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An election, a million marchers and a mass murder

By Rod Benson - posted Monday, 7 May 2007

Events in the Republic of Turkey have attracted recent media attention. Three events raise important questions for Turkey’s political future, for the small minority of Christians who live and work there, and for every community threatened by radical Islam.

First, Turkey is in the midst of Presidential elections. The nation has been a secular democratic republic since its establishment in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk following the fall of the Ottoman empire.

In recent years Turkey has sought increasing political integration with Western Europe while remaining socially and culturally Islamic. According to government statistics, over 99 per cent of the 70 million people living in Turkey today identify as Muslim, and less than 1 per cent as Christian. Officially Turkey is a secular state, but Islam retains strong popular support, and that support may be taking a radical turn.


In the first round of Presidential elections Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a “former Islamist” from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), narrowly missed being elected to the top job. The AKP dominates the 550-seat parliament but lacks the required two-thirds majority it needs to elect Gul. The opposition boycotted the parliamentary vote on the basis of Gul’s Islamist past.

The Islamist AKP won elections in 2002, but a previous Islamist government was removed by the military in 1997. Following Friday’s vote, the army - always a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics - issued a statement saying it was determined to protect Turkey’s secular political culture and would “take action” if the need arose.

The prospect of Mr Gul becoming head of state has alarmed Turkish secularists who fear the erosion of the strict separation of state and religion, and the creeping of radical Islam into all fields of Turkish life.

Second, The Australian reports that, in response to the political uncertainty, more than a million Turks took part in a mass rally in Istanbul on April 29 in support of secularism and democracy. The demonstration followed a similar march in the capital, Ankara, on April 14 that attracted up to 1.5 million people. This is a sign of a healthy political culture in Turkey. The aim was not to banish religious views from political discourse but to uphold the formal separation of state and religion introduced by Atatürk in the 1920s.

It is almost unthinkable that any politically-motivated crisis would draw such numbers in Australia. What this suggests about the current health of Australia’s political culture is discomforting. It is testament to the current strength of democracy and freedom in Turkey that, despite being an overwhelmingly Muslim country, anti-Islamist demonstrations of such huge size can be held at short notice - and remain peaceful.

One wonders, though, whether the apparent popular support for Western ideals will be sufficient to maintain Turkey’s traditional secularism without military intervention. There have been four military coups in Turkey since 1960. One also wonders how long Turkey’s intellectual leadership will retain its independence in the face of growing pressure from international Islamic interests. Mr Gul remains a devout Muslim, and at the same time a strong advocate of Turkish membership in the decidedly non-religious European Union. Perhaps he and his backers have continental ambitions.


The third Turkey-related event would probably have passed unnoticed unless a friend had sent me an email the other day, drawing attention to the alleged horrific, religiously-based torture and murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey, on April 18 (reported here and elsewhere). The report possessed some of the characteristics of an Internet hoax, but its essence appears genuine. The news of the killings was carried (albeit far more briefly) by the BBC, The Australian, and other media agencies. Ironically, Malatya is the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in May 1981.

The taking of innocent life can never be justified or condoned. But we know the tragic reality of our world. These three murders - premeditated, sadistic and barbaric though they were - pale into statistical and moral insignificance in the face of the mounting death toll from war in Iraq (more than 3,300 combatants and at least tens of thousands of civilians, according to Reuters news agency), the estimated 200,000 dead in Darfur, or the 30,000 children who die every day as a result of extreme poverty.

Yet the tragedy in Malatya highlights the dangerous and unpredictable environment in which many Christian missionaries work today. And the gracious response of the bereaved families serves as a reminder of the radical difference, in practice, between a faith based on love and a religion based on law.

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First published in Soundings, No 57, a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics on May 1, 2007.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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