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Don’t take freedoms for granted

14 June 2013

THE continuing mass protests in Turkey have been a long time coming. They represent widespread dissent from the increasingly repressive tendencies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Although he is regarded by the West, and by some in the Arab world, as a progressive Islamist, many of the better-educated and liberal Turks regard him as deeply conservative. They cannot begin to imagine a middle way between the secular state founded by Kemal Mustafa Atatürk and the rule of the mullahs.

The Islamist movement in Turkey has made great strides. When I first visited in 1987, there was not a headscarf in sight in Istanbul. A decade later, the headscarf was being worn as a fashion item. Last year, women in headscarves outnumbered those who went bareheaded, and alcohol was no longer served in many restaurants.

On the positive side, Mr Erdogan has achieved a great deal. He has won three democratic elections. The economy is booming. Conversations about joining the EU have real content these days, in spite of years of attempts by France and Germany to keep Turkey out. Meanwhile, the Turks are widely seen as power-brokers in the Middle East. Against these successes, secular Turks point to an erosion of women's rights, and a crackdown on free speech.

Turkey's dilemma illustrates the collapse of the 20th-century ideal of the secular nation state. Atatürk's Turkey, Stalin's Soviet Empire, Tito's Yugoslavia, Nasser's Egypt, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were all driven by the same vision of nationhood. They all restricted religious expression and repressed minorities. For them, the free expression of religion was a barrier to progress. But now, it seems, their agenda was too narrow. Religion is back; the question is whether or not it can serve the common good.

Last year, I met a Turkish journalist who now lives in England. The rise of Islamism in Turkey is anathema to her. She sees the end of the freedoms that she and her generation took for granted. Although secular herself, she told me how much she admired the Church of England for its moderation and respect for privacy.

It occurred to me that the turmoil that gave birth to the C of E produced two centuries of struggle, when conformity and repression of minorities were regarded as necessary to ensure the integrity of the state. Yet, over time, and not without pain, we evolved a middle path between religious nationalism and secular freedom. We should be grateful for that. It cannot be taken for granted.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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