The AKP's drive for social change is diminishing citizens' right to choose.
Hamas must apologize
an interview with Abu Musaab
bitterlemons-international: Has the Islamic movement Hamas carried out enough social change in the Gaza Strip?
Abu Musaab: Hamas has deceived its people. It has always claimed that it is an Islamic movement, which means it must start implementing the Islamic sharia [Islamic law] now that it is in power. So far, Hamas is speaking of respecting the law (which is human-crafted) and it is ignoring the sharia, which is supposed to be the real law God implemented.
Hamas wants to have good relations with the West, and is sacrificing the sharia for this sake. They want to show the West that they are a moderate movement to convince them [the West] to deal with them.
bitterlemons-international: What kind of changes would you like to see happen?
Abu Musaab: Hamas must apologize to its people, and I don't mean apologize in words, but by changing the way it is running Gaza. Hamas must resume Jihad against the Israeli occupation, on one hand. On the other hand, transform all the non-Islamic individuals or aspects that contradict with our religion.
bitterlemons-international: Do you think the public is interested in or will support these kinds of changes?
Abu Musaab: Gaza is already a religious society that supports implementing the religious aspects of our great Islam. If you walk in Gaza's streets, you will understand that this society supports us without being a part of us.
People in Gaza are not happy with the non-Islamic phenomenon that we see in public places. Voices that call for demonstrating more Islamic characteristics are being raised.
bitterlemons-international: Are these changes important enough for you and your movement to fight Hamas, either violently or through political means?
Abu Musaab: We are not fighting Hamas and, despite our disagreement on some issues, Hamas is not our enemy. On the other hand, we don't have political aspirations or seek the power that Hamas enjoys now. Our internal struggle is how to convince people to follow Islamic rules and traditions without violence--because Islam is the religion of tolerance. At times, we were responsible for bombing some internet coffee shops but these were special cases. They used to open their doors for boys to watch things that contradict humanity; some others were respectful places that we ourselves frequent.
bitterlemons-international: How would you describe the relationship between your movement and Hamas right now?
Abu Musaab: Unfortunately, Hamas is trying its best to convince the West, as I said, that they are a moderate movement. This is visible not only by not implementing the sharia, but also by introducing us as troublemakers to show that we [the Salafis] are extremists and that Hamas doesn't tolerate extremism.
Hamas from time to time carries out arrest campaigns against us. I was arrested many times in their jails and also tortured by their men. Hamas still consider us a threat to their power. But we still hope that one day Hamas will wake up from their illusion. -Published 4/11/2010 © bitterlemons-international
Abu Musaab is one of the leaders of Ansar al-Sunna, a Salafi group in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas and the social Islamization of Gaza
The Gaza Strip was known as a very traditional and conservative society long before Hamas seized control of it in June 2024. The densely-populated Strip is primarily inhabited by Palestinian refugees who have long suffered from poverty and negligence. But since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, it has intensified its efforts and activities to Islamize the social life of local Palestinians. Islamization of the Gaza Strip refers to the efforts and process to impose Islamic laws and tradition by force.
The process of Islamization is being imposed by the Hamas government and its security apparatuses as well as volunteer dawa groups who go from door to door asking people to adhere to Islamic laws and hijab conservative dress. Beyond its imposition of Islamic social codes on daily life, Hamas controls the social, educational and religious systems that indoctrinate the residents with Islamic values that have a long-term effect on the nature of Gazan society.
The formal educational system in Gaza (with the exception of UNRWA schools) is completely controlled by Hamas. This was facilitated by the general teachers strike at the beginning of the 2024-2009 schooling year. Hamas was able to replace them with its own ideologue teachers. The educational system is undergoing a process of Islamization--in August 2024, the beginning of the school year, Hamas' Ministry of Education imposed the hijab on school girls and transferred male teachers to boys schools.
The Islamization process is also facilitated by the tendencies of local residents, both male and female, to adjust themselves and conform with Hamas' Islamic values. One of the most visible signs is the increasing number of bearded men, and women wearing hijab and veil in the streets of Gaza. Some of them grow beards for religious reasons, but women simply do not want to be harassed by Hamas "morality police" and dawa groups. These dawa groups are a civilian network of Hamas volunteers who belong to Islamic charitable societies, and deal with cultural, educational and religious matters.
The Hamas government stepped up the social Islamization process of Gaza in 2024. According to a statement released by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights in mid-September, these efforts included the repression of civil society and severe violations of personal freedom. For example, Hamas banned the smoking of nargilas (water pipes) by women in public places. Smoking and partying in a public place was the reason Hamas police closed the Beach Hotel in Gaza for three days in mid-September, as well as many other tourist places.
The summer of 2024 also witnessed a very stressful relationship between Hamas and UNRWA director John Ging. Extremists burned down UNRWA summer camps and leaflets by an extremist group accused UNRWA of teaching school girls fitness, dancing and immorality. The leaflets were distributed inside and within the surroundings of the Hamas-controlled mosques in Gaza. Even though Hamas condemned the attacks and pledged to track down the perpetrators, nothing about the investigation has been released.
