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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On Turkish Politics, Or, Are Headscarves A Constitutional Threat?

When you live in the place where Europe and Asia meet, you are just bound to be strategically important, and so it is for Turkey, so it was for Turkey’s antecedents Anatolia and Ionia in times past, and so it will be long into the future.

When you’re that strategically important and your Supreme Court is going to hear a case that could result in your President and Prime Minister—and the Nation’s majority political party—being banned from politics, it’s big news.

For some reason that news is not in the headlines in the United States—and it absolutely should be. Lucky for you, your friendly fake consultant has been on the case, and you will get a story today that touches on the confluence of Islam and secularism, military coups, and the desire of one of our allies to become a member of the European Union…and the European’s fear of what might happen if they do.

We cannot tell this story, however, without understanding the nature of Turkish secularism. I’m going to abbreviate the story here, but I strongly encourage those seeking a deeper history to review Thomas Patrick Carroll’s Middle East Intelligence Bulletin article “Turkey's Justice and Development Party: A Model for Democratic Islam?”.

The continuum of Islamic influence began before the Ottoman Empire, and was supposed to be ended by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Sharia Law was replaced by a secular legal Code, and the concept of laiklik (national secularism) was introduced. Carroll describes laiklik this way:

“...This term is often translated into English as 'laicism' or, more commonly, 'secularism,' which implies the separation of religion and state into two distinct and autonomous realms. But laiklik, as practiced in Turkey, is not so much the separation of religion and the state, as it is the subordination of religion to the state. As one prominent expert notes,

“This is a crucial difference in the Turkish context. The state controls the education of religious professionals and their assignment to mosques and approves the content of their sermons. It also controls religious schools and the content of religious education and enforces laws about the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public spaces and institutions.””

In the 30 years between 1950 and 1980 governments came and went—and when the military establishment determined some of the political parties involved strayed a bit too far from accepted secular norms a coup would follow (there were three coups during that time); along the way political parties were banned and reformed under new guises. The military actually banned all political parties in 1980 and supervised the writing of a new Constitution which includes these provisions:

ARTICLE 2. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law; bearing in mind the concepts of public peace, national solidarity and justice; respecting human rights; loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, and based on the fundamental tenets set forth in the Preamble.

ARTICLE 4. The provision of Article 1 of the Constitution establishing the form of the state as a Republic, the provisions in Article 2 on the characteristics of the Republic, and the provision of Article 3 shall not be amended, nor shall their amendment be proposed.

“ARTICLE 14. (As amended on October 17, 2001) None of the rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution shall be exercised with the aim of violating the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation, and endangering the existence of the democratic and secular order of the Turkish Republic based upon human rights.

No provision of this Constitution shall be interpreted in a manner that enables the State or individuals to destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution or to stage an activity with the aim of restricting them more extensively than stated in the Constitution.

The sanctions to be applied against those who perpetrate these activities in conflict with these provisions shall be determined by law.

ARTICLE 24. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction.

Acts of worship, religious services, and ceremonies shall be conducted freely, provided that they do not violate the provisions of Article 14.

No one shall be compelled to worship, or to participate in religious ceremonies and rites, to reveal religious beliefs and convictions, or be blamed or accused because of his religious beliefs and convictions.

Education and instruction in religion and ethics shall be conducted under state supervision and control. Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Other religious education and instruction shall be subject to the individual’s own desire, and in the case of minors, to the request of their legal representatives.

No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the state on religious tenets.”

What’s all that mean? It means Turkey shall be secular, that this cannot be changed, that no group may seek to restrict secularism, that the State shall determine the manner of religious instruction (and by extension, control the instructors), and that no one may use religion as a means of creating a change in the secular structure—or for advancing their own personal influence.

And now we get to the part where headscarves have come to be a Constitutional problem. The hijab is worn, Canadian Government officials tell us, by at least 2/3 of Turkish women—but it may not be worn “in public institutions...including schools, universities, and the civil service...”

As you can imagine, those restrictions have profound impacts on Turkish women particularly, and the entire population generally. Add into the mix the efforts on the part of the Turkish “secularist establishment” to encourage the use of Islam as a stabilizing force upon the population and you have the need to resolve some serious societal conflicts. (This is hardly a uniquely Turkish problem, by the way—-several European nations are struggling with this issue.) Ataturk’s old Party, the CHP, has seen its influence wane as a new secularist Islamic political movement has emerged—most recently in the form of the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials AKP).

Since 2002, the Party has been quite successful in expanding its reach and influence; and today Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül, and the largest group of representatives in Turkey’s Parliament are all members of the AKP. (That success has been so complete that Mr. Erdoğan is today Prime Minister--despite having been banned from politics for life in 1998.)

The Party also had great electoral success in Turkey’s local elections of 2004, and they today control the entire country’s local political landscape—except for a region of Kurdish influence near the Iraqi and Iranian borders to the southwest, a few spots near Georgia and Armenia to the northeast, a region of the central interior, and, ironically, the regions of Turkey that were the first areas of Greek colonization so long ago, where the CHP still holds sway.

It has been suggested that the AKP’s ability to incorporate Kurdish political aspirations toward a more pro-Turkish orientation, ands away from Kurdish nationalism contributed considerably to that success.

The AKP, upon assuming power, had sought to moderate some of the secularism restrictions (which they perceive as not just secularist, but anti-Islamic, and prohibited by the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom), and to that end they introduced a Constitutional amendment that would allow everyone equal access to government services. The effect of the amendment would have been to permit the wearing of the hijab in universities. The CHP filed suit seeking redress, and the Constitutional Court ruled on June 5th that Article 2 of the Constitution had indeed been violated, relying in part on precedent from a 1989 ruling:

"The basis of the democratic structure is national sovereignty. The democratic order also opposes the supremacy of religious values, the Sharia. A ruling giving particular prevalence to religious values cannot be democratic. A democratic state can only be secular. Regulations contingent upon religion are accompanied by religious zeal and constraints, which cause religious conflicts. This eventually leads to a loss of quality in the freedom, majority control, and tolerance of the democracy."

In March charges were filed against the AKP itself alleging that the Party has a secret agenda to promote Islam to the detriment of secularism, again in violation of Article 2. Today Turkey’s Constitutional Court will hear the arguments of Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, to be followed Thursday by the AKP’s defense presentation.

Should the Prosecution prevail, the court would ban the Party from further activity, and 71 current elected officials—including the President and Prime Minister—would find themselves similarly banished from political life.

And that’s where Europe gets involved. The AKP has been highly successful in leading Turkey into a period of economic liberalization—and prosperity. All this success has given Turkey a shot at being invited to join the European Union...and banning the AKP may “throw a spanner” in those chances.

So that’s the story: a secularist country with a population that is majority Islamic may ban a political party that has sought to resolve some of the tensions inherent in this contradictory situation...and that ban might be important to protect the Turkish nation, or a political ploy designed to return a minority Party to power.

As we said at the top, this is a huge story with profound implications for an important strategic ally...and just as has happened so many times in the past, what happens on the Bosporus has the potential to be felt all the way from Gaul to Persia.

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