Democratization in Turkey: Stumbling Blocks and the Prospects

On April 15, 2008 Georgetown University hosted former Turkish Parliamentarian Merve Kavakci to discuss “Democratization in Turkey and Stumbling Blocks and the Prospects”. The event was co-sponsored by the Georgetown Muslim Students Association, the Lecture Fund and the International Students Association.

The event kicked off with an introduction by Georgetown senior Hafsa Kanjwal. She provided the audience with Dr. Kavakci’s personal background, mentioning Kavakci being banned from Turkey’s parliament and eventually stripped of her citizenship due to her decision to wear the headscarf.

After the personal introduction, Dr. Kavakci opened her remarks by casually reviewing the sentiments of many politicians and analysts on Islam and politics after 9/11. Amid fresh fears and resurrected Orientalist stereotyping of Muslims, Turkey was held to be a “role model” country because of its democracy and secularism. The rhetorical question posed by Beltway punditry was, “Why don’t all Muslim countries become like Turkey which is an Israeli ally, a US ally, a member of NATO, Muslim, and secular?”

Dr. Kavakci pointed out that while Turkey was less authoritarian than many other Middle Eastern and Muslim states, it is not the role model many Westerners have made it out to be. She points out that Turkey currently faces three major stumbling blocks to full democratization, largely linked to the historical development of the secular Turkish republic:

  1. Modernization
  2. Secularization
  3. Gender Roles

On the modernization aspect of the Turkish Republic, Dr. Kavakci noted that it was a topic of discussion during the last 200 years of the Ottoman Empire, and after the 1920s a certain group of elite intellectuals, including Kemal Ataturk (modern Turkey’s founder), were identifying Islam as the cause of Turkey’s lagging behind the West. At first such intellectuals were opposed to the West because the Europeans were attempting to colonize Turkey. In order to fend of Western military imperialism they used Islam as a mobilizing force. However, after the Europeans were thrown out, these same individuals made a 180-degree turn, fully embracing Westernization and establishing the Turkish Republic. This volte face was legitimated by playing off of cultural mythologies about Turks physically journeying westward from Central Asia toward their final destination. Ataturk argued modernization was the cultural completion of that journey.

Dr. Kavakci opined that modernization/Westernization was “very dangerous and unknown.” Intellectuals debated several issues, including whether or not to keep the Caliphate, which was eventually dumped. They largely improvised, imposing their vision from the top down on he assumption that it would eventually be embraced by the people at the bottom.

However, up until today, that has not been the case. Kemalist secularization of society—the political and legal extension of Turkey’s self-imposed modernization—had many dissidents who were either jailed or executed. Dr. Kavakci used this part of her lecture to also point out how Western countries employ a set of double standards concerning discussions of human rights and democratization, by adding an extra element of secularization. She observed that they tend to apply a much more invasive standard of secularism to Muslim countries—the forced privatization of religion (as opposed to state neutrality in matters of faith)—than they do to themselves. Furthermore, she asserted that in addition to Kemalist secularism’s violent coerciveness, the early rhetoric of Kemalism distinctly lacked any mention of democratization. Such re-phrasing came thirty years later, after Turkey began to open up to a multi-party system.

Dr. Kavakci then turned to how secularism created new gender roles that ultimately failed to fully liberate women as contended by some supporters of Kemalism. A group of scholars in the 1980s emerged who were Turkish modernists, but also said that Turkish modernity was not a role model for women’s rights. They castigated the patriarchy of the Ottomans but argued that it had been replaced by “a state-controlled feminism”. Furthermore this state-controlled feminism created new divisions along religious and economic class lines. The economically disadvantaged woman wearing the headscarf was denied intellectual and economic independence for maintaining her religious identity. Such a woman, in the view of Kemalist state-controlled feminism, cannot be, and must not be, anything more than a household cleaner until she sheds her public display of religiosity. Religion cannot be a source of empowerment for women in the Kemalist purview.

Finally Dr. Kavakci spoke on contemporary Turkish democratization from the 70s to 90s. She noted that it has been interspersed with military coups and the rise of Islamism. However, during this same period there was a growth of civil society organizations; people began speaking out more freely and religion reemerged in the public. Since the 90s there has been “a hurried attempt to catch up to the Europeans”, not in rhetoric and ideology, but in human rights, civil liberties, and economic development. According to Dr. Kavakci, in this sense, Islamist governments have brought Turkey closer to becoming European than any secular party in power. However festering corruption due to the lack of accountability and transparency in government is the main challenge to the rule of law in Turkey. As a result the interests of the “deep state” (a group of extreme militant secular nationalists in the army, other government institutions, media and academia)—manifested in the murders and persecutions of dissident intellectuals and the ongoing “judicial coup”—remains entrenched in Turkey. According to Dr. Kavakci, it is due to the AKP government’s pursuit of deep state members, that legal challenges to its hold on power have begun.

At the end of the program several questions were posed, including one I asked on whether different conceptions of non-invasive, non-coercive secularity were emerging and if there is going to be a redefinition of religion-state relations. Dr. Kavakci responded by hoping that Turkey’s modern history of secular fundamentalism ends. She felt that extreme secularism and the deep state were the two biggest problems currently facing Turkey. She felt state and religion could flourish on their own without any interference into each other’s realms. In her view, Kemalism did a good job of preventing a Muslim theocracy, but instead replaced it “with the state religion of Turkish secularism.”

As for the future of religion-state relations, she’s not certain. She feels that the AKP is likely to get banned and that it will represent “a setback.” However Muslim democrats have been down this road before and bounced back. Learning from past experiences, she believes that, “They are prepared for it.”

Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute


Alejandro Beutel is program assistant for the Minaret of Freedom Institute with expertise in religious freedom, democratization and security issues.






2 responses to “Democratization in Turkey: Stumbling Blocks and the Prospects”

  1. Dain Avatar

    Thank you for this analysis. But I notice the link from “privatization of religion” describes this lacite as state neutrality in religious affairs. You say it is not.

  2. Alejandro Avatar


    Thank you for your comment, including what appears to be an inconsistency between the referred to link and the article. The reason for the link to the article, despite what I see as the author’s incorrect definition of laicite in beginning, were sections on “controversy” (I tend to side more with the latter view), as well as the different interpretations of laicite and secularism in other countries – including Turkey. Hope this clarifies things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow by Email