Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 7 Table of Contents
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July 2001 

Turkey Shuts Down the Islamists . . . Again
by Thomas Patrick Carroll

Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency. His areas of specialization are Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean affairs.

Mustafa Bumin
On June 22, Turkey's Constitutional Court voted 8-3 to permanently shut down the Virtue Party, the country's main opposition party and the vanguard of activist Islam in Turkish politics.

Virtue stood accused of two transgressions. The first was that it was the political reincarnation of the old Welfare Party, which the Constitutional Court banned in 1998 for mixing Islam and politics. On this first count, the Court decided in favor of Virtue, concluding that the party was not a continuation of Welfare under another name, but truly a different party. On the second charge, however, the Court sided with the Chief Public Prosecutor, finding Virtue a hotbed of Islamism and therefore illegal under the 1982 Turkish Constitution.

Islamists joined with liberals in Turkey and abroad to condemn the Court's decision, claiming it was yet another blow to democratic development. Still, the immediate consequences of the Virtue closure were not nearly as bad as they might have been.

To begin with, the Court could have expelled en masse all Virtue deputies from the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA). When the number of empty seats in the TGNA exceeds 5%, new elections must be held. Since Virtue controlled 102 of the TGNA's 550 seats, a wholesale expulsion would have toppled the government and plunged the country into all the uncertainties of an unplanned election. With so much riding on the stability of the current government (such as a $15.7 billion emergency economic package from the IMF), that would have been grim indeed. As it happened, however, the Court expelled only two Virtue deputies, allowing the other 100 to remain in the TGNA as independents.1

Another disaster averted (at least so far) is an attachment to the ultra rightwing Nationalist Movement Party by half a dozen or so newly independent Virtue deputies. Nationalist Movement is part of the ruling coalition led by Bulent Ecevit's moderate Democratic Left Party. Democratic Left has 132 seats in the TGNA and Nationalist Movement has 126. If Nationalist Movement were to engineer a net gain of seven deputies, it could end up running the government. That would be bad news not only for the economic stabilization package, which includes privatization demands that Nationalist Movement finds distasteful, but for pretty much every other progressive trend.

As matters presently stand, the most likely outcome will be the formation of two new Islamist parties, both rising from the ashes of Virtue. One would be made up of "traditionalists" - the conservative followers of Necmettin Erbakan, the grand old man of political Islam in Turkey. The other would be composed of the "reformist" (e.g. moderate, pro-Western) wing of the erstwhile Virtue Party, probably led by Abdullah Gul. Former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan may join Gul, or may form his own center-of-the-road Islamist party. However he proceeds, Erdogan will tread lightly, as he is still officially banned from political activity after an earlier run in with the secularists.

The European Angle

With serious parliamentary misfortunes avoided, the toughest short-to-midterm consequences for Ankara probably involve the European Union (EU) and Turkey's application for membership. The banning of Virtue presents a particularly touchy problem, because it falls under the whole democracy/human rights umbrella, an area in which the Europeans have long faulted the Turks, and in which Turkey must make significant progress before it will have a realistic chance of getting into the EU.

From the moment the Virtue ban was announced, the EU made no secret of its disapproval, claiming the ban demonstrated the fragility of democracy in Turkey. How can Turkey expect to join a liberal club like the EU, the Europeans asked, when it commits such illiberal acts as banning political parties? "With all due respect," the German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin said to reporters in Ankara, "this raises some concerns among the German and European publics."2

As with most positions the EU takes on Ankara, many in Turkey detected a whiff of hypocrisy. The banning of political parties in contemporary Europe is by no means unknown. Fascist and neo-Nazi parties are often barred, for instance, and not just in Germany.

But these are destructive groups, the Europeans say, and therefore should be banned. This is true, but it is also precisely the claim that secularist Turks, including many of the country's leading intellectuals, make about political Islam. And they have a case. When the Islamist Welfare Party briefly led a coalition government in 1996, some of its behavior was indeed troubling. The embarrassing way the Welfare-led government fell all over itself trying to flatter the most odious Islamist regimes in the region (e.g., Qadhafi's Libya) is one example.

The Europeans also make a point about procedure. Justice Minister Daeubler-Gmelin said that party closures in Europe "are tied to different standards and are more difficult" to effect than they are in Turkey, implying that Turkish standards are comparatively weak or capricious.3 However, the Chief Public Prosecutor opened the case against the Virtue Party back in March 1999. Before the court reached its verdict, the wheels of justice had spun methodically and publicly for well over two years. During that time, evidence was gathered, arguments were presented, and motions were heard. From everything we can see, the proceedings were open and even-handed.