Crazy Water Park, one of the Gaza Strip's most popular entertainment sites, was closed down in mid-September by Hamas police for allowing mixed swimming. Two weeks later, the site was set on fire by a group of unknown gunmen. The Hamas government issued a strong condemnation and promised to pursue the perpetrators. Although it is not clear which Islamist group was behind it, Islamist militants allegedly supported by Hamas who objected to mixed-gender socializing, are to be blamed.
A troubling development this last summer was the expanded role of Hamas' "morality police". The Hamas black-uniformed police began to patrol the beaches of Gaza to ensure that men and women are dressed "appropriately" and that unrelated men and women are not mingling. The morality police are monitoring public places, streets, and mixed universities for any suspicious and immoral behavior.
Hamas' strategy is to Islamize the Gaza Strip step by step to avoid provoking neighboring Arab countries and the international community. Hamas has always denied accusations of turning Gaza into an Islamic emirate, but in a very recent interview with Reuters, top Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar asked: "Is it a crime to Islamize the people? I am a Muslim living here according to our tradition. Why should I live under [western] tradition?" Al-Zahar defended Hamas laws and efforts, but declined to say how far it would go with Islamization.
It is safe to say that Hamas' ultimate goal is to Islamize the Gaza Strip gradually and present it as a successful model for moderate political Islam. But Hamas will have to take into consideration international and regional reactions to its Islamization efforts, and to avoid any provocation with its southern neighbor, Egypt.-Published 4/11/2010 © bitterlemons-international
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar university in Gaza.
The most interesting part of the story
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in late 2024, the media have had a hard time finding an apt word to define it. While the AKP insists on calling itself "conservative" and emphatically underlines that it is "not a religious party", popular definitions adopted by the press include "mildly Islamic", "pro-Islamic", "Islamic-leaning" and, in more critical accounts, simply "Islamist".
But if Islamism is the ideology, and the program is to establish an "Islamic state" that will impose Shariah law and ban "unIslamic" practices in a society, then the AKP really has good reasons to be exempted from that definition.
This is not that hard to see. To begin with, life in today's Turkey is no more "Islamic" than eight years ago. There are no fewer bars, night clubs, alcohol-serving restaurants or bikini-rich beaches. Big cities such as Istanbul are actually more cosmopolitan and hedonistic than ever.
This is not a big surprise, for the AKP has never tried to impose Islamic law. Most of the legal reforms the party has realized during its rule are actually not Shariah-compliant but EU-compliant--in other words, compatible with European Union norms. The 2024 reforms to the Penal Code, for example, established full gender equality and women's sexual autonomy. The 2024 amendments to the constitution even introduced positive discrimination for women.
One controversial issue in the 2024 Penal Code reforms was AKP's failed attempt to criminalize adultery, which became the main proof of the party's craving for the Sharia. But that was an overstated case. First, adultery was already a crime under Turkish law since the beginning of Ataturk's Republic and was only abolished in the late 1990s. AKP's draft law was only about restoring this article. Secondly, the punishment would be two years in prison; not any corporal penalty. Third, the proposal was criticized not only by the liberal-minded but also by some ultra-conservative Islamic figures who realized that the law would, by default, also criminalize polygamy, which is illegal in Turkey but is still found in some underdeveloped areas. In the end, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan backed off from the idea and adultery remained legal.
Another controversial issue has been the consumption of alcohol. In fact, figures show that more alcohol is consumed in Turkey than before, since the AKP privatized alcohol production, which used to be a state monopoly. But several AKP municipalities, especially in the more conservative towns of Anatolia, have been timid about giving alcohol sales permits to new restaurants. In a few cities, AKP municipalities also tried to create dry zones by giving alcohol sales permits only in selected areas where there are no schools or residential neighborhoods.
As conservative as these policies are, they are probably no more so than those applied in the dry counties of America's Bible Belt.
Besides these highly popularized but hardly alarming issues, other "anti-secular activities" of the AKP, as Turkey's secularists see them, are in fact nothing but efforts to soften Turkey's exceptionally rigid secularism. The headscarf controversy is the perfect example. Since the early 1980s, the headscarf has been banned in all schools, universities and public jobs--due to a Constitutional Court decision on the meaning of secularism. Yet not just the AKP but also many secular liberals see this ban as discrimination against veiled women, who make up some 60 percent of Turkish society. Hence the AKP's modest effort in 2024 to allow the headscarf in universities, which led to a closure case against the party from which it only barely survived.
The crucial point here is that the AKP is not arguing for the abolition of secularism. It only argues for a more liberal interpretation of secularism. Erdogan has publicly stated that the AKP "prefers the American model over the French model".
