My friend Ana (not her real name) is a wise and worldly middle-aged Turkish American who divides her time between Manhattan and Istanbul, where she works as a handler and translator for American journalists. She is a liberal, feminist, free-market Muslim, a defender of ethnic and religious pluralism and a proponent of Turkey's entry into the European Union. So I assumed she'd be thrilled by the resounding July 22 electoral victory of Turkey's pro-Western, pro-business, pluralist and moderate Muslim party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP).
But when I phoned her after the AKP's landslide triumph, she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Just you wait. All this democracy rhetoric is for show. Any day now these guys will pull off their masks, and you'll see the truth. They are all ayatullahs underneath."
Such dire admonitions about the AKP are quite common among a certain segment of Turkish society, particularly among those who continue to cling to the secularist vision of the country's founder, Kemal Ataturk. It is, however, a bit surprising coming from someone so comfortable with American politics. After all, I reminded Ana, she has spent half her life in the U.S., one of the most religious democracies in the world.
"But that's different," she shot back. "The AKP, they're ... Islamists!"
There is that word: Islamist. It is a word that, lately, gets tossed around almost as frequently as terrorist and is equally inflammatory and imprecise.
Islamism is a political philosophy, developed primarily in postcolonial Egypt, that seeks to establish an Islamic state built upon a distinctly Islamic moral framework. Yet because there is little consensus on what an Islamic state looks like or how exactly to define "Islamic morals," Islamism has become a wastebasket term that, like terrorism, conveys as much about the social and political views of the person using it as it does about the person being described.
Among members of Turkey's traditional élite and their friends in the West, Turkey's election was presented as an existential battle between Islamism and secularism for the future of democracy in Turkey. According to this narrative, the "secularists" (led mainly by the last remnants of Turkey's Kemalist élite and the supremely powerful Turkish military) were the defenders of democracy, despite a history of espousing a disturbingly racist conception of Turkish nationalism, forcefully suppressing ethnic and cultural diversity, regularly denying rights to minority religions and, on four separate occasions, toppling democratically elected governments.
Meanwhile, the "Islamists" of the AKP who have brought Turkey back from the edge of fiscal collapse, pushed for membership in the E.U., improved ties with Israel and the U.S., granted the Kurdish minority greater freedoms, promoted a more honest and robust debate about Turkish nationalism and been the primary force behind five years of unprecedented economic growth were demonized as a threat to democracy.
The truth is that the debate in Turkey is not about the role of religion in a democracy. That is certainly a debate worth having, not just in Turkey but also in the U.S. This debate is about Islam and the unwavering belief among even the most enlightened intellectuals that, regardless of past performance or precedents, Islam and democracy are simply not compatible. That Muslims are somehow intrinsically theocratic. That a party favoring "Islamic values" cannot also favor democratic ones. That there could never be an Islamic counterpart to the countless Christian Democratic parties flourishing throughout Europe. That, all things being equal, there really is no difference between the Taliban and the AKP. That Islam is ... well, different.
The problem with this view is not just that it overlooks the many successful Islamically influenced democratic movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Bangladesh. Nor is it that this view ignores the fact that a third of all Muslims live in democracies.
The problem is that such a narrow view of Islam makes the hope for political reform in the Middle East a more distant prospect. Like it or not, it is inconceivable that democratic reform could take place in countries like Egypt, Jordan or Algeria without the participation of so-called Islamist parties or at least those willing to participate.
And so whether or not one agrees with all its policies, the AKP is a paragon of what a moderate Islamist party can achieve given the right political atmosphere and a fair chance to govern. For that, we should all be grateful. It was not Islamism but democracy that triumphed in Turkey's elections.
Reza Aslan is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam