Monday, 14 May 2007

Turkish secularists deserve our support

Yesterday saw another huge rally in Turkey in support of maintaining the country's secular constitution. According to the BBC, at least a million Turks rallied at the seafront in Izmir, concerned about the Islamic agenda of the ruling AK Party and its candidate for president, Abdulla Gul. Andrew Sullivan comments:

The pictures tell you everything: an exuberant, peaceful massive demonstration in a Muslim country for secular democracy. It seems to me that the most important ally the United States now has is Turkey: critical for maintaining the survival of Kurdistan; critical for stemming the tide of Islamism in the Muslim world; pivotal in helping Europe integrate its new Muslim immigrants in the ways of pluralism and secularism. But let's stop from a moment to look at all these people in the near east, loving democracy, cherishing freedom from theocratic diktats, celebrating the equality of women. Know hope. Freedom is more powerful than fundamentalism. In the long run.

I agree: though I wish Andrew had chosen a better headline for his piece than 'Muslims for Secularism'. Some of the demonstrators may well have been Muslims who simply prefer to live in a secular, plural society than under sharia law, but others were certainly not, or at the very least would prefer not to have this aspect of their identity singled out. It's rather like describing a 'Stop the War' rally in London as 'Christians for Peace' because it took place in what's still an officially Christian country. The habit of describing people as 'Muslims' simply because they live in a particular country is surely part of the problem that rallies in support of secularism are seeking to address (see here and here for previous discussion of this issue).

Still, it's nice to see some western support for Turkey's secularists. It would be even nicer if there were a bit more from the Left. You'd think that western Leftists, faced with these exuberant outbursts in favour of pluralism and women's rights in the heart of the Middle East, would be cheering them on, especially as Turkish left and centre-left parties were among the main organisers. Not so The New Statesman. Instead, it has Rageh Omaar bemoaning the 'nauseating hypocrisy' of western liberals over the role of the Turkish army in maintaining secularism. OK, so the situation in Turkey is not straightforward, but Omaar ignores the fact that the demonstrators have stated that they support both secularism and democracy, and that they are opposed to the idea of a military coup to oust the Islamists from government.

Omaar is also concerned that if the AKP are sidelined then 'moderate Muslims' will have no voice. Well, that's not strictly true: they'll have no voice as Muslims, but should the western Left really be supporting the growth of confessional, communalist parties, based on sectarian interests - something (as I've argued before) we would resist here at home - rather than broad-based, secular democratic parties?

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