In Turkey, Can Islam and Democracy Coexist?

The complexities of Islam in the modern world cannot be regulated by Western-style democracy or military intervention.

For over a thousand years, Istanbul (then Constantinople or New Rome) was the capital of the Christian Roman Empire. For nearly 600 years, it was the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Today it remains on the cusp of continents and may well hold the key to stability in the Middle East.

As virtual dictatorships throughout the Arab world crumble – Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria – America has learned a costly lesson. The Islamic reality of the Middle East is neither monolithic nor predictable. The complexities of Islam in the modern world and the currents of fanaticism and radicalism cannot be regulated by Western-style democracy or military intervention.

However, there is one country in the Islamic world where the democratic formula seemingly works: Turkey. The past 30 years have seen Turkey evolve from a secular military sovereignty into the first truly possible Islamic democracy. The man behind this evolution is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and now is his moment. Erdogan has successfully re-introduced Muslim traditions into Turkish society without breaching utterly the Kemalist levee – the principles upon which Turkey was founded. But in order to succeed in promoting democracy, he must embrace the very core of democratic values, which includes the protection of minority rights.

Turkey can no longer afford to treat its religious minorities – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Alevi Muslims, Armenians, Syriacs and Orthodox Christians – as second-class citizens. The Turkish government, and its Islamic majority, must recognize the legal status of these communities. Especially critical regarding the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the first See of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, Turkey must reopen the Halki Seminary, which was forcibly closed more than 40 years ago. Halki has become the rallying cry for religious freedom in the region.

In his address to the Turkish Parliament in 2009, President Obama called for the reopening of the Halki Seminary. Like many other American politicians, including Congressman Gus M. Bilirakis who is holding a Capitol Hill briefing this week highlighting the significance of the Halki Seminary to the Orthodox Christian faith, President Obama recognizes the critical importance of reopening the Seminary in improving religious freedom in the region.

If democracy is to succeed in the Islamic world, it must succeed in Turkey. Most assessments of the trajectory of the ‘Arab Spring’ project a dire outcome. Either we face more of the same militaristic tyranny, or worse – chaos. Both scenarios  do nothing to help the prospects of an abiding solution for the Palestinian people or a lasting peace with Israel. Compounding this pessimistic scenario is the ever-quickening pace of the exodus of Christian minorities from the Middle East. The largest Christian population is in Egypt, where violence against the Coptic minority is on the rise. Syria has the second largest, and the kidnapping earlier this year of the two leading Christian leaders of Allepo, Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox faiths, lingers without any sign of life.

The exodus of Christians from the Middle East should be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for all parties. Here in the United States, Muslim minorities remind all Americans of the principle of our Bill of Rights and freedom of conscience. When a figure of no repute threatens to burn a Koran, the nation is galvanized, generals implore, and even a president apologizes. However, when villages in Syria, where Christians have lived in peace for 2000 years, are pillaged and Christians murdered and raped, the silence from the historic Islamic world is deafening.

Religious freedom is more than Turkey’s bridge to the European Union. It is the bridge between East and West, between the best of the Ummah, the community of believers, and the democratic tradition in action, where the rights of all those who inhabit the same space and culture are embraced and protected.

Istanbul has always been the cusp of East and West, the crossroad. It is where Mr. Erdogan began his life and his political career. It can also be where he chooses to lead a true Islamic evolution to democracy. If he chooses wisely, the entire Middle East may yet be transformed beyond the mire of violence and stranglehold of tribalism that threatens not only the weak, but also those who consider themselves powerful today.

Indeed, if Mr. Erdogan begins by reopening by the Halki Seminary, he may even be worthy of the Peace Prize that so many covet, but so very few ever exemplify.

Image courtesy of Emmanuel Dyan.

Written by

  • Sophia Simillides Cotzia

    The authors may be confused about what makes one eligible for a Nobel Peace Prize. According to Nobel’s will the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

    An autocrat like Erdogan – who matches his 4 decade illegal closure of Halki with a 4 decade occupation of Cyprus – is more eligible for war crimes indictments than for Peace Prizes.

