When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey, it was anything but clear that he would last more than a few months. The military, the constitutional guardian of Atatürk’s secular order, had killed the Islamist administration of Erdogan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, only a few years earlier. At the time, Erdogan was jailed for several months as a seditionist. Though he was nonetheless permitted to assume the prime minister’s office in 2003 after leading his Islamist party to victory, the man who famously proclaimed “I am a servant of sharia” still aroused great suspicion.
To survive and thrive, Erdogan would have to find ways to erode and nullify his Kemalist opponents. Thanks to Europe, he had cards to play.
It had long been a Kemalist dream to integrate Turkey fully into the West. The leaders of the secular order it was Erdogan’s goal to supplant craved acceptance into the European Union. Ingeniously, Erdogan grasped the brute truth: Turkey would never in a million years be admitted into the EU; Europe’s leaders would never tolerate it.
Of course, to say this aloud would be so déclassé, so downright Islamophobic, that the French and Germans would rather be caught sipping California wine. So rather than be forthright, they have constructed for Turkey an open-ended European-integration “process” — and is there anything transnational progressives love more than a “process”? This one is a limitless series of hoops for the Turks to jump through, at the end of which rainbow Ankara will be admitted to the club . . . probably right around the time hell freezes over or the euro becomes the world’s reserve currency.
Like all Islamists, Erdogan has contempt for Europe and the West. The objective of Muslim supremacists is to dominate and Islamize them, not emulate them. Yet the prime minister is artfully resourceful enough to exploit to his advantage the Kemalist dream of European integration and Europe’s responsive gamesmanship. For among the steps Turkey must theoretically climb on the ladder to Euro-worthiness are religious liberty, the separation of religion and the state, and civilian control of the military. As Erdogan saw, the EU-integration process was the surest way to cow the generals into accepting elected Islamists and to break secularist constraints on Islamic supremacism.
In their obsession over not being seen as Islamophobic, in their purblind insistence that aggressive supremacism is not the nature of mainstream Islam, European elites assume that they know Islam better than did such Muslim giants as Atatürk and his contemporary, Hassan al-Banna — the Muslim Brotherhood founder who notoriously wrote that “it is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated” and that Islam sought “to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
It is an unremitting fact that mainstream Middle Eastern Islam is totalitarianism packaged as “religion.” To be sure, critics of Islam can go too far with this point. It is wrong to say, as some do, that Islam is not a religion. The doctrine has a number of spiritual principles — the oneness of Allah, to take a prominent example. There are, moreover, interpretations of Islam that focus only on its spiritual and mystical elements. If such interpretations were dominant, Islam would be of no more moment to us than it would if it were true, as the fiction holds, that Islam is a “religion of peace” that has been “hijacked” by “radicals.”
But the fact is that Islamic supremacism is the preponderant Islam of the Middle East. Yes, it is a religion, but it aspires to be so much more: to control every aspect of life, to impose sharia’s political, social, and economic strictures on civil society. Therefore, the guidelines for religions that pose no threat to free societies cannot be applied to Middle Eastern Islam without putting liberty in grave jeopardy.
In a truly free society, religious liberty is a bedrock. It must be safeguarded from governmental incursions. If, say, the Chinese Communists cared about such things (they don’t), it would make perfect sense to preclude them from integration with Europe until they ceased repressing religion (among other things). And we would have no hesitation about saying so, because Chinese totalitarianism is perceived as a political ideology, not a “religion.” Yet an Islamic society is not free precisely because of its religion — or, to put a finer point on it, because of its dictatorial sharia system, which we inaccurately describe as a mere “religion” due to the spiritual components that adorn its thoroughgoing regulation of non-spiritual life.
I hasten to add that it is no insult to call sharia a “dictatorial” and “totalitarian” system. Devout Muslims believe Allah, omnipotent and omniscient, has ordained sharia as the template for virtuous human life — every detail of that life. In their view, it is profoundly offensive for His creation, to whom He has deigned to give this gift, to disobey. One need not be a believer to understand why sharia-adherent Muslims believe we must all submit. To grasp this, however, is to understand that liberty and sharia cannot share the same space.
In Turkey, the administrators of the Kemalist governmental model — comprising Muslims who understood Islam intimately — suppressed Islam not to deny freedom of conscience but to enable it. They were trying to forge exactly the sort of secular civil society Europeans revere. They knew it could not coexist with sharia. Thus, the government assumed supervision of the country’s 80,000 mosques, vetted the imams, controlled the content of sermons and literature, and aggressively monitored the Islamic charities. The Muslims running the state realized that Islam would inevitably work against secular civil society if left to its own devices.
The Kemalists’ rationale for making the armed forces the secular order’s guarantor was not a desire that Turkey be a police state. To the contrary, on the occasions when it has intervened, the Turkish military has hastened to return power to civilian authorities. None less than the New York Times — which, flush with the “spring fever,” hallucinates elections into democracy, and scoffs at the crazy idea that an elected Islamist government just might be more repressive than a military dictatorship — concedes that the army’s 1980 coup was a boon for freer government. The generals were keen to withdraw rapidly from politics and imposed a constitution that, while maintaining the military’s guardianship role, enabled the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics and “allowed civilian institutions to bloom.”
The Turkish military was given an ultimate constitutional check for the same reason that, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, Western governments maintain the capacity to impose martial law (albeit under civilian direction) in dire circumstances. There are times when existential threats to the governing system can be defeated only by military means. The War of 1812 and the American Civil War, during both of which martial law was widely imposed, spring to mind. So does the bloody history of Europe.
The difference between the government of Turkey and that of the United States is that the former is trying to cultivate freedom in an Islamic setting, not preserve freedom in a preexisting culture of liberty. In a mainstream-Islamic society, the threat of reversion to a freedom-devouring sharia societal system always looms.
Kemalist Muslims wanted a flourishing civil society but realized they could not keep one unless Islam’s supremacist proclivities were permanently checked. Though very far from perfect, they were trying to establish a prosperous, Western-style nation-state. The Kemalists, unlike sharia adherents, never sought to strangle freedom of conscience. There was never any prohibition on being a Muslim, believing in Islam, or privately adhering to Islam’s spiritual elements. It was Islam’s extra-spiritual aspects — political, social, economic, military, etc. — that were the problem. Without the military as a bulwark against Islamic supremacism, freedom of conscience and liberty in general would be doomed.
This is common sense. It is easily verifiable. Still, Europe will have none of it. It discomfits the conceit that, Islam or no Islam, history marches inexorably toward universal adoption of the Continent’s humanist ideal. If the matter were not so serious, it might be tempting to laugh off Europe’s hypocrisy: Turkey, of course, is not welcome in the EU precisely because European elites are well aware that Islamic culture is different from Western culture. And, as for Europe’s end-of-history pretensions, it is far more likely that France and Germany will be conclusively dhimmified than that Turkey will be conclusively Westernized.
All that said, though, the Europeans continue to make believe Turkey will someday be invited to a place at the adults’ table if it just addresses a few outdated flaws. Thus Erdogan continues to leverage this European pressure for Turkish reform because it serves the Islamist cause of weakening the Turkish military and breaking Atatürk’s shackles on supremacist Islam — all under the ironic guise of promoting “religious liberty.”
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. This column is adapted from his latest book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which was recently published by Encounter books.