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Muslim Democracy? No Thanks

Women's rights activists all around the world should have spoken out forcefully, revolted gracefully and protested collectively when they heard the Turkish prime minister's comments about gender equality.

Meeting a group of representatives from women's organizations in July, Tayyip Erdogan said he did not believe in equality between men and women. "I call it, rather, opportunity equality," he said. "Men and women are different; they are complementary."

Although some women attending the meeting expressed alarm about his comments, there was no serious condemnation or protest by Turkish female politicians or activists. The story was downplayed by the mainstream media.

A couple of weeks later another striking incident came when a polygamist was appointed as an adviser on religious affairs in the prime minister's office.

Ali Yuksel, who used to be one of the leaders of the Islamist movement Milli Gorus in Europe, talked openly in an interview about his three wives and his plans to marry a fourth. According to him, polygamy is part of the Sunna, the sayings and doings of the prophet Muhammed.

At a time when much of the world is questioning whether Ankara is turning its back on long standing alliances and universal values, such incidents only raise concerns higher. The US administration -- which sometimes seems to approach Turkey as if it is a wild creature to be domesticated -- doesn't help much.

For example in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in July President Obama said: "What we can do with Ankara is to continue to engage, and to point out the benefits of integration with the West while respecting, not acting out of fear of, Turkey's specific nature as a great Muslim democracy."

A great Muslim democracy? Turkey is supposed to be a secular democratic state guaranteeing fundamental rights for all of its citizens. And by the way when did we start using religious terms to qualify what sort of democracies countries are?

What would happen to universal rights like women's rights in a so-called Muslim democracy? If Erdogan's remarks and his choice of adviser are any guide, such basic rights could very well turn out to be dispensable.

Talking about a Muslim democracy is a step too far towards moral relativism and denying fundamental rights -- and just as absurd as talking about Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or atheist democracies. In fact, defining democracies by referring to the personal beliefs of their citizens is a big mistake -- and it's women's rights that are most at risk.

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