    Indeed, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan still continues severe violation of human rights despite its claims about respecting democracy and freedom of expression, as reported by Turkish media.

    This reads as nothing more than stroking for the agenda of the authors.

  • Jenny Moreno Stuart

    Turkey… democracy? Of course not.

    It can’t even face its history regarding the Armenian genocide and it continues to occupy Armenian land it seized at that time.

    In a democracy, justice is a core value. Turkey, on the other hand, obviously has no interest in a just society.

  • Ioni Gliati

    Religious freedom – and all freedoms – suffer in Turkey under Erdogan. To argue that Turkey is some kind of democratic model is just not true. Opening Halki will not grant the Orthodox Church legal personality, nor will it return all the properties that the Turkish state illegally confiscated. It will not hide the fact that Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world. It will not all of a sudden give Erdogan a better record on women’s rights, nor will it all of a sudden make him stop being a genocide denier.

    Opening Halki is something that Erdogan can do – and he should be shunned by the rest of the civilized world until he does do it. But doing so doesn’t bring him anywhere near a Peace Prize or a truly democratic Turkey.

  • SalesA1

    Armenians are not the only indigenous people of Anatolia/Turkey to be persecuted. Assyrians, Pontic Greeks, Kurds, Greeks, etc., the list is so dam long it is embarassing to Turkish people who chose to deny the undeniable rather than own up to their horrid past of the “sick man of Europe”= The Republic of Turkey. Being accountable is the first step to being democratic, denialists are cowards that will never be accepted in the world for their memory loss of history. The stain that tarnishes the Republic of Turkey remains until lthey are brave enough to admit to their horrific past of the ottoman empire and it’s many crimes against Eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern Muslims (not Turkified enough) and Northern Africans all abused by the Sword of the Ottoman.

  • Tasos Zambas

    The must be joking!!
    No Nobel Peace Prize until Erdogan removes occupation troops from Cyprus. No Nobel Peace Prize until Erdogan stops threatening the use of force against Greece and Israel. No Nobel Peace Prize until Erdogan stow crucifying the leader of the world’s second largest Christian Church.

  • Yianni Konstantinou

    Democracy can’t be established and religious freedom can’t be protected by playing small ball.

    Opening Halki is the least Erdogan can do to show he is even semi-serious about minority rights and democracy. The sad truth the authors don’t touch on is that Erdogan can open Halki and STILL wipe out Christianity in Turkey.

    This is not the time to try to promise Erdogan a chance at a Peace Prize, but a guarantee of international isolation if he keeps his religious oppression up.

  • Hovsep Osik Movsessian

    In Turkey, can Islam, democracy, and Kurds coexist?

  • Dimitri P. Eliopoulos

    The authors are right that the treatment of Christians in the Middle East is the “canary in the coal mine.” Unfortunately, not enough was done to call Turkey on this behavior – not during the genocides of the early 20th century, the pogroms against Christians in the 1950’s, not during the illegal closing of Halki over the past four decades.

    Now Turkey has gone on to jailing journalists, bringing back anti-Semitism, and openly taunt Christianity by backtracking on promises and raising obstacles at every turn for full religious freedom. The call must be for more than the opening of Halki, but for full religious freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Anything less is unworthy of even the broadest definition of democracy.

  • Landos

    Trying to entice Tayyip Erdogan to do the right thing regarding minority religious rights by holding out the possibility of a Nobel Peace Prize is wasted effort. Erdogan is a religious bigot towards Christianity/Judaism and other Faiths, besides Sunni Islam. He’s demonstrated that many, many times.

    He despises the west and the ethical foundations of our society. There is only one thing he respects-forceful US policy. American support for the removal from office of Egypt’s Islamic President Morsi got his attention. Similar US support for the rights of Turkey’s ethnic/religious minorities is absolutely needed.

    America has coddled Turkey and it’s AKP regime for many years, ostensibly because Turkey is ‘important’ to US policy in the region. Turkey’s recent behavior shows they’re an unreliable ally and don’t share the respect for human rights that the west promotes. It is long past time to start making demands of Turkey, we’ve done enough for them. Far too much, in fact.

