It is Kemal Ataturk’s coup that has failed in Turkey

The vast number of Muslims who took to the streets of Turkey on Friday night to oppose the attempted military coup demonstrated the increasing Islamic sentiments of a country which was always regarded as the most secular in the Muslim world, writes Abdul Wahid.  

Muslims in Turkey and across the world have rightly welcomed the failure of the attempted coup against Erdogan’s government. Ironically, democratic governments in the west and much of their liberal media have been either, at best, remaining strangely silent or, at worst, appearing saddened by the failure to remove an elected politician who they regard as an ‘Islamist’.

Turkey’s Muslims shouted ‘Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu Akbar’ as they bravely faced tanks and armed forces – without weapons but with tawakkul.  Their Islamic sentiments and motivation cannot be doubted.

Whilst some argue this shows the commitment of the Turkish people to Western-style liberal democracy, I am not convinced. Outrage at their political authority being usurped does not equate to support for liberal democracy.

Whoever is behind this coup, Mr Erdogan will surely use this coup for maximum benefit – to purge the army and judiciary of secular hawks and other significant opponents.

Erdogan: The best of the worst?  

Many Muslims in Turkey and around the world view Erdogan as a positive figure working for change in an Islamic direction. Those who know me know that unlike others, I am no ‘Erdogan-groupie’. In fact, I’m not sure how much Mr Erdogan himself would appreciate being held in the near-messianic, almost infallible view some seem to have of him.

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President Erdogan
President Erdogan

I see his political faults as well as his personal merits. I recognise he is very different to many of the foul specimens Muslims have had the misfortune to call ‘rulers’ over the past few decades.

He is a practising Muslim and has allowed Muslims in Turkey to express their love of Islam, where it was hitherto (sometimes brutally) suppressed.

Many observers would say that he appears to govern for his people, not for himself or a small clique (as do leaders in countries like Pakistan or the Gulf monarchies).

He has presided over changing Turkey from economic basket case to emerging economy (albeit through un-Islamic, capitalist policies).

But set against this, his government’s sometimes-violent treatment of the Kurdish people – who are also our Muslim brothers – is upsetting. His failure to intervene in Syria at a time when he could have prevented the catastrophic loss of life and displacement is just one evidence of his acquiescing to global powers – at a time and in a situation that every one of them would have intervened militarily had their neighbour been destabilised in such a brutal way. He has demanded the extradition of Fetullah Gülen – yet does not demand that global powers stop interfering in Muslim countries. Only last week we heard of his shocking moves to re-establish relations with Tel Aviv, Assad and Putin – all of which leads one to ask in whose interest is Turkey’s foreign policy made? Many Muslims I know prefer to overlook these failings – or else offer excuses for inexcusable actions, which they seek to legitimise in their own minds. ‘Ends justifying means’ is not a Shariah principle I am familiar with – and our role shouldn’t be to make excuses for politicians when they fall short of an Islamic standard but to account them in the hope they accept sincere advice.

But there can be no doubt the climate in Turkey to express Islam – in personal life at least – has altered. No doubt, Mr Erdogan would argue he has until now been prevented from doing more by the secular institutions in the ‘deep state’.

Islamic values and sentiments

In 2016 Pew did a survey of attitudes towards Islam and national laws in the Muslim world. When asked the question ‘How much should the Quran influence our laws?’ 53% of those questioned responded either ‘strictly’ or that they should follow Quranic values, but not strictly – against 36% who said they should not. I suspect the pro-Islamic sentiment might be higher and growing amongst the young population.

But even these figures mask other details that show how out-of-step Turkish people are with neighbouring European, secular, liberal attitudes.

In another analysis of their 2013 data, Pew looked at global morality, asking about whether or not various actions were morally acceptable or not. The results for Turkey are strikingly out of step with the liberal Europe.

  • Is drinking alcohol morally acceptable? Yes 10% * No 69%
  • Is homosexuality morally acceptable? Yes 4% * No 78%
  • Is it morally acceptable for married people to have an affair? Yes 2% * No 94%
  • Are sexual relations between unmarried adults morally acceptable? Yes 5% * No 91%
  • Is gambling morally acceptable? Yes 1% * No 91%
Turkish protesters praying fajr on Saturday
Turkish protesters praying fajr on Saturday

Ataturk seized power with a coup in 1924, abolishing the final vestiges of the Ottoman Caliphate. He instituted a crackdown on public manifestations of Islam, and simultaneously promoted anything western and secular. The Arabic script was replaced with a Roman script and he even made policies over which clothes people could wear. His legacy was protected to the extent that any disrespect of him was punishable in law, with the military and judiciary acting as watchdogs over the secular constitution.

Yet despite all of that, the evidence is that the people of Turkey are marching back towards their Islamic heritage.

When Muslims are repressed they seek refuge in Islam, and yearn for its justice – and when they are left free to choose, they will choose an Islamic lifestyle if they can.

That’s a big fail for Ataturk’s secular coup.

The direction of change in Turkey, long-regarded as the most secular of Muslim countries, bodes well for the return of Islam as a complete way of life not too far in the future.

Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, and the Prospect Magazine.


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