Still, the Europeans are saying something important. Whatever else one might believe about Virtue, the party had little in common with the radical Islamist movements that plague so much of the Muslim world. Virtue had its hard-liners, to be sure, but it also had plenty of moderates and centrists, particularly among the younger members. The party played by the rules, and when it held power (as it did in many municipal governments, including those of Istanbul and Ankara) Virtue's record of public stewardship was remarkably clean, honest and efficient. To all appearances, Virtue was the sort of religious/populist political party that a functioning democracy should able to accommodate.

This brings us to heart of the matter. The important questions raised by the Virtue Party shutdown are not about political fallout in the TGNA, or problems with the economic stabilization program, or even the damage done to Turkey's short-range prospects for EU membership, serious as all of these are.

The important questions have to do with Turkish democracy itself. Whence this fierce hostility to religion in politics? Why are religious sensibilities so evidently unwelcome? Why is the voicing of religiously informed ideas on social policy met with police and prosecution, rather than with arguments and debate? And what does it all mean for the future of democracy in Turkey?

Origins of Turkish Secularism

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, neither he nor his compatriots had any nostalgia for the dead Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, they viewed the old order with disdain and contempt. Atatürk believed his plans to modernize the Turkish nation required the obliteration of all things Ottoman.

This attitude was understandable. The Ottomans had been on the skids for several centuries, and the final 100 years (ending with the Empire's destruction in World War I) were a ghastly nightmare of weakness, humiliation, and defeat. Beginning with the Greek Revolution in 1821, the Turks suffered a seemingly unending series of appalling losses in both territory and human life. Over those last 100 years of slaughter in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Crimea, and Anatolia, Turkish/Muslim dead (both military and civilian) amounted to well over five million souls, mostly at the hands of Czarist Russia and the various ethnic nationalist movements in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and so forth. And five million killed is a conservative number. Not only was the Ottoman Empire too weak to defend its territories and citizens against the invading armies and their domestic insurgent allies, it was too poor to accommodate adequately the rivers of refugees that flowed ceaselessly from the lost lands into Turkish-held Anatolia. The Ottoman Empire in those dark days was not known as "the sick man of Europe" for nothing.

Atatürk's awareness of this almost unimaginable national and human catastrophe, spanning several generations throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, decisively shaped the social and state architecture he created for the new Republic. Atatürk saw the Ottomans and their society as backward and pathetic. He believed that unless the entire Ottoman imperial system was razed and replaced with a modern, Western-style social structure and national government, Turkey's future would be bleak at best, and perhaps nonexistent.

For Atatürk, Islam was an integral part of the old, hated Ottoman system, and had no place in the public life of the new Turkey.4 Like everything Ottoman, Islam was considered to be a source of national rot and weakness that had to be quarantined for the Republic to thrive. In those early days, Atatürk's word was law, and so an impermeable partition arose between religion and public life.

After Atatürk died in 1938, his word became more than law. It became Kemalism, a system of national philosophy and dogma that continues to guide Turkish debate and public policy to this day, a system in which the separation of politics and religion is axiomatic.5

Turkish Secularism in Practice

The Kemalist separation of Islam and politics was for all intents and purposes absolute for the first several decades of the Republic. But such extreme secularism did not sit comfortably with the majority of Turks, who are by nature moderate.

Necmettin Erbakan
Then, in 1950, the Democrat Party defeated the Republican Peoples Party, the old party of Atatürk, and Adnan Menderes became the new Prime Minister. The days of single party rule ended and the era of democracy was born.

Although he was not really an Islamist, Menderes was both populist and religious, and spent much of the next ten years relaxing the rigidly secularist policies of his Republican predecessors. But things went bad for Menderes, particularly on the economic front, and in 1960 he was overthrown in Turkey's first military coup. He was hanged in 1961.

The next milestone in Islamic politics came in 1969, when Necmettin Erbakan started the National Order Party. For the first time since the founding of the Turkish Republic, here was a party with a clearly Islamic agenda. But in 1971, just two years after its founding, National Order was outlawed for violating the secularist provisions of the Constitution.

In 1973, Erbakan was back with a new organization, the National Salvation Party. Though just as Islamist as National Order, National Salvation was far more politically successful, participating in coalition governments throughout the 1970's.

As the decade progressed, however, disorder spread. By the end of the 1970's, Turkey was in near anarchy. Rightwing thugs battled communist thugs in all major cities and people died by the dozens every week. On September 12, 1980, the Turkish military took power once again. All political activity was banned, all parties were dissolved, and the major political leaders (including Erbakan) were jailed.

