One of the most hotly debated issues in the post-9/11 world has been the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Many answer this question by producing working examples, most notably Turkey, of how Islamists agree to work within parliamentary politics. Others reject the notion altogether and argue that secularist parties represent the sole viable partners in the Middle East and elsewhere. Last week, Tunisian novelist Mustapha Tlili presented the same argument in the New York Times that Western governments, in particular the U.S., should partner with "secular democrats" to promote democracy and freedom in the Islamic world.
Western observers have also engaged in a similar debate about the future of Turkish democracy, especially since the Gezi Park protests fundamentally changed which keywords the average Western reader associates with the country. In world media, Turkey, once hailed as a success story, thus came to be portrayed as a nation on the brink of collapse. Later, a wave of corruption allegations against the government added fuel to the fire, as Western governments, which considered Turkey too important to lose, turned to the secularist opposition as potential partners. Although the ruling AK Party's local election victory restored some sense of stability for foreign investors and hinted that the party's candidate, be it Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself or a member of his administration, would win the presidential race in August 2014, the notion that secularists are inherently better partners has not entirely been discredited.
Down here in the real world, however, the so-called secular democrats are a rare species whose ability to speak to other secularists, let alone to devout Muslims, remains painfully limited. Instead, real-life secularists in Turkey have a long history of embarrassing their advocates abroad. Perhaps the most shocking revelation came last week, when popular secularist news and youth organizations celebrated Bashar Assad's victory in what was a sad excuse for a presidential race in Syria. The youth organization, The Turkish Youth Union (TGB), many of whose members are active within the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), tweeted on Wednesday that "the Syrian people have responded to the imperialist attack," while Odatv, a prominent website, did a wordplay on the ruling AK Party to announce that "the national will went with Assad, whose regime [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu pronounced dead." Meanwhile, the CHP leadership, after sending multiple senior-level representatives to Syria and accusing the Erdoğan administration of warmongering since 2011, adopted a slightly more reasonable approach as part of their efforts to court the Western capitals for political support.
Celebrating the Assad regime as the last bastion of Middle Eastern liberty, Turkey's secularists thus just don't fit the bill as vast differences of opinion render the well-meaning Westernized intellectual's pursuit of secular democrats, the quintessential imagined community for our time, a wild goose chase.