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Istanbul airport attack: Why Turkey’s response matters

Equality in governance

The Islamic world’s struggle to answer “who rules Muslims?” takes a big turn as Islamic State escalates its attacks against democratic Turkey.

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    School children in India hold candles as they pray during a vigil to show solidarity with the victims of the attack at Turkey's largest airport, Istanbul Ataturk, June 29.
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As it loses territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has turned to encouraging terrorist attacks in countries from Belgium to Bangladesh. Perhaps the most significant IS-inspired attack, however, was the June 28 suicide bombing of Turkey’s main airport in Istanbul, which killed 44.

The importance of the attack lies in this: Both IS and Turkey’s ruling party are Sunni-based and variations on what is called “political Islam.” Each is trying to answer the Islamic world’s historic question of “who rules Muslims?” An escalation of violence between IS and Turkey is really a battle to determine which values of governance are best for Muslim-majority societies.

Across the Middle East since 9/11, the struggle to define “political Islam” has experienced wild shifts. Egypt’s regime is now largely secular under a military ruler, a backlash against the former elected rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself is divided over the use of violence in politics. Tunisia’s former ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, decided this year to separate its religious and political activities. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy struggles to rein in radical clerics even as it tries to appease liberal youth and women.

Turkey, which is a non-Arab country, sits on the good side of this spectrum. It is a democracy that elected an Islamist party, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the current president. He has instituted a “soft” form of Islam in Turkish society yet has also become more authoritarian, repressing many who disagree with him.

The tensions within the Erdogan regime reflect the tensions of “political Islam”: Does the faith allow for forceful domination over others or does it embrace democratic values of equality and the need for secular rule?

Since the airport attack, Mr. Erdogan appears to be reacting with more repression now that IS has so dramatically escalated its attacks within Turkey. While any country hit by terrorists must beef up security, a more important response is the assertion and the practice of the values of liberty and nonviolence. This helps to highlight the violence that lies at the heart of jihadist groups like IS.

Political Islam is a concept still in flux. Many Muslims live in secular democracies, from India to Albania to Indonesia, where the Islamic faith is more personal than political, more tolerant than aggressive. As Turkey steps up its campaign against IS, it too can be a model for this practice of Islam.

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