Defending a secular Turkey – but what kind?

Defending a secular Turkey – but what kind?

There”s a Turkish saying: “Thursday”s coming is clear from Wednesday.” It”s just not clear what Thursday will bring. Turkey”s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has joined with the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to introduce a constitutional amendment allowing women to wear headscarves in public universities. Their coalition secured enough votes at the Turkish Parliament to bring about this change. On Saturday, indeed, the bill was accepted.

The question is whether that amendment will help strengthen democracy and freedom of religion in Turkey, or whether it will help consolidate traditionalist Islamic practices, and therefore change the nature of the country. There is fear in Turkey that traditionalist Islamic practices may not be compatible with a secular democratic government. In fact, Turkey”s experience with balancing the two interests is not yet regarded as a successful test case, because the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is not really perceived as a “Muslim” by many in the Islamic world. Islamists both inside and outside Turkey have challenged the concept of secular democracy since the modern Turkish state was founded – and it”s possible that this form of government will not stand.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that lifting the ban on headscarves is about individual freedom. Erdogan is correct; people should have the right to dress as they wish, and restricting freedoms can only be bad for a society. But he skillfully sidesteps the very nature of many of Turkey”s Muslim populations. Unlike the Western world, Muslims are more focused on community and subordination to community can be easily abused. Furthermore, the challenge comes down to the person in Turkey who represents this change.

“How can you say that people who wear the headscarf are not secular?” Erdogan said recently. He followed this with another question: “What happens if the headscarf is being used as a political symbol?” That”s the whole point. Erdogan has a strong background in “political Islam.” In a 1993 speech in Bursa, Erdogan argued that it was not possible for a Muslim to be both a Muslim and secular simultaneously. “[Secularism] will surely come to an end if people want,” he said. After securing a strong victory for a second term in July 2007, Erdogan ignored the opposition parties and is not consensus-oriented. Therefore, it is not the freedom to wear a headscarf that matters, but who supports it and the mindset he or she represents – or whatever hidden agenda lies behind it.

Like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP has successfully won the hearts of the people by going door to door, distributing food, coal, sometimes money, and even gold. They work in neighborhoods, creating employment opportunities for those who support them. That”s how they take over local governments and state institutions. Such centralized control contradicts the idea of individual liberty and pushes people to assume a group identity. Moreover, Erdogan wants to secure a sweeping victory in the local elections scheduled for 2009. It”s no secret that he”s using the headscarf card, for example, to win over Kurdish support – especially in Diyarbakir, the hotbed of Kurdish nationalism.

The constitutional amendment lifting the ban on headscarves was not the primary debate, however, in the run-up to the Saturday; the main argument was over changing the Constitution. There is, indeed, a need to change it, since the current Constitution was written after the last military coup in 1982, and over the course of more than 80 revisions it has become distorted. More importantly, people feel alienated from the document, regardless of whether they are Islamist or secular.

The AKP has asked a group of law professors to write a new draft Constitution, and they have. However, numerous past proposals have failed to bring about much-needed change. The AKP has not claimed ownership of the draft, and no one knows what the government”s draft Constitution looks like. It”s also unclear whether the AKP will soon introduce the draft to Parliament. Or if it does, it”s also unclear how it will deal with “secularism” in its context.

The headscarf agreement between the AKP and MHP has already pushed more than 100,000 Turks – mainly women – into the streets of Ankara to protest the amendment. The Republican People”s Party, the leading opposition party, continues to oppose the bill. It has promised to challenge the validity of this bill before the Constitutional Court, which means that Turkey will spend a lot of time discussing secularism in 2008.

But the headscarf discussion is not the primary, nor even the most important, trouble that Turkish society has. The reasons why political Islam has kept growing is, and the question will not be discussed. Turkey”s secular and liberal elites do not want to face the fact that they have actually failed to create a contemporary Islam that would have incapacitated political Islamists long ago, or to raise their society from the bottom up with education, an improved economy and social standards. The outcome of this experiment will affect opinions throughout the Middle East, and hopefully there will be voices supporting a secular Turkey.

But one thing is clear: Turkey”s lawmakers are the most experienced in revising their Constitution. The 1961 Constitution moved forward without the approval of the Democratic Party. It did not last long. More revisions came about between 1971 and 1973. Today, the AKP may have won a decisive victory in the general election, and it may secure the support of one prominent opposition party to bring about a change on the headscarf issue. But Turks have proven that until all segments of society are included, no Constitution lasts long.

This time, if the government addresses only the headscarf issue, while failing to consider, for example, an expected constitutional amendment on freedom of expression and opinion, Turkey may come to represent where the bridge between East and West is broken off.

Tulin Daloglu is an independent Turkish journalist. She ran for Parliament in 2002(as a member of the New Turkey Party) and now works in Washington. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.