With civil tranquility restored, the Turkish military set about drafting a new constitution. The nation had just passed through a harrowing ordeal and the generals were determined that such terrible chaos and social disintegration would never happen again. To ensure this, they wrote a constitution with roots deep in Kemalism. On the question of secularism, the preamble could not have been clearer: "[N]o protection shall be afforded to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish National interests . . . [and] as required by the principle of secularism, there shall be no interference whatsoever of sacred religious feelings in State affairs and politics." This new Constitution went into effect in 1982 and (with slight amendments and modifications) still governs the country today.

Democracy was reinstated in 1983, with elections that brought the Motherland Party to power and made Turgut Özal Prime Minister. Within Motherland, political and economic liberalism coexisted with Islam. The Islam of Motherland was of the moderate, commonsensical variety that one generally sees among the Turkish middle class. It is a tolerant Islamic sensibility that has little problem following Friday prayers with a glass of wine at dinner. It is a religious attitude that most Americans would recognize as healthy and constructive. Korkut Özal, Turgut's brother, often talked about the inspiration he got from his time in the United States and his exposure to the Mormons. The Mormons, Korkut thought, exemplified the kind of wholesome, constructive mixing of religion and politics from which Turkey could benefit. The symbol of the Motherland Party, the beehive, was deliberately borrowed from the Mormons and the state of Utah.

It was also in 1983 that Necmettin Erbakan founded the Welfare Party, a political organization with a decidedly more militant version of Islamic politics than Motherland. Welfare finally won a general election in 1995 and briefly ran the government (with Erbakan as Prime Minister) for several months in 1996. Soon, however, Welfare's Islamist style and anti-Western rhetoric proved too much for the military and the generals openly voiced their displeasure. On June 18, the government collapsed. The Virtue Party was formed a few months later, as Islamists started abandoning the mortally wounded Welfare. On January 16, 1998, the Constitutional Court banned Welfare once and for all.


The percentage of Islamist voters (i.e. voters going for the National Order, National Salvation, Welfare, and Virtue line of parties) has historically ranged from 10% and 20%.6 This is not a negligible slice of the citizenry and these people must be accommodated within the political process. Turkey will remain forever outside the EU and the Western democratic community if it continues to treat all Islamists as beyond the pale. More importantly, Turkey will never achieve true liberal democracy if the Kemalist establishment (e.g., the military, much of the media, the secularist intelligentsia) continues to assume that the political and social ideas of up to 20% of Turkish adults must be excluded from the realm of political discourse and debate.

When analyzing Islam and politics, Turkish secularists need to be more empirical and less a priori in their judgments. The secularists need to pay more attention to the actual content of religiously-colored policies, speeches, ideas, parties, etc., rather than simply rejecting them out of hand because their Islamic tone may violate one or another Kemalist canon. When looked at empirically, political Islam in Turkey seems fairly mild and most of its adherents display a more or less democratic spirit. And it is not as though the Islamists are politically unopposed in the Turkish public square. Activist Islam faces more than enough democratic opponents to prevent it from imposing a radical and unwanted agenda on the rest of nation, even if it wanted to.

Finally, the blame for the banning of Virtue cannot be laid on the Chief Public Prosecutor, on the judges of the Constitutional Court, nor even on the military (at least not directly). The Virtue Party was banned because its activities stood in violation of the 1982 Turkish Constitution. If a repeat of the closure is to be avoided, the TGNA must amend the Constitution. Fortunately, there appears to be a consensus, from Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on down, that the 1982 Constitution should be revised to make it more difficult to shut down a political party.7 There is cause here for optimism.

Few who are familiar with the Muslim world would dispute the fact that political Islam can be dangerous. Turkish secularists fear the Islamists will use democracy to take power, then will turn around and deny the democratic process to their opponents. Given the history of the 20th century in general, and the history of despotic Islamic regimes in particular, that fear is far from groundless. Welcoming Islamists into the national political conversation invites a certain risk, no doubt about it. Riskier still, however, is the officially sanctioned suppression of nonviolent political opinion, at least if one aims - as the Turkish Republic does - for a truly free and democratic society.


  1 The en masse expulsion might have been ordered if the Court had found Virtue to have been a continuation of Welfare.
  2 Turkish Daily News, 26 June 2001.
  3 Ibid.
  4 Atatürk had no evident personal interest in religion, and seems to have been an agnostic.
  5 Atatürk held a more favorable opinion of Christianity than he did Islam. There is evidence that he associated Christianity with Western civilization and all is successes, successes in which he wanted Turkey to share.
  6 If one includes the moderate Islamic believers who vote for one of the other conservative parties (e.g. Motherland), this group could be around 50%.
  7 This would not be the first time the 1982 Constitution was amended since its promulgation 19 years ago.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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