When it comes to assessing political events in the islamic world, far to many western journalists tend to congregate in the Capital cities. In Turkey they prefer the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul and to a lesser degree the Capital Ankara, thus they often find themselves far removed from the people who populate the cities, small towns and villages of Anatolia.
To read the Western press during the mass pro-secular protests which took place in Turkeys western Cities like Izmir and Istanbul, just prior to Abdullah Gül becoming President of the Turkish Republic, one would have thought the whole country was opposed to him taking up residence in the Presidential Compound at Cankaya. Yet only a short time later Abdullah Gül’s political party the Justice and Development Party [AKP] won a landslide victory in the 2007 Turkish general election, which enabled it to gain the support of enough members of Parliament to place him in Cankaya.
In a nation in which 99% of the population adhere to the islamic faith and where conservative cultural traditions, some of which predate islam prevail, it is wise to look a little deeper to get the lie of the land as far as political loyalties go. This is especially true in a Nation like Turkey where the economy until comparatively recently were based on agriculture.
Even in today’s Turkey agriculture still accounts for nearly one quarter of the gross national product and employs 48 percent of the population. Making Turkey one of the few nations in the world that is self-sufficient in food production. This being so it is to the Anatolian heartlands one needs to go to feel the political pulse of the Turkish people.
For even in the areas where new industries are taking hold, like in the Kayseri Region where the city with the same name has a new industrial zone on its outskirts that spreads out over 2350 hectares and is home to more than 500 new production units. Or on the Aegean and Mediterranean seaboards where the construction and tourist industries and the businesses that service them are booming. One only needs to probe just beneath surface impressions to see that conservative tradition are built into the psyche of the population. Go back only one or two generations and most of those who now work in these 21st century industries would have either been been employed on the land themselves or their parents and grand-parents would have been.
Indeed it is these communities which have become the core constituency and membership base of the AK Party. Today the sons of peasant farmers, artisans and unskilled workers are prosperous businessmen and women, entrepreneurs and members of the professions. Their parents having been excluded from the Kemalist power structures, they are now demanding a say in the political affairs of their nation and have chosen the AK Party as their political vehicle.
Unlike the traditional power elite’s in Turkey who came from the established urban middle class, this new middle class is only a generation or two away from the poverty of their forebears. Thus whilst they are culturally conservative, socially they are nearer the European social democrats in that many of them believe passionately in State education, health care and State infrastructure that benefits all of the people, whether they be peasant, worker, professional or businessmen and women.
Whether this progressive attitude will last beyond the first flush of power time only will tell, but for example under the AK Party administration of Prime Minister Erdogan the lives of ordinary Turkish women have improved to such a degree that the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, called the changes Erdogan’s administration introduced “the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years. “Under these reforms, rape in marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace were made criminal offenses, and sexual crimes in general were classified as violations of the rights of the individual”.
They had formerly been defined as crimes against society, the family, or public morality and thus the law rarely intervened. This is not to say there is no room for improvement, especially in the south-east of the country where religion and the clan system are intertwined. Never-the less it should not be over looked that these improvements in the legal status of Turkish women have been brought about by a government that is closely linked to political islam, all be it of a moderate kind. Yet far from oppressing women they have attempted to do the right thing and in a small way helped liberate them.
It is also worth noting that the AK Party, with 31 female parliamentarian’s, now has more women members of Parliament in its ranks that all the other political parties put together. Not good enough for sure, for as KA-DER chairwoman Hulya Gulbahar, who leads a support group for women candidates and campaigns for more women in parliament explained, “As long as equality [in Parliament]is not ensured, we cannot call this a true democracy. It is rather a men’s democracy,” But it does prove the AK Party are conscious of this shortcoming and unlike previous governments are attempting to address the problem of the inequality of women within Turkish society.
To be continued.