  • frednordblo1

    The author is the commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate! When I saw this I was floored. The key mission of an Archon is to promote the religious freedom, wellbeing and advancement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. If this is the thinking of the defenders of the Patriarchate, then we might as well kiss the institution good bye. Opening Halki is not worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. It is barely a first step. The Archons espouse religious freedom yet are they that blind to see that Erdogan is playing them. Even if by some miraculous reason, Erdogan decides to open the seminary tomorrow, he will, in his usual megalomaniacal way, claim such magnanimity toward his Christian “subjects” and the Archons will praise him for it, YET the Patriarch still has no legal status, will not be recognized as anything more than a municipal employee of Istanbul, and the not-so-subtle attacks on anything Christian remaining in the country will continue. I feel sorry for Bartholomew.

  • Alexander Sotiropoulos

    “Indeed, if Mr. Erdogan begins by reopening by the Halki Seminary, he may even be worthy of the Peace Prize that so many covet, but so very few ever exemplify.”

    Erdogan is probably the farthest away from garnering a Nobel Peace Prize than any other leader. He has exemplified time and time again that he does not care about human rights. Do the authors of this article remember the Gezi Park protests? How about the incarceration of journalists that write opinions against Erdogan’s?

    Most importantly, on the topic of religious freedom, the Turkish government has converted many former churches into mosques and illegally seized Orthodox Christian properties. Certainly, reopening Halki is a step in the right direction, but we cannot praise Erdogan for doing something that should have been done long ago.

  • Fotios Zemenides

    If the authors are so desperate for peace with Erdogan, they should be honest
    about the preconditions for it (inspired by King Theoden in “Return of the

    “We shall have peace. We shall have peace when you answer for the genocide of
    millions of Christians – Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks. When the lives of missing
    Greek Cypriots, whose bodies you still deny their families, are given Christian
    burials! When your imperial and autocratic ambition hangs from a gibbet, for the
    sport of your own crows, we shall have peace.

    We will have peace, when your occupation army and oppression of Christianity
    have ceased-and the works of your new Ottoman Sultanate to whom you would
    deliver us. You are a liar, Erdogan, and corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out
    your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of evil.”

  • ctanyol

    Aaa I always love seeing the clueless Greek and Armenian Americans and their comments here.

    Yes we suffer under Erdogan. We all do.

    However, do you understand that your petty requests about minority rights are so out of touch?

    Yes minority rights should be improved. Yes there has to be something done to make peace with the Armenians. (If the Armenians ever become a rational democratic country that is. Wait the diaspora will make sure that never happens.)

    Turkey’s problems are much deeper rooted. There needs to be an overhaul of democratic values and structures. When that happens the claims for the less than 100K Armenians and a few thousand Greeks will become important.

    BTW many Greeks are moving to Istanbul in the past few years. Believe it or not they can pray openly in Orthodox churches.

    Are there any mosques in Athens??? No. And there are far more Muslims in Greece than there are Greeks in Turkey.

    So take a look at your racism and petty diaspora minds, get out of your cocoon and if you like add to the discussion about democracy from a wider angle.

  • Endy Zemenides

    The apologists for oppression always get sensitive when their heroes get criticized.

    Erdogan apologists also have the common trait of changing the subject and misleading their readers (just as in the case above). So, let’s be clear – the official Muslim minority in Greece (in Thrace) has mosques, unfettered freedom to pray, representation in the Greek parliament, religious schools and has grown in number. The issue of the mosque in Athens is a common canard used by those who wish to justify their oppression of religious minorities, but the truth is that Muslims in Athens (whose population growth is very recent) have been granted free license to use multiple facilities for prayer (including open air stadium) as a mosque is being developed. The Greek state – whose budget has been cut to the bone, has dedicated land for the mosque, set aside funds for it, and is completing plans.

    So easy with the lies and misdirection. You are defending a state that has been classified by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as one of the worst 16 violators of religious rights, who has lost multiple European Court of Human Rights cases on religious rights, and has been criticized by every single relevant human rights organizations/commission/congressional caucus on the subject.

