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Allah’s pendulum

Erdogan’s excesses and Morsi’s creeping conservatism offer little hope that Islam and democracy can mix

In very different circumstances, this month has seen a succession of political events in which the relation between Islam and democracy has undergone stress tests. The most important, perhaps, will be the installation of an ever more rigidly Islamist regime in Egypt under the presidency of Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile the elections in Iran seem to support the idea that the Ayatollahs will retain sufficient control of superficially democratic institutions, so that they can retain power without resorting once more to brutal repression. The negative surprise has come from Turkey, the leading test case of coexistence between democracy and Islam, against the backdrop of a booming economy. The land of Atatürk was supposed to be an example for other Muslim countries.

However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party have lately been showing their true colors, moving forward in their plan to abolish Atatürk's secular legacy in the name of a creeping Islamization. Erdogan has shown skill and prudence in its gradual application. The objective of joining the European Union obliged him to go slow in certain areas, such as the condemnation of adultery; but now, since EU entry seems no longer on the cards, this limitation is gone. Having, first, dismantled the military and judicial barriers to the advance of Islamism, an intense persecution of the press and the opposition has freed his hands. Historic churches associated with the history of early Christianity, but long used as mosques, which Atatürk had turned into museums, are now being reconverted to mosques. In the 2011 elections Erdogan's effigy figured in electoral propaganda next to that of Mehmet the Conqueror, and now the new bridge over the Bosporus is to bear the name of sultan Selim — so that the millions of Alawites, whose ancestors the sultan massacred in the 16th century, will know who is in command. Another "cultural" manifestation, a hideous commemorative diorama of the Muslim conquest in 1453, installed when Istanbul was European Capital of Culture a few years ago, could hardly proclaim more loudly the intention to turn back the clock of history. The next elections may mean the consolidation of an authoritarian Islamist regime — bad news for those who saw Turkey as a beacon of progress.

Historic churches which Atatürk had turned into museums are now being reconverted to mosques

In Iran, the crushing of the 2009 green revolution was the work of criminal collusion between paramilitary forces and the police. Repressive measures, including death, torture and rape, snuffed out all possibility of opposition. What could not be foreseen was the split of the regime into factions headed respectively by Ahmadinejad (representing a populist variant of the Revolution) and the Supreme Leader, Khamenei. The interests of the Pasdaran, the Guardians of the Revolution, define one pole of power, against Khamenei, who nevertheless maintains the hegemony of "his" hierocracy, in a pragmatic policy of controlled flexibility.

The system of filtering of candidacies by the Guardians, a clerical version of what the Medici did in 15th-century Florence, has reduced the number of presidential aspirants to a select few, all faithful to Khamenei. Not even Ahmadinejad could place his man; nor could the ex-president Rafsanjani, a shady but pragmatic personality, get through the filter. The balance: more of the same, with perhaps a greater dose of pragmatism.

With all these vacillations, plus the insecurity introduced by the Salafists, who for the moment are active only in Tunisia, there is some room to hope for conciliation between Islamism and democracy. In a very different context, Morsi in Egypt has applied religious resolution with more intensity than Erdogan: tightening the knot against the judges, bashing secular culture and appointing a Salafist governor in the tourist town of Luxor. The conclusion is that Islamism may accept the existence of elections. Another matter is the promised, apparently inevitable, imposition of sharia. In that case there is no solution.

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