America, Turkey and the 'Moderate Islamic Republic'

March 9, 2009
In a post from this past Saturday on Hillary Clinton's appearance on an evening talk show in Turkey, I mentioned that the first query posed to the American Secretary of State had been a bit of a trick question: does America see Turkey as a "moderate Islamic republic?"

Clinton visiting Ataturk mausoleum
The question may sound innocuous enough. Many Americans don't make a distinction between the terms "Muslim" and "Islamic," even though they should. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, but it is not an "Islamic" country. Iran calls itself the "Islamic Republic" because its system of government is based in part upon an interpretation of Islam. Turkey, which is a "secular" (actually laicist) country, is not "Islamic." 

In an interview with Maybrit Illner on the German televsion station ZDF in March of 2004, Colin Powell described Turkey as a "moderate Islamic republic."

MS. ILLNER: The question is remaining, has America lost the war? Because after free elections, and there will be free elections in Iraq, there will be an Islamic republic. There will be the role of the Mullahs.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, there will be an Islamic republic, as there are other Islamic republics-Turkey and Pakistan. But it will be within a constitutional framework and Sharia law, Koranic law, will only be one source of basis for the law.

And so we expect that it will be a democratic country that will be an Islamic state because that is the basic religion within the country. But there is no reason that Islam cannot coexist with democracy. That is a judgment we don't hold. Why shouldn't an Islamic country, such as Turkey, also be a democracy as is Turkey?

When you think about it, it's pretty amazing. Here was the American Secretary of State, our country's chief diplomat, calling for the establishment of an "Islamic republic" in Iraq. Not only that, he was also calling Turkey an Islamic Republic!
Did these comments represent an actual commitment on the part of the Bush administration to transform Iraq into an Islamic republic? Of course not. In his answer, Powell says that Iraq "will be an Islamic state because that is the basic religion within the country." It seems to me that he's saying here that, since the majority of the population of the country is Muslim, it is an "Islamic state." The fact that he describes Turkey as an "Islamic state" also seems to indicate that the term "Islamic state" means, for him, "a state where the majority of the population is Muslim." 

Frankly, though, I find it incredible that the American Secretary of State in 2004--after we had been occupying Afghanistan for two and a half years and Iraq for more than one year--could be so ignorant of basic terminology that he could make a mistake like this. 
In Turkey, too, many people found this incredible, and therefore took Colin Powell at his word. The story of American support for Turkey's development into a "moderate Islamic republic" received enormous play in Turkish newspapers and chatrooms. When the governing AK Party was put on trial last year and threatened with closure, one of the charges against it was that, because of the policies of Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey was now perceived internationally as a "moderate Islamic republic." 

And in this way, it also became the received wisdom here that America was attempting to transform Turkey into a "moderate Islamic republic." The thinking was that the United States government supported the AK Party, and in general wanted to enhance the role of Islam in the political life of Turkey as a means of staving off Islamic radicalism--a viewpoint that American observers deride as simply "irrational."

And I guess it is tempting to just write off certain ideas that some people hold here as crazy or paranoid. When I was living here in the 1990s, for example, many of my Turkish friends told me straight out that they believed the US government was financing the PKK and had financed ASELA (an Armenian group which had assassinated several Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s). Why, I asked, would the United States seek to destabilize a front-line NATO partner during the height of the Cold War? Nothing takes place in Turkey without American knowledge and cooperation, they argued.

But while I don't believe the CIA funded the PKK or ASELA, I still think it's important to try to see where people are coming from. After all, Turkey carries a historical legacy of incredibly high level of foreign interference. The US, meanwhile, is famous for intervening in the internal affairs of lots of countries. My argument during these discussions was never that the US is incapable of doing such things--the US does stuff like this all the time. Nor was I arguing that foreign states might not be supporting these groups. Rather, my point was that, at least in this cases, it didn't make much strategic sense for the US to be doing this stuff.

But I'm not really sure I can make this argument with respect to supposed American plans to support "moderate Islam" in Turkey and elsewhere. Indeed, as far as Powell's comments are concerned, my sense is that he didn't simply misspeak, but rather that he was getting his talking points fouled up. For, while the United States under Bush most certainly did not wish to establish an "Islamic republic" in Iraq or anywhere else, it is also true that--in the months and years which followed the September 11th attacks--neocons in Washington had "moderate Islam" on the brain. The credo, as people like Daniel Pipes [appointed by Bush to the board of the US Institute of Peace in 2003] articulated it, was that "militant Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution."

Hey, I'm in favor of moderation over militancy as much as anybody else. The problem I have with this approach, however, is that a) it views events like September 11 solely within the context of the internal contradictions within what is perceived to be an essentially dysfunctional Islamic political and sociological culture, rather than as something that we ourselves have contributed to, and b) this approach tends to advocate greater American involvement--in the form of support for "moderates"--in the affairs of Muslim communities outside the United States.

Consider, for example, the 2005 testimony of Zeyno Baran, who was then associated with the Nixon Center, to the House committee on International Relations. Baran argued that US policy towards Turkey during the run-up to the Iraq War [which included the refusal of the Turkish parliament to allow the US to invade Iraq from Turkish soil] had failed because the US and Turkey had been unable to find "a common language in which to promote the moderate Islamic values and traditions necessary as an alternative to the radical Islamist ideology." While Baran noted that  "incidences in which senior United States officials have misspoken, with one labeling Turkey an Islamic Republic" had created suspicions in Turkey regarding the motivations of American policies, she still favored the policy of "promoting Turkey as a country with moderate Islamic traditions." 

In my opinion, the United States government should stay out of the business of "promoting" any particular kind of inclination towards religion--be it secular, moderately Islamic, or radical--in Turkey or anywhere else. American administrations will adopt, of course, policies towards Turkey based, at least in part, upon the actions of the Turkish government. But advocating, either openly or covertly, any particular side in this argument is, I think, a very bad idea.

That's why I was glad to see Hillary do such a good job of answering the question regarding America's view of Turkey as a "moderate Islamic republic." Hillary's answer was that there's a place in Turkey for modernization, democracy, secularism, and Islam. It wasn't the most inspired speech, but it was one that a least demonstrated a tacit recognition of the debates taking place in Turkey relating to the place of "Islam" in politics and the public sphere. It was an answer that seemed to recognize some of the specific issues taking place in Turkey, rather than one which saw Turkey as just one of many "Islamic" countries in the world whose "moderates" [for every Muslim, it seems, is either a "moderate" or an "extremist"] need to be found and cultivated.
I'm not sure that Clinton was necessarily aware of the full implications of this question, which was discussed thoroughly in the Turkish media on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but for the sake of US-Turkish relations I sure hope that she was.

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