Democracy and Moderation in an Islamic Society: The Case of Turkey
Binnaz Toprak, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey, discussed the compatibility of Islam with democracy. She noted that fundamentalists of all religions, including Christianity and Judaism, are equally a threat to a liberal, pluralist democracy. She described liberal democracy as encompassing the freedom to choose both political leaders and one's life style. The freedom to choose, she said, is a problem in Islam, especially for gender issues such as the status of women's rights over their own body with relation to contraception, abortion and the choosing of a partner.
The main question, she argued, is not whether Islam is compatible with democracy but whether it is compatible with secularization. Toprak stated that secularization is a precondition of democracy, though it is not a sufficient condition, and democracy is a precondition for moderate politics.
Toprak reviewed Turkey's recent political history to conclude that while most Muslim countries are not democratic, Turkey possesses an unusual commitment to both secularization and democracy. Turkey turned to democratic politics and a multi-party system in the mid 1940s as a precondition for entering the United Nations. Its Islamic parties have learned since that in order to win elections, deliver economically, and avoid a repeat of a "civilian coup d'etat," moderate consensus politics are required.
In a 1999 survey she conducted with a colleague, Toprak found that 79% of those polled applauded secular reforms. While 21.2% responded they would like a state based on Islamic, or Shari'a law, the figure dropped to around 10% when the respondents were presented with specifics such as the right of men to polygamy and the lack of women's equal rights to inherit or to initiate divorce.
Speaking about the current Justice and Development Party in power, whose top people such as Prime Minister Erdogan have largely broken with the more extreme movement of former Prime Minister Erbakan. Toprak noted she is impressed with the JDP's liberal democratic programs that address human and women's rights, the redefinition of secularism, and their stand on potential membership in the European Union.