Friday, 22 February 2008

Can Turkey's Regime Crisis Be Defused?

Published in Articles

By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 1 of the Turkey Analyst)

The Turkish Parliament’s landmark decision to change the constitution and lift the ban on Islamic headscarves in the universities represents a symbolic watershed in the history of the Turkish republic. It has polarized Turkey as perhaps never before and plunged the country into a crisis from which it will be extremely difficult to extricate without deep convulsions. Turkish intellectuals do not hesitate to issue warnings about civil war. Such warnings may be exaggerated; but Turkey could certainly be headed in a dangerous direction. Hence, conventional assumptions about Turkish political and ideological dynamics need to be revised.

BACKGROUND: The AKP has not only defied an uncompromisingly secular opinion, but has also alienated many of its liberal supporters. Western observers and Turkish liberals alike have hailed the “moderate” Islam of the ruling Justice and development party, AKP, as a lever for democratization and even Europeanization of Turkey. However, the lifting of the Islamic headscarf ban has led to a shift of attitudes among liberal circles in Turkey. For a growing number of liberals, the supposedly post-Islamists increasingly appear as plain Islamists, a view hitherto held only by diehard secularists. Influential liberal commentator Mehmet Ali Birand, for example, has noted that the AKP has no credibility left as a moderate party of the centre.

Another prominent liberal defector is Ergun Özbudun, a professor entrusted by the government itself with the task of preparing a draft of a new constitution. Commenting on the constitutional amendment, Özbudun warned that it will henceforth be impossible to prevent the oppression of girls not wearing headscarves.

It is not the lifting of the ban itself, but rather the way it was done – without any consideration whatsoever to secular sensibilities – that explains the uproar. Crucially, the AKP government – in alliance with the far right Nationalist action party, MHP – chose to amend the constitution, thereby raising alarm that the move is intended as a deliberate attempt at the constitutionally stipulated secularism, which is circumvented. 

The opposition to the handling of the issue should not be confused with opposition to freedom. In fact, Deniz Baykal, the leader of the opposition Republican people’s party (CHP) as late as 2002 himself proposed that the ban should be lifted.

Actually, as shown by a recent study, the actual, negative impact of the ban has been limited. 1 percent of the girls not studying at university level state the restriction on headscarves as the reason for their non-attendance, whereas 15 percent refer it to the opposition of their families. The apparent conclusion would be that social conservatism is a greater obstacle to female educational self-fulfillment than secular rigidity. And social conservatism is at a political level represented by the moderate Islamists and the far right nationalists. As such, the argument that the lifting of the headscarf ban is part of a scheme to liberalize Turkey is challenged by the fact that no other changes that would expand freedom were included in the constitutional amendment, and by the alliance of AKP with the far right Nationalist action party, MHP. Thus, while liberals have defected from the AKP, rightist nationalists have defected from the secular camp, of which they where presumed to be a part.

The Islamic headscarf is undeniably a symbol of political Islam. In its 2004 ruling, the European court of human rights decided in favor of the ban in Turkish universities, accepting its necessity as a safeguard of the freedom from religion. The “headscarf alliance” of the AKP and MHP turned a deaf ear to the well-meaning exhortations of Turkish liberals to include at least guarantees for the protection of the freedom of non-headscarf wearing girls. Neither was the call to declare that the lifting of the ban in the universities would not be followed by further steps causing concern about the future of secularism heeded. On the contrary, voices within the AKP have already called for changes that would facilitate the entrance of students of religious schools to the universities, prompting even a commentator like Taha Akyol, a prominent conservative and otherwise staunch supporter of the AKP to exclaim in Milliyet that “This is too much!” 
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reacted to the secular opposition by stating that the AKP will not waver: “We are committed to lifting every obstacle to a free life. Sooner or later we will achieve our goal.” In the context of the AKP’s policies and current developments, this was widely interpreted to amount to a commitment to lift other bans on the Islamic headscarf, in lower levels in the educational system as well as in public offices. Should that be the case, it could imply that Erdogan has decided to provoke a final showdown with the remnants of the secular system.

Recent developments in fact suggest that Erdogan and the leadership of the AKP have been overrun by an ideological fervor, which may have become uncontrollable following the party’s spectacular electoral victory in 2007 and its subsequent conquest of the presidency. On election night, Erdogan had wowed to embrace Turkish society as a whole and to pay attention to the sensibilities and worries of the supporters of the opposition. The mismanagement of the headscarf issue stands in sharp contrast to these commitments. So do the changes in the bureaucracy and the judiciary, where secular cadres are progressively replaced with a new elite educated at Islamic schools.

The leadership of the AKP may have been emboldened and radicalized by its near-total grip on power. However, the government is not unaware of the risks that its confrontational strategy entails. Erdogan’s outburst in mid-February against the secular media is indicative of the Prime Minister’s state of mind. The attitude towards opposition media reflects a growing political nervousness as much as it reveals an authoritarian inclination. The heavy criticism leveled at journalists and commentators who had dared to oppose the constitutional amendments appears to fit badly into the profile of a head of government seeking membership in the European Union. Whether EU membership still remains a solid aim for the AKP is an open question. But it is worth noting that the representatives of Turkish political Islam no longer feign allegiance to Western ideals. Their attitudes to Western civilization are eloquently summarized in Erdogan’s recent statement that Turkey has only imported “the immorality” of the West. 

Turkey has by all accounts reached a critical point in the contest between Islam and secularism. The future apparently holds more confrontation. If the constitutional amendments get presidential approval, they will with all probability be referred to the High constitutional court. But the AKP faces even greater risks. Just like earlier political parties based on political Islam, it faces the threat of dissolution. Indeed, the judiciary has issued several warnings that it could initiate proceedings to close down the AKP, and it is not excluded that these warnings could be acted upon.

Turkey is increasingly divided into roughly equal conservative and secular halves. The secular half of the population, which is much more than an elite grouping of people supporting military rule, as they are sometimes portrayed – are unlikely to quietly acquiesce to what they view as submission to religious dictates. Whereas Western observers tend to view Turkish secularism as uncompromisingly anti-religious, secular Turkish opinion takes the contrary view, faulting decades of appeasement of religion for the current state of affairs. In a climate where seculars feel that the state has in fact only been secular by name and in reality “soft” on religion, the prerequisite for compromise with religious conservatism is almost non-existent.

Ultimately, the future of Turkish democracy depends on a societal consensus being reached between the secular and conservative halves of the country. By exacerbating existential tensions – about religion, lifestyle and identity – the AKP has reduced the likelihood of such a consensus. A third way, between the two extremes of continued Islamicization and a secular backlash with possible violent repercussions, would be desirable but its likelihood appears to be shrinking.

Turkey’s immediate fate may now reside in the hands of the president. President Abdullah Gül has not rubber-stamped the constitutional amendments. The president could – at least temporarily– defuse the regime crisis if he abstains from approving the amendments. But the general expectation is that Gül’s decision will be in line with his ideological affiliation.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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