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On Religion, Politics and Middle Eastern Outsiders

One big story in the international department this week is sure to be Turkey’s recent election. I’ll own up to a minor obsession with Turkey’s history and politics, but I do think this election has, in its own peculiar way, implications for Israel. (For a great wealth of information on the Turkish election, check out The Economist’s website, because they’ve done a super job of following the issue for months; the most recent article can be found here.)

To make a long story extremely short, Turkey’s democratically-elected government, under the Justice and Development (AK) Party, is more Islamic-leaning than any administration has been since Ataturk’s great secularist reforms in the 1920s and ‘30s. Intriguingly, it’s also the most reformist—legalizing such previous crimes as speaking Kurdish—and strongly continues the tradition of upholding secular institutions. A crisis was precipitated when the current president declared his intent to nominate his foreign minister to a vacated judicial post. The Army posted its intent to enact a coup on its website, the AK administration decided to call early elections, and generally the conflict was brought to the surface. But clearly the will of the people has been made known, because the AK party just won the elections.

So, what’s the connection? Well, it starts with the same neither-here-nor-there position occupied by both Turkey and Israel, Middle Eastern countries who are/think they are/want to be European. Turkey has, of course, applied for EU membership so many times that they can probably fill out the applications in their sleep, and while there has never been more than whisperings of an eventual application by Israel, I have no doubt that the average Tel Avivian would consider herself more European than Middle Eastern. Further, Turkey’s outsider status as a non-Arab country has eased Turkish-Israeli politics, at least for a long time. (Dr. Neill Lochery, a well-respected academic, has suggested that Turkey’s rejection from the EU will have long-reverberating repercussions for this relationship, since competition for the same, more local markets in inevitable. Of course, he also said that Israeli tourism to Turkey would eventually subside because “how many leather jackets can you own?”)

But there’s the larger question of how religion and democracy work can work together, and whether they should. Although I am an outright nut for the separation of church and state in the U.S.—because it is laid out pretty clearly in the owner’s manual—I think that not all democracies need look alike. I don’t know whether the AK’s renewed power will yield an increasingly Islamist set of policies; certainly there’s a large segment of middle- and upper-class urban women who are terrified of that. The question of democracy vs. religious government—if it is a “versus” in there—is definitely a feminist issue. I do know that the fear split over religion is prevalent in Israel, too. If you need any proof of that, scan the comments section any time Ha’aretz or Ynet run a gay-pride fiasco story: the level of vitriol—almost all of it falling into religiously partisan arguments—is astounding.

So what do we do with Turkey’s elections? Well, one thing to consider, as Olmert’s approval numbers continue hover on the very low side, is that Israeli elections may not be as far off as we imagine. What role might religion continue to play there? What if a religiously-influenced government could still be seen as innovative and supportive? How does a political party work towards addressing the fears of fiercely secular members of the population respectfully and honestly? I wish I knew enough to have nearly as many answers as questions, but I don’t. I do hope that Turkey works it all out, and that Israel learns much from their process. Certainly, I’ll be watching.

(And on a completely unrelated note, something Jewish, female, political and hilarious: the National Jewish Democratic Council has released a video congratulating the Jewish and female members of Congress. Now, as much as I’m a fan of all of these women, and applaud all of their many accomplishments—I’ve met Nita Lowey twice, and have threatened to write her in on my federal ballot—I think maybe the NJDC missed the tongue-in-cheek humor train. And it’s a cold, lonely wait on the platform. A cold, lonely, hilarious wait.)

–Melanie Weiss