  • ctanyol

    Haha you don’t know anything about me. I got nicely gassed in Istanbul this past summer. My friends were jailed.

    I have no respect for Turkish government or state left.

    However, the issue of religious minority rights is overplayed.

    The EU instead of talking about workers’ rights, lack of freedom of speech etc. keeps bringing up religious rights… Seriously is this the biggest problem in Turkey? Or is it the same racist European attitude that only cares about what is going on with their dear old Greeks?

    BTW. I love Greece and Greeks. I am much less impressed by Greek-Americans however. They are out of touch.

  • Landos

    So Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has gone on record-all Turkey’s PM Erdogan needs to do to earn a ‘Nobel Peach Prize’ is start abiding by the terms of the Lausanne Treaty. That which Turkey SHOULD have been doing anyway, as a signatory of that Treaty.

    How utterly appalling. Mr. Limberakis needs to ask forgiveness from the Greek community for selling our interests off so cheaply. This is an example of why we can’t get anything done, we have Greek community leaders with no sense of proportion or any sense of vision for our interests.

  • Jonathan Vasdekas

    It is unfortunate that the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are in such a position to praise Turkish officials. The Archons and the Ecumenical Patriarch are hostages of the Turkish regime and have few options but to coo and pander to the oppressive regime which the Patriarch must live and operate under, or else they will suffer unfathomable consequences. If the Archons were to publicly enumerate all of the human rights violations that have occurred in Turkey, could sit here until tomorrow as the violations extend much further than religious freedoms, but the Patriarch may not last until then. Many other commenters here seem to properly list the violations of the Turkish regime. Human rights is not an issue where we – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, everyone – can be divided on. We must bring more attention to the real plight and situation of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archons.

  • Endy Zemenides

    If you only knew how many Thanksgivings were ruined because Greek Americans found out they don’t have your approval.

    Your cute line about liking Greeks (as an attempt to justify all your malarkey) notwithstanding, the pursuit of full democracy and protection of minority rights are not mutually exclusive, and in fact both have to be achieved for either to be in effect.

    Throughout history, the oppression of minorities — starting with religious minorities — has been the precursor of more oppression. That is exactly what is happening in Turkey right now.

    As for your charges of “racism” or caring only about our “dear old Greeks”, these charges emphasize that your are not even half as clever as you hold yourself out to be — and perhaps your reading ability is challenged. The article was about Halki, so the responses are naturally about religious freedom.

    If you would like a broader discussion, we can certainly have it. The jailing of journalists, the status of women’s rights, and the AKP’s definition of democracy as majoritarianism are as great a threat to regional stability and the development of democracy in the Middle East as anything else.

    The protests this summer prove that there are democratic forces within Turkey that can help overcome illiberal trends in the region, and the Western world has a lot to answer for in alternating between autocrats (whether Kemalist or AKP).

    Having said all that, your declaration that “the issue of religious minority rights is overplayed” is absurd on its face. Every Middle Eastern country that has oppressed religious rights (and rid itself of religious minorities) has become overall more oppressive, more fundamentalist, and less democratic.

  • Landos

    I think you’re confusing Mr. ctanyol with your logical arguments, Endy Zemenides. Apparently he’d rather redirect the discussion into name-calling and hyperbole.

    Oppression of minority Faith’s in Turkey began before 1900, but really escalated with the rise of the Young Turk movement around 1915. The ‘secularism’ many Turks boast of and proclaim didn’t extend to granting equal rights to ethnic Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians and other non-Sunni Moslems. On the contrary, the fall of the Ottoman empire and rise of the Young Turks initiated extensive Pogroms, massacres, forced emigration, punitive taxation and many other forms of persecution against Christian minority groups. Erdogan’s current policy of ignoring the Lausanne Treaty and denying basic human rights to the Orthodox Church is a direct extension of past Turkish policies.

  • Jan Fischer

    Don’t be deceived…..Obama and Erdogan are best friends…..they will work together to funnel this whole thing into the UN

    Then they will say “peace, peace” and there is no peace

    Go to David Brennan’s website

  • Jan Fischer

    This is not abuse…it is truth