While Turkey has long been a secular nation seeking to restrict religious and particularly Muslim public influence, recent events have provoked a more activist and populist expression of secularism. The New York Times(May 6) reports that the candidacy of Abdullah Gul, a Muslim, has inflamed secularist fears of Islamic political influence, leading to massive demonstrations.
The protests were also over proposed constitutional changes which would allow the people, rather than Parliament to elect the president, likely increasing the chances of Gul being elected. The military has stated it would move against the government if religion was allowed to enter too far into politics. At a recent conference at the New School for Social Research, attended by RW, Turkish sociologist Nelufah Gole said that the demonstrations show how secularism has changed.
Rather than the state being the main actor, secularism has permeated the Turkish middle classes (also seen by the fact that the large demonstrations have taken place in more pluralistic Istanbul as well as in the secularist bastion of Ankara). Gole said that such engagement in street politics by the middle classes is new for Turkey, where marginalized groups usually take to the streets.
That the demonstrators display Turkish flags and use nationalist rhetoric, and that the events are organized by women’s groups may result in an unusual “feminine coup,” Gole added. Women (among others) have reacted strongly to the fact that Gul’s wife wears a head scarf. Yet Gul’s move through the political ranks (and his moderate views) may ultimately show the upward mobility of Muslim Turks, as many have transformed themselves from “Islamists to conservative democrats,” Gole concluded.