Spring 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1

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From the Editor:

Sally Gets Religion

God and Mammon on the Web

Off with their Head Scarves

Playing Godless

Letter to the Editor


Off With Their Head Scarves
by Colin M. Adams

The long-running power struggle between Turkey’s Muslim-oriented, elected government and its die-hard secular judiciary and military escalated dramatically in February. By June, many observers were predicting that the nation’s courts would soon dissolve the ruling political party and ban Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many of his supporters from politics for five years.

At issue is the survival of the rigid system of state secularity imposed by nation-builder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s into an era when Turkey’s newly prosperous, religiously observant, and urban middle class wants Muslims to enjoy more freedom to express their religious identity in public.

Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its parliamentary majority in elections last year, moved to challenge the nation’s secularist tradition in January. The party proposed and passed a law permitting female university students to wear head scarves that signify Muslim identity on campus.

“The ruling party set the stage for a showdown between Turkey’s secular elite—its military, judiciary and secular political party—and Mr. Erdogan, an observant Muslim with an Islamist past,” Sabrina Tavernise reported in the New York Times on June 6.

The Constitutional Court, the nation’s top judicial body, took up the gauntlet on June 5, and ruled that that the new law violated constitutional “principles of secularism.”

“The court is one of Turkey’s most important secular institutions and liberals see the ruling as largely political,” Tavernise wrote. “It bodes ominously for Mr. Erdogan: the same court is considering a case that would ban him and 70 members of his party from politics. A decision is expected in the summer.”

The London Guardian’s Robert Tait reported on June 11 that Erdogan had responded to the ruling by launching “an attempt to save his political skin…by seeking to lower tensions in a power struggle with the state’s secular establishment.

“Everyone should refrain from actions that make the rule of law, absolute supremacy of the constitution and our constitutional institutions matters of discussion,” Erdogan said in a televised address to parliament. “No one should try to benefit from such attempts. We have to take Turkey out of such a ‘clash of power’ environment.”

Arguably, it was Erdogan himself who intiated the clash of power. Laura King of the Los Angeles Times reported on May 28 that Erdogan’s government had in January introduced legislation overturning the head-scarf ban, which she described as a “political tripwire issue in Turkey.” The AKP was riding high after five years in power and winning 47 percent of the popular vote in last July’s parliamentary elections.

“After making campaign pledges that it would not impose religious values, it quickly raised the head-scarf issue, infuriating many people—particularly in big cities such as Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, where a more freewheeling secular lifestyle prevails,” King wrote.

Initially, AKP found some secularist allies willing to vote with it  to end the head-scarf ban in universities, and some thought that it would pull it off. On February 10, for example, one optimistic Turkish political analyst, Tanju Tosun, told the Washington Post’s Zehra Ayman and Ellen Knickmeye,  “This is a matter of Turkish democracy, so it’s quite hard for the military to create a reaction. The military has no choice—it must accept this result.”

Operating in the realm of wish projection, the Boston Globe even editorialized on February 19 that “both sides in this quarrel would be wise to stop obsessing over head scarves—and start cooperating on the reforms Turkey needs.” The view from Massachusetts was that the real issue was speech:

“Above all, secularists and moderate Islamists need to work together to change the infamous Article 301 of the penal code, which allows the state to prosecute citizens for insulting ‘Turkishness.’ By criminalizing free speech, this grotesque anxiety about Turkish identity only identifies Turkey as an unfree country.”

But by March, state prosecutors—the watchdogs of the secular tradition—had filed appeals challenging the new law. The nation’s chief prosecutor then filed a 162-page indictment against Erdogan and 70 colleagues, charging them with seeking to undermine the constitution. It was the Constitutional Court ruling on that indictment—still pending in mid-June—that was expected to result in the suppression of the AKP and Erdogan’s deposition from power.

The controversy presents problems of interpretation. Throughout the spring, journalists and scholars have been debating which side stands for democracy and human rights and which for authoritarian values. Indeed, both sides may be ambivalent about where they stand.

Erdogan presented the case for lifting the ban on head scarves—which effectively prevents many Turkish women from enrolling in higher education—as a matter of individual human rights, contending that Turks should be able to attend universities no matter what they wear or believe. He also said the change was necessary for Turkey to win entry into the European Union.

