Turkey was hailed as an example for a modern Muslim
democracy during the early 2000s. The current ruling party that came to power
in 2002 implemented reforms that were aligned with the European Union’s
democratic standards and the country’s record in human rights began to improve.
Unfortunately, the democratic reforms were short lived. The
process stalled only a few years later and then around 2011, following his
third election victory, then-prime minister now president Erdogan made a
complete U-turn. The slide into authoritarianism have made Turkey no longer an
example for other Muslim-majority countries to aspire to.
Some may view the negative example Turkey presents under
Erdogan as evidence of an incompatibility between democratic and Islamic
values. But that would be an erroneous conclusion.
Despite the outward appearance of Islamic observance,
Erdogan regime represents a complete betrayal of core Islamic values. These
core values are not about a style of dressing or the use of religious slogans.
They include respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary,
accountability for the rulers and the preservation of inalienable rights and
freedoms of every citizen. The recent setback in the Turkish democratic
experience is not because of adherence to these Islamic values, but rather
because of their betrayal.
Turkish society remains remarkably heterogeneous. Sunni or
Alevi, Turk, Kurd or other in ethnicity, Muslim or non-Muslim, and religiously
observant or secular in lifestyle Turkish citizens adhere to many different
ideologies, philosophies, and beliefs. In such a society, the effort to make
everyone the same is both futile and disrespectful to humanity. Participatory
or democratic form of governance where no group, majority or minority,
dominates the others is the only viable form of governance for such a diverse
population. The same can be said of Syria, Iraq and other neighboring countries
in the region.
In Turkey or elsewhere, authoritarian rulers have exploited
the differences within the society to polarize various groups against each
other and maintain their stronghold in power. Whatever beliefs or worldviews
they have, citizens should come together around universal human rights and
freedoms and be able to democratically oppose those who violate these rights.
Expressing yourself against oppression is a democratic
right, a civic duty, and a religious duty for believers. The Quran states that
people should not remain silent against injustice: “O you who have believe! Be
persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for God, even if it be against
yourselves or parents and relatives.” (4:135)
Living according to your beliefs or worldview with the
condition that it does no harm to others, and exercising fundamental human
freedoms, especially freedom of speech, makes a person truly a human. Liberty
is a right given by the Compassionate God, and no one—and no leader—can take
that away. A person deprived of his or her basic rights and freedoms cannot be
said to live a truly human life.
In contrast to claims by political Islamists, Islam is not a
political ideology, it is a religion. It does have some principles that pertain
to governance, but these account for, at most, five percent of all Islamic
principles. To reduce Islam to a political ideology is the greatest crime
against its ethos.
In the past those who studied or spoke about the Islamic
perspective of politics and state made three errors: First, they confused the
historical experiences of Muslims with the foundational sources of Islamic
tradition, the Qur’an and the authentic sayings and practices of the Prophet
(upon whom be peace and blessings of God). Historical experiences of Muslims
and the verdicts of the jurists under these circumstances should be analyzed
with a critical eye, and cannot be given the same status as the authentic
sources of religion. Secondly, some cherry-picked verses of the Qur’an or the
sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) to legitimize their perspective and pursued to
impose that perspective upon people. The spirit of the Qur’an and the Prophetic
tradition (Sunnah) can only be understood with a holistic view and with a
sincere intention to seek out the will of God. Third, some concluded,
wrongfully, that democracy is fundamentally against Islam because Islam declares
God as the only sovereign whereas democracy is based upon the sovereignty of
the people. No believer doubts that God is the sovereign of the universe, but
this does not mean that human agency, including thought, inclinations and
willpower do not exist or are excluded from God’s greater plan for humanity.
Giving sovereignty to the people does not mean usurping it from God, but rather
taking the right and duty to govern, which is endowed to humans by God, from a
dictator or an oligarchy and giving it back to the people.
The “state” is a system formed by human beings in order to
protect their basic rights and freedoms and maintain justice and peace. The
“state” is not a goal by itself, but an agency that helps people pursue
happiness in this world and in the afterworld. The alignment of the state with
a set of principles and values is a sum of the alignment of the individuals who
make up the system with those principles and values. Therefore, the phrase
“Islamic state” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Similarly, since
there is no clergy class in Islam, theocracy is alien to the spirit of Islam. A
state is a result of a contract among humans, made up of humans, and it can
neither be “Islamic” nor “holy”.
