of religious and political institutions but also being believers in their traditions," he said.
"What we have with Gul and (Prime Minister Tayyip) Erdogan is the emergence of an honest, non-state political Islam. They may not be old-fashioned Kemalist secularists, but neither are they old-fashioned Wahhabi fundamentalists."
Voll said ideological lines were blurring in other religions as well, noting some conservative evangelicals in the United States were now active supporters of environmental policies.
MODERN AND MUSLIM
Istanbul journalist Mustafa Akyol, who has strongly defended Gul in columns in the Turkish Daily News, said his victory and the AK Party's win in the July parliamentary election marked the end of "a kind of apartheid" against devout Muslims in public service.
The Afghan Taliban and Iran's Islamic leaders give reason to ask if Islamists can be tolerant democrats, but the Turkish case shows the two need not be polar opposites, he argued. "Turkey will show you can be modern and still be Muslim," he said.
Amid the positive analyses, White noted a "creeping conservatism" in some areas, where some AK Party leaders are banning alcohol or delaying implementation of some liberal laws Ankara has passed in its bid to join the European Union.
The AK Party could still face opposition from ultra-nationalists, some retired officers and fringe Islamist radicals, she added. "The election mandate doesn't mean the struggle is over."
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