Events in the Republic of Turkey have attracted recent media attention. Three events raise important questions for Turkey’s political future, for the small minority of Christians who live and work there, and for every community threatened by radical Islam.
First, Turkey is in the midst of presidential elections. The nation has been a secular democratic republic since its establishment in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In recent years Turkey has sought increasing political integration with Western Europe, while remaining socially and culturally Islamic. According to government statistics, over 99 percent of the 70 million people living in Turkey today identify as Muslim, and less than 1 percent as Christian. Officially Turkey is a secular state, but Islam retains strong popular support, and that support may be taking a radical turn.
In the first round of presidential elections on Friday, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a “former Islamist” from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), narrowly missed being elected to the top job. The AKP dominates the 550-seat parliament but lacks the required two-thirds majority it needs to elect Gul. The opposition boycotted the parliamentary vote on the basis of Gul’s Islamist past.
The Islamist AKP won elections in 2002, but a previous Islamist government was removed by the military in 1997. Following Friday’s vote, the army–always a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics–issued a statement saying it was determined to protect Turkey’s secular political culture and would “take action” if the need arose.
The prospect of Gul becoming head of state has alarmed Turkish secularists, who fear the erosion of the strict separation of state and religion, and the creeping of radical Islam into all fields of Turkish life.
Second, The Australian reports, in response to the political uncertainty, more than a million Turks took part in a mass rally in Istanbul on Sunday in support of secularism and democracy. The demonstration followed a similar march in the capital, Ankara, on April 14 that attracted up to 1.5 million people. This is a sign of a healthy political culture in Turkey. The aim was not to banish religious views from political discourse but to uphold the formal separation of state and religion introduced by AtatÃ¼rk in the 1920s.
It is almost unthinkable that any politically motivated crisis would draw such numbers in Australia. What this suggests about the current health of Australia’s political culture is discomforting. It is testament to the current strength of democracy and freedom in Turkey that, despite being an overwhelmingly Muslim country, anti-Islamist demonstrations of such huge size can be held at short notice, and remain peaceful.
One wonders, though, whether the apparent popular support for Western ideals will be sufficient to maintain Turkey’s traditional secularism without military intervention. So far there have been three military coups in Turkey.
One also wonders how long Turkey’s intellectual leadership will retain its independence in the face of growing pressure from international Islamic interests. Gul remains a devout Muslim, and, at the same time, a strong advocate of Turkish membership in the decidedly non-religious European Union. Perhaps he and his backers have continental ambitions.
The third Turkey-related event would probably have passed unnoticed unless a friend had sent me an e-mail the other day, drawing attention to the alleged horrific, religiously-based torture and murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey, on April 18.
The report possessed some of the characteristics of an Internet hoax, but its essence appears genuine. The news of the killings was carried (albeit far more briefly) by the BBC, The Australian, and other media agencies.
Ironically, Malatya is the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in May 1981.
The taking of innocent life can never be justified or condoned. But we know the tragic reality of our world. These three murders–premeditated, sadistic and barbaric though they were–pale into statistical and moral insignificance in the face of the mounting death toll from war in Iraq (more than 3,300 combatants and at least tens of thousands of civilians, according to Reuters news agency), the estimated 200,000 dead in Darfur, or the 30,000 children who die every day as a result of extreme poverty.
Yet the tragedy in Malatya highlights the dangerous and unpredictable environment in which many Christian missionaries work today. And the gracious response of the bereaved families serves as a reminder of the radical difference, in practice, between a faith based on love and a religion based on law.
True, there are fundamentalists on both sides of the divide, and there is the historical embarrassment of the Crusades and other low points of Christian history. But I cannot imagine that a genuine, sane follower of Jesus would ever be driven to killing strangers in cold blood on the basis of religious convictions.
At its heart Islam is ambivalent about the advocacy of violence toward “infidels.” And there is the disputed matter of the Muslim doctrine of abrogation, whereby early pacifist passages in the Koran, written while Mohammed lived in Mecca, are nullified or reinterpreted by later passages advocating violence, written during his residency in Medina. Scholars and others selectively apply abrogation to suit their audience and politics.
When Islamists gain political power in the West, and incrementalism and abrogation are no longer necessary, it will be too late: everyone loses–especially Christians and women, but also capitalism, democracy, justice and peace.
What then can we do? Review our own spiritual convictions and confessions. Develop a more informed interest in the wider world, especially geography and politics (for example, try this or this). Take a more activist role in our own political institutions. Talk to Muslims in our workplace and community. Be alert to the danger of creeping Islamism. And pray for the people of Turkey.
Reviewing the fate of the church in Turkey in 2004 for Christianity Today, Collin Hansen concluded:
“The state of the contemporary church in Turkey, home to so many seminal moments in Christian history, looks bleak for now. Perhaps integration into the European Union will galvanize the small Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul and allow the Turkish government to honestly examine the grizzly fate of the Armenians. Hopefully the spread of religious freedom there will ease hostility toward missionaries and converts from Islam to Christianity. Regardless, we should heed the warnings of history—beware the dangers of political infighting between Christians with earthly interests at heart, and never underestimate the seriousness of Islamic jihad.”
Time will tell what political and religious changes sweep through Turkey. Recent events are alarming and the immediate future does look potentially bleak. Still, on the whole, Turkey has for many years managed to forge a workable partnership between Western-style democracy and Islamic culture, and the rest of the world can learn much from that achievement.
Rod Benson is founding director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, Australia.