Democracies come in all shapes and sizes. The democratic
ideal that underlies these forms, that no group has domination over the others,
is also an Islamic ideal. The principle of equal citizenship is in alignment
with acknowledging the dignity of every human being and respecting them as a
work of art that was created by God. Participatory form of governance, whether
it is called a democracy or republic, is much more in resonance with the
Islamic spirit than other forms of government, including monarchies and
The present picture of Turkey’s leadership resembles an
oligarchy rather than democracy. How did it go wrong?
President Erdogan has corrupted Turkey’s once-promising
democracy, co-opting the state, seizing businesses and rewarding cronies. In
order to consolidate enough of the public behind him to make his power grab, he
has declared me and Hizmet movement participants the enemy of the state,
blaming us for every negative incident in the country in the recent past. This
is a textbook example of scapegoating.
The government under President Erdogan has pursued me and
also hundreds of thousands of other people—critics of all stripes, but
especially from the peaceful Hizmet movement. Environmental protesters,
Journalists, Academics, Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslims, and some of the Sunni
Muslim groups who have been critical of Erdogan’s actions have had their share
of consequences of his political agenda. Lives have been ruined through
sacking, confiscating, jailing, and torture.
Due to the ongoing persecution, thousands of Hizmet
volunteers have sought asylum in around the Globe, including France. As new
residents, they must abide by the laws of these countries, help find solutions
to problems of those societies and lead an active struggle against the spread
of radical interpretations of Islam in Europe.
Back in Turkey, a vast arrest campaign based on guilt by
association is ongoing. The number of victims of this campaign of persecution
keeps increasing, with over 150,000 losing jobs, over 200,000 detained and over
80,000 arrested and jailed. People who are targeted by politically-motivated
prosecution and who want to leave are deprived of their fundamental right to
leave the country as their passports are cancelled. Despite setbacks due to
military coups, Turkish Republic has been on a path of continuous improvement
in democracy since its beginning in 1923. Erdogan is draining the reputation
that the Turkish Republic has gained in the international arena, pushing Turkey
into the league of nations known for suffocating freedoms and jailing
democratic dissenters. The ruling clique is exploiting diplomatic relations,
mobilizing government personnel and resources to harass, haunt and abduct
Hizmet movement volunteers all around the world.
In recent years, and in the face of such persecutions,
Turkish citizens have remained relatively passive in conveying their democratic
demands to their leaders. Concern for economic stability is one possible reason
for this behavior. But if we backtrack from today, we can see that there is
also a historic reason.
Despite the fact that democratic governance has been an
ideal of Turkish Republic, democratic values have never been systematically
ingrained into the Turkish society. Obedience to a strong leader and the state
have always been a strong theme in educational curricula. The military coups,
which happened almost every decade, did not give democracy a chance to take
hold and progress. Citizens forgot that the state existed for the people and
not vice versa. It can be argued that Erdogan took advantage of this collective
Turkish democracy may be in a coma due to the current
leadership but I remain optimistic. Oppression does not last for too long. I
believe that Turkey will one day return to the democratic path. However, for democracy
to take root and be long lasting, several measures need to be taken.
First of all, the school curricula should be reevaluated.
Topics such as equal rights for all citizens and fundamental human rights and
freedoms should be taught to students in the first years of school so that they
can be guardians of these rights when they grow up. Secondly, there is a need
for a constitution that does not allow for either the minority or the
majority’s domination and protects in every situation the fundamental human
rights referred to in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. Civil society and free press should be protected by the constitution to
flourish and be part of the checks and balances against the state power.
Thirdly, opinion leaders should emphasize democratic values in their rhetoric
Turkey has now reached a point where democracy and human
rights are put aside. It appears to have lost a historic opportunity to achieve
a democracy by the standards of the European Union with a majority Muslim population.
The leaders of a country are like the cream on top of a
liquid. The cream is made of the same ingredients as the liquid underneath it.
Leaders of a society, possibly with some level of inaccuracy or delay, reflect
the beliefs and values of a society. I hope and pray that the recent sad
experience of the Muslim majority countries lead to an awakening in the
collective consciousness to produce democratically minded leaders and
governments that uphold not only free an fair elections, but all fundamental
human rights and freedoms.