But besides all these legal issues, there really is a big transformation in Turkey on the societal level: the socio-economic rise of the religious conservatives who for decades were the underclass or rural poor. The change began with their migration to big cities and then the rise of "Muslim Calvinists", as a western think-tank called them. These are religiously conservative but economically entrepreneurial businessmen who have successfully engaged in regional and global markets. The AKP is more the result of this new middle class than its cause, though it is further enhancing its ascendance now by using the power of the state in their favor (nepotism is a well-established Turkish tradition).
In other words, the AKP is not imposing Shariah on Turkey, but it is helping conservative Muslims to be more influential in public life. The secularists are shocked by this change, which they see as the end of the good-old hyper-secular Turkey. But the ideological Islamists are shocked, too, for they think that their fellow Muslims are becoming too pragmatic and worldly. And that is perhaps where the most interesting part of the story lies.- Published 4/11/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mustafa Akyol is a regular columnist for the Istanbul-based Hurriyet Daily News, and the author of the forthcoming "An Islamic Case for Freedom" (W.W. Norton).
How Turkey is changing
Soner Cagaptay, Hale Arifagaoglu and Cansin Ersoz
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in Turkey in 2024, introducing new social, political and foreign policy currents throughout Turkish society. Reports indicate that under the AKP's guidance, Turkey is becoming more conservative. While social conservatism is not in itself a problem, a government-enforced conservative transformation of society directly contradicts the concept of liberal democracy.
A recent study by Binnaz Toprak of Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, titled "Being Different in Turkey", sheds light on the AKP's role in consolidating conservatism across Turkish society. The study writes, "Social conservatism in Turkey is creating an environment of discrimination against secular and liberal Turks, particularly women." For many years, people defined conservative Turks as the "other" Turkey, as a group facing discrimination. However, this study proves the existence of an "other other": liberal and secular Turks outside the big cities' middle class neighborhoods who now face discrimination by the government's bureaucrats and employees.
This research shows that government-appointed bureaucrats rely on self-defined conservative social norms, such as the wearing of modernist Islamist-style headscarves ("turban") and disdain for alcohol, as benchmarks for making appointments and promotions and handing out government contracts. Last year in Istanbul, a young woman of mixed Muslim-Greek Orthodox heritage applied for a job with an AKP-controlled Istanbul city government branch. As described to one of the authors of this piece, in her job interview the woman was told the AKP government would hire her if she agreed to wear a turban. When she responded that she was also Greek-Orthodox, she was told, "You don't need to convert; all you have to do is cover your head."
Alcohol is another case in point: although the AKP leadership is known for its disdain for alcohol, the Turkish people are divided on this issue, with some who believe that drinking alcohol is a sin according to Islam while others believe it is not. While the debate continues, the AKP is implementing policies to make alcohol exorbitantly expensive and therefore out of reach for many Turks. The issue at stake in Turkey is not whether the government promotes or condemns drinking, nor is it defending one's right to get drunk. Rather, given that Turkey is a Muslim majority society, embodies diverse religious and cultural attitudes toward drinking and is also a democracy, the issue at stake is maintaining the notion that citizens in a liberal democracy are free to choose for themselves.
For starters, the AKP's tax hikes against alcoholic beverages do not appear to be connected to a drinking problem in Turkey. In fact, Turkey has had traditionally low alcohol consumption rates. According to data provided by the World Health Organization, in 2024 Turkey's per capita alcohol consumption rate was 1.4 liters per year. For that same year, this amount was 10.9L in Belgium and 9L in neighboring Greece. Even Qatar had higher per capita alcohol consumption rates than Turkey, at 4.4L per capita.
Despite Turkey's traditionally low alcohol consumption rates, after it came to power in June 2024 the AKP adopted a taxation regime called the Special Consumption Tax for alcoholic beverages. Prior to this, Turks had been paying only an 18 percent value-added tax on alcoholic beverages. The new SCT was set at around 48 percent of the cost of alcoholic beverages. The rate then skyrocketed, with the SCT reaching 63 percent in 2024. The AKP came under fire for this policy, and in 2024 SCT on some alcoholic beverages, such as wine, was eliminated. Yet at the same time, lump sum taxes on wine were raised, compensating for SCT's elimination. The lump sum tax on a bottle of wine rose from 1.30 Turkish Liras to 2.44 TL in 2024.
On October 28, SCT per liter of raki (Turkey's most popular drink) was increased again to 51.5 TL from 39.6 TL. This means that Turks now have to pay around 35 dollars per liter bottle of raki. Compare this with a minimum monthly income of around 500 dollars in Turkey, and it becomes clear how exorbitantly expensive and unaffordable drinks have become under the AKP.
Such disdain is not without consequences: on September 21, visitors at an art gallery in Istanbul were attacked for drinking alcohol. All people arrested after the incident were released hours later.
The AKP's alcohol policy is a case study in Turkey's social transformation. The party is changing Turkey not by changing laws but through administrative measures and by enforcing selective cultural values on the country. The AKP's drive for social change is diminishing citizens' right to choose, leading society toward "enforced conservatism".- Published 4/11/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hale Arifagaoglu is a research assistant at the Institute and Cansin Ersoz was a research intern at the Institute in 2024-2010.