“But the way his party proposed [the law]—abruptly with little public discussion—angered the secular old guard and disappointed liberals, who support the changes but want them to be accompanied by changes that strengthen other rights, like free speech,” the Times’ Tavinese wrote on June 6. “Some said the AKP seemed to be pursuing only those changes that would please its constituency, and not the broader range that was needed to join the European Union.”

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute seconded that view in a June 6 Wall Street Journal column, in which he claimed acidly that “Mr. Erdogan’s impatience with the rule of law and his dictatorial tendencies make him appear less an aggrieved democrat and more of a protégé of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—a man whom Western officials now acknowledge may be a dictator.”

For their part, Turkish authorities and the military have repeatedly intervened to overturn democratically elected governments that they feared were trying to modify the nation’s rigidly secular tradition. At least 20 political parties have been suppressed by Turkish courts, and Erdogan himself has already suffered one five-year ban from politics.

But the rise of the AKP poses unprecedented challenges for the secularist old guard because Turkey has been changing profoundly. Modernity is not turning out to be much like Ataturk wanted and expected it to be.

Erdogan and the AKP are viewed by most Turks as a successful force for economic reform. Almost everyone in Turkey is Muslim, although many are not highly observant. When the secular republic was established in 1923, Ataturk succeeded in mobilizing an urban, Western-oriented minority to assert firm control over Muslim practice, rendering it politically neuter. This secular system of government has allowed Turkey to straddle the line between Europe and the Middle East. 

But, as Tavernise of the Times put it on January 30, Ataturk’s system has long constrained democracy:  “The system he set up was secular but divided by class, with the urban elite, known as ‘white Turks,’ intervening when they thought political leaders elected by the poorer, observant heartland were veering off course.”

That’s harder now because, over the last 30 years, many of those poor, observant Turks from the countryside have moved into cities, where they have become a large, affluent middle class whose religious beliefs conflict with the fierce secularism of the urban elite.

The ban on religious clothing in universities and public buildings prevents many observant Turks from getting an education and jobs in the public sphere. As a result, many of the observant have found their political voice in the AKP, which is dominated by more conservative Muslims but committed to pragmatic economic policies and membership in the EU.

Given this shifting balance in Turkish society, many believed at the turn of the year that the AKP might be able to modify the laws constraining Muslim self-assertion in the public square. On January 31, for example, it seemed to Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe and Mail that “Turkey’s desire to become a member of the European Union has tended to trump the church-and-state debate.”

But that turned out to undervalue the intensity of the secular old guard’s view that traditional Islam is backward and lower class. Hasan Bulent Kahrama, an Istanbul professor, captured the dynamic crisply in Tavernise’s February 19 Times article: “Cleaning ladies are all in head scarves, and no one says anything. But if a judge wants to cover her head, the problem is triggered.”

As the spring progressed, these sorts of tensions broke into the open. The Los Angeles Times’s Laura King reported on May 28 that female students—religious and secular—had stopped mixing together at a popular social spot on the campus of Istanbul University. “We are uneasy with them, and they are uneasy with us,” said Yasmin Saglan, a 24-year-old history major. “I wasn’t against them before, but the scarf has become a political symbol and I see it as a threat.”

Then came the Constitutional Court’s terse revocation of the AKP’s head-scarf law. By mid-June, most reporters agreed that things looked grim for Erdogan.

“The legal struggle is widely regarded as a crisis for Turkey, but one more like a drifting iceberg than a speeding locomotive,” wrote King, who detected “signs of paralysis” in Turkish politics and economic life.

If the AKP were banned, it could reconstitute and rename itself, and return to political life, although without many of its senior leaders. It could use its majority in parliament to call new elections, which it might well win. But, on the other hand, it lacks the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to amend the constitution. And the threat of military intervention remains.

None of this is encouraging for those who see Turkey as the best example of the ultimate compatibility of democracy and Islam.

The rising global Islamist movement is embroiled in its own epochal debate about whether an authentically Islamic government can and must respect individual freedoms and the equality of all citizens,” Harvard law professor Noah Feldman wrote in a New York Times op-ed June 8. “The best possible refutation of the claim that Islam and democracy are incompatible would be to point to an existing government where liberal and Islamic values work together.”

But it’s a refutation that may not come any time soon from Turkey.


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