Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia Are All Slowly Islamizing

Yet, even if alcohol remains readily available in Egypt, that does not mean that the process of Islamizing its political and social institutions has failed. In Turkey, raki, Efes Pilsner, and a few passable varieties of red and white wines are plentiful. In fact, the wine bar has become a bit of a thing in Istanbul these days. Even so, one of the reasons--along with a strong record on the economy -- that the ruling AKP has been so successful for more than a decade has been its ability to foster an environment in which Turks can more freely express their Muslim identity. Part and parcel of this is the steady Islamization of institutions in the decade since the AKP came to power.

In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey's universities -- a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic's history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey's preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey's 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students. Previously the vast majority of graduates of preacher schools went into the clergy -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan being a prominent exception -- and had difficulty entering Turkish universities. They either lacked the preparation as Turkey's predominantly Kemalist academic elites argued or they were subject to discrimination as pious Turks claimed. Either way, with larger numbers of imam-hatip graduates entering Turkish universities, larger numbers will enter careers in Turkey's sprawling bureaucracy. Although this development is far less dramatic than the innovations contained in Egypt's new constitution, the effects are similar: the slow, but steady, Islamization of society. Of course, not all imam-hatip graduates are Islamists, but together with their Islamist colleagues, they are well-positioned to funnel state resources to projects and causes that they favor regardless of who is in power.

It has always been a misnomer to refer to "secular republics" in the Arab world.

From the time the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 the hicab (headscarf) became an underlying and neuralgic issue in Turkish politics. To many pious Turks, the headscarf is an important test of freedom of expression while to their secularly-minded fellow citizens, the hicab represents a threat to the political system that Mustafa Kemal (known commonly as Ataturk) built some 80 years earlier. In 1925, the Law of the Hat banned the Fez and discouraged women from wearing the headscarf -- both head coverings since regarded among Republican elites as symbolic of an age of corruption, obscurantism, and backwardness. This was why in 2007, the General Staff opposed (among other reasons) Abdullah Gul's move from the foreign ministry to the presidency. The prospective first lady of Turkey, Hayrunnisa Gul, wore a headscarf. The AKP moved in early 2008 to lift the ban on headscarves specifically at public universities, a restriction that dated back not to Ataturk's reforms of the 1920s, but rather to the 1980 coup d'etat. The party -- in conjunction with the National Movement Party -- succeeded in parliament only to have the legislation overturned in the courts on constitutional grounds. Yet what seemed to be a resounding defeat in the effort to Islamize Turkey's political institutions provided an opportunity for the AKP to undertake a broader effort to alter Turkish politics and society. Stymied in their effort to change Turkey's institutions further, Prime Minister Erdogan championed a constitutional amendment, which passed in a September 2010 referendum, that altered the way in which judges were selected for Turkey's highest courts. No one disputes that Turkey's judiciary was badly in need of reform, but while the United States and the EU praised the change, the amendment merely substituted Kemalist court-packing with Islamist court-packing. With the parliament firmly in the hands of the Justice and Development Party, no viable opposition, and a judicial system that is set to be transformed, the Islamization of Turkey's political institutions will proceed apace. The irony of the Turkish situation is that the changes that the AKP have wrought were done, in part, to remedy past institutional discrimination against pious people. And while Turkey is perhaps more democratic than it was 20 years ago, it is less open than it was eight years ago.

In Tunisia, the effort to Islamize political institutions has confronted a significant backlash. Proposals to enshrine in the country's new constitution criminalization of blasphemy and subtle changes that would have reduced the equal status of women were beaten back after ferocious protest. Yet even in Tunisia, where the state brutally suppressed Islamism and an aggressive secularism was a hallmark of the political system, the Islamist Ennahda was elected. Even if the party is a closer approximation to Turkey's Justice and Development Party than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, as the Ennahda leadership claims, the incorporation of Islamic codes and norms in Tunisia's political institutions are not far behind, despite early setbacks. Tunisia, often described as "the most secular" of Arab states, is experiencing an Islamist renaissance with new expressions of piety ranging from the sudden emergence of the niqab, Salafis, and demonstrations over the availability of liquor.

It is hard at this point to imagine anything other than a future in which religion plays a broad and decisive role in Egyptian, Turkish, and Tunisian societies. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the spread of theocracies is in the offing. Theocracy suggests a totalitarian-like Taliban rule or an Islamic Republic of Iran style of politics whereas certainly in Turkey and perhaps in Egypt and Tunisia, there is likely to be room for secularists to contest politics and the nature of the political order. Still, with the slow Islamization of political institutions, maintaining familiar lifestyles and even livelihoods of non-Muslim and/or non-pious citizens will become more difficult. Egypt's Coptic community is not imagining the pressure they feel even as President Morsi reassures incredulous Christians that they are an integral party of society.

Only in the context of the Arab uprisings, with its inspiring and emotional stories, can the Islamization of political institutions be a surprise. Various Islamist movements have been open about their goals for some time. In addition, it has always been a misnomer to refer to "secular republics" in the Arab world. In Hosni Mubarak's three decade-long political struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, he, his party, and the propaganda machines of the state borrowed Islamist symbols and language. What, after all, is secular about a country that at one end of the scale identifies an official religion and at the other pipes the call to prayer into the subway system? Even Turkey is not secular, which implies freedom of religion. Rather, central to the republican system that Ataturk founded was laicisme, meaning the control of religion. More germane is the fact that secular elites in Turkey used religion when doing so served their interests. Thus, the oft-referred to "staunchly secular" Turkish military went on a mosque building binge in the 1980s, flaunted the fact that the chief-of-staff could recite the Qur'an from memory, and encouraged the growth of piety in the belief that religion would depoliticize society. All of this set the stage for the Islamization of political institutions once religious politicians came to power. The inevitable result is going to be a region in which particular interpretations of shari'a will play a direct role in shaping people's lives in unprecedented ways.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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