BACKGROUND: The scene was evocative: Deniz Baykal, leader of the staunchly pro-secular Republican people’s party, CHP, personally fixing the pin of his party on women in black chador. The event recently took place at a CHP meeting in one of Istanbul’s working class suburbs, and it has dominated the political discussion in Turkey since mid-November. Baykal’s move, apparently prepared by the party’s local Istanbul branch, has caused uproar among die-hard secularists within the CHP itself, who assail it as an unacceptable concession to religious conservatism.
Party leader Deniz Baykal is being accused of catering to Islamist sentiments in the short-sighted expectation of attracting new voters in the upcoming local elections in March 2009, and of being no better than the AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in exploiting the Islamic headscarf to political ends. The secularist opponents of Baykal object to the overture not only on account of the party’s long cherished principles, but equally call the presumed tactical considerations behind it into question. They ask how the new party line will be reconciled with the firm opposition that the CHP has mounted against the introduction of the Islamic headscarf in the universities and in public offices. And they question the assumption that it will provide CHP with new voters; on the contrary, it may lead to the party losing ground among its core supporters, they assert.
Deniz Baykal rejects the secularist criticism. “Are we supposed to tell people who knock on the door of our party, “No, your dresses are not appropriate”? Or are we supposed to tell them to change their clothes first? Would that be reasonable? Are we expected to return to the mentality that reigned during the one-party era (1923 to 1950), when gendarmes prevented peasants from entering the central parts of Ankara because they wore their traditional clothes?”
Baykal denies that the overture to veiled women amounts to making use of the headscarf and the veil as political symbols. “On the contrary, we contribute to the de-politicization of the veil. From now on, you will not be able to assume that every woman you see on the street who wears the headscarf is an AKP supporter. It will be evident that women in headscarf may as well be supporters of the CHP. Our move thus signifies that the political symbolism attached to the headscarf has been effectively shattered.”
To those of his critics who challenge the assumption that the move will pay off electorally, who maintain that CHP will never attract religiously conservative voters whatever it does, Baykal retorts that there are already women in headscarf, even in chador, among the party’s voters. “As it happens, there are uncovered as well as covered women among those who are opposed to Atatürk and secularism”, Baykal notes. Nor does the CHP leader see any contradiction in welcoming veiled women as party members while simultaneously upholding the principle that religious symbols must be kept out of public offices: “Our citizens can dress as they choose. But we will not admit to the veiling of the state. That is an altogether different question.”
IMPLICATIONS: The CHP’s overture to the veil and the chador augurs a new era in the politics of Turkey. The political cards are being re-arranged as political parties – not only the CHP – reinvent themselves. Significantly, the line separating secularists and religious conservatives is becoming increasingly blurred. In fact, what the CHP is doing amounts to copying the AKP’s long-standing strategy. The success of the Islamic conservative AKP is in large part due to the party’s ability to harness a range of different, indeed contradictory ideological causes. The AKP has not only been the party of religious conservatism, but it has also successfully appropriated the political banners of EU membership for Turkey, freedom, economic liberalism and social equality. However, lately the AKP has come to sound more nationalistic than anything else. (See 21 Nov. issue of the Turkey Analyst)
Meanwhile, the CHP had until recently restricted itself exclusively to the cause of secularism in its rhetoric, and had consequently been unable to reach out to a wider electorate in the way the AKP has succeeded in doing. The welcoming of women in veil and in black chador is proof that the leadership of CHP has realized that the party must adjust to the reality that religious conservatism is the defining paradigm of Turkish society today, and that the message of the party will have to be broadened.
Yet, while such repositioning makes perfect sense in tactical, electoral terms, the reinvention of the CHP is not without risks either. The Republican people’s party will have to strike a balance between principles and tactics; if the core identity of the party is perceived to be diluted, it is bound to become difficult for the CHP to preserve the loyalty of some of its more traditional supporters.
However, it should also be noted that the perception of CHP – indeed shared both by its die-hard Kemalist core and its liberal and conservative detractors – as a staunchly secularist party prone to hectoring (or educating, in the eyes of the Kemalists) the conservative masses is partly un-historical. While there is a wide-spread perception of the CHP as an elitist party supposedly insensitive to popular, religious values, the appeasement of religious sentiments is not new to the party. In a landmark party congress in the 1930s, when the CHP ruled as single party, the CHP tellingly desisted from calling for a ban on the veil and the chador, settling for a pronouncement that women should be encouraged to free themselves from veiling. The first theological faculty, as well as the first imam school, was inaugurated under CHP rule in the 1940s. Compulsory religious education at elementary school level was introduced under a government led by the CHP in the 1970s.
Indeed, it is to that later era that those who make overtures to popular conservatism today refer – an era when the CHP, under the leadership of Bülent Ecevit, developed an explicitly populist posture and significantly scored its best electoral result ever. Deniz Baykal employs the term “Anatolian left” to denote the ideology that is to inspire CHP, by which he means a left that is anchored in the values of the Anatolian heartland of Turkey. That obviously has a democratic sound to it, yet the rights of women do not figure pre-eminently among those Anatolian heartland values. That inevitably presents a dilemma for a party that aspires to be progressive as well as popular.
Although it may admittedly be a difficult exercise to reconcile both aims, ideally the CHP would convey the message that the party excludes no part of the population in its progressive endeavor. In that perspective, the overture to veiled women was not particularly well handled. As it were, the message that came across – largely as a result of the setup at the ceremony where only women in veil and in black chador were welcomed to the party – was that the “new” CHP stands for “freedom for the chador”, and not necessarily for all women’s rights. Liberal commentator Haluk Sahin in Radikal bemoaned that the opportunity to send the signal that CHP cares for women’s rights in general was missed: “The message ought to have been that we will fight against any infringement of those rights, whether it is about honor killings, the plight of HIV-positive prostitutes or about being able to wear the headscarf”.
CONCLUSIONS: On the one hand, the CHP’s most recent overture to religious conservatism carries the potential to reduce the polarization of Turkish society between secularists and religious conservatives, and may contribute to the emergence of the CHP as a real alternative to the AKP. The fact that a party that has come to be associated – rightly or wrongly – with dogmatic secularism reaches out across the great divide of Turkish society, could eventually ease the way for a democratic reconciliation of secularism and religious conservatism. And apparently, the CHP is making some headway among the conservatives. Yet, the CHP’s move could just as easily be interpreted as a sacrifice of principles, as a sign that the party has come to care less about the protection and enhancement of secularism than of being able to conquer power.
It is one thing to broaden the message of the party and being inclusive, and another thing to seem to care less about core principles. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, deputy chairman of the CHP’s parliamentary group, recently told this author in November that “henceforth we are going to address ourselves to the mosque congregations”. “Secularism”, declared Kiliçdaroglu, “is something that resounds among the more sophisticated parts of the population”.
Obviously, the pro-secular CHP cannot afford to neglect to take into consideration the tactical implications of the popular implantation of religious conservatism. There is a fine line between seeking to be inclusive, by reaching out to veiled women, and conveying the impression of having no trouble with the kind of female submission that the veil and the chador nevertheless stand for. Ultimately, the opening of CHP to the veil and the black chador, and the acknowledgement of the party leadership that secularism is a dead end politically, raises the question if secularism would indeed fare better if the "secularists" chose to speak less about it.