Turkey’s referendum may affect future of Islamic world

By Zhang Yi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/16 23:28:39

Turks went to the polls on Sunday to choose between the parliamentary system which they have lived under for almost a century and a presidential system that would put all executive power in the hands of their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While media attention is focused on the political pathway of the president, there is something more at stake.

Turkey is a constitutionally secular state, though one with 99 percent Muslims. It was once the seat of an Islamic empire, and experts believe that Turkish unity has rested upon Islam as a unifying factor.

Nonetheless, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923, created a democratic and secular state, which was later aligned with Kemalism.

Kemalism has had a wide-ranging and long-term impact on Turkish society in terms of the country's secularization struggle, the process of which is characterized by the separation of Islamism and governance. But Erdogan's ascendancy in Turkish political life has steered the wheel in another direction.

Given the Islamic root of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), throughout his tenure as prime minister and now as president, Erdogan has distanced himself from Ataturk and is reintroducing "an overt Islamic discourse" into the country's public and political life.

In 2013 and 2014, the state budget caused quite a stir as the appropriation for the Diyanet, or Directorate for Religious Affairs, turned out to be the most generous, larger than many other ministries. Apparently, the AKP-led government is boosting Islam.

The see-saw balance between the country's Islamic conservatives and secular forces has marked Turkey's history of development for years. But meanwhile, it can be exploited by radical Islamists to make Turkey the center of Islam again, as it was the center of the last great Islamic empire of the Ottomans.

This identity of Turkey means that it could provide shelter for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim separatist and terror group founded by militant Uyghurs. ETIM's presence in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and beyond has been a major source of concern to China.

As ETIM views Turkey as a possible shelter, the Turkish government's attitude toward the group is believed to be ambiguous, as ETIM separatists are able to use Turkey as a transit center to enter Europe. Early this year, an Istanbul nightclub attack was believed to be linked to ETIM members.

Turkey's secularization process is important, particularly when it comes to counter-terrorism efforts with China.

It is hoped that Erdogan and his government will address China's concerns and promote bilateral cooperation in this regard, as cracking down on international terrorist activities also fits the development trajectory of the Middle East.

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