Overplaying religion in Turkey's elections

turkish headscarvesReporters have not surprisingly played up the religious aspect of Turkey's elections this past weekend. While religion has no doubt played a significant part in bringing the country to early elections and will be a big factor in voters' decision-making, there are other aspects of the story that reporters risk missing if religion is all they focus on. If you read The Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer, you would think the battle was all about the cosmetics:

ISTANBUL -- It's the head scarf, stupid.

But that is a bit imprecise. Yes, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nomination of Abdullah Gul as president caused outrage among the country's secularists because his wife is known to wear a headscarf (leopard-print styles are in her wardrobe). But there is more that concerns the secularists in Turkey than just outward appearances. They are concerned about a general drift toward an Islamic state and the restrictions on personal liberty that drift could entail.

The government's education minister, Huseyin Celik, is known for inserting creationism in the country's textbooks and for hiring teachers who graduated from clerical schools. In 2005 Erdogan tried unsuccessfully to outlaw adultery. None of this makes secularists very happy.

The more general headline on a story by the Los Angeles Times' Laura King -- "Religion at heart of Turkish vote" -- captures the matter a bit more accurately, but it still doesn't capture the whole story. Here is the story's second paragraph:

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, is "just too Muslim, too radical," said Reha Guner, drinking tea in a cafe just off a crowded beach where European tourists sunbathed topless and beer flowed freely. "They want to hold the country back. That's why these elections are so important."

The idea that the ruling party has held the country back since Erdogan took over in 2003 is simply ridiculous. Turkey has been doing great economically and it's only because of Erdogan's efforts to restrain the influence and power of the military that the country has even been considered by the European Union members as a potential new partner.

Religious issues along with the "e-coup" launched by the military are the driving issues surrounding the reasons for the early election, but by overemphasizing things like headscarves and secularism versus Islam, reporters risk missing more interesting stories.

One of those stories told later in King's piece is that Turkey's secularists tend to be in the ruling classes. The more religious tend to be more middle class. Here's The Economist ($):

Like fellow members of the Cercle d'Orient, her aversion to the Islamists is profoundly snobbish. The real worry is the shift of wealth from an old industrial elite towards a new bourgeoisie made up of pious Anatolian entrepreneurs, who have thrived since AK came to power.

With the final results from Sunday's election tallied, we know that Erdogan "romped" his way to victory, exceeding even his own party's expectations. Erdogan's political mandate has little to do with mandating headscarves (or even allowing them in government buildings) and religious teachers. It has more to do with continuing political reforms that keep the country from joining the European Union.

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