Secularism Vs Democracy in Turkey

Pierre Atlas Mon Jun 16, 12:35 AM ET

ISTANBUL--Western scholars and pundits often debate whether Islam and democracy are compatible. In Turkey, a Muslim-majority country that straddles Europe and Asia culturally as well as geographically, the fundamental question may be whether Turkey s hard-line secularism and democracy are compatible.

To most Americans, it might seem strange that a country that is 99 percent Muslim would constitutionally bar observant Muslim girls from wearing the headscarf at public universities, which in effect prohibits them from acquiring a college education. Or that the democratically elected political party that holds the majority of seats in parliament would be on the verge of being declared illegal and shut down by the courts. Yet this is the political reality in Turkey today as it faces a constitutional crisis.

Turkey s democracy has some unique shortcomings. In the Republic of Turkey, founded 85 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, freedom of speech and religious practice are restricted in the name of "secularism." The Kurdish minority faces legal limitations on the right to speak or educate its children in the Kurdish language. The Turkish military plays a role in the nation s politics that is unheard of in most other democracies.

Significantly, the most notable undemocratic aspects of the Turkish political system stem not from Islam but from its official state secularism. Indeed, the moderate Islamist party in power today--the target of the secular opposition s ire--has done more to liberalize the state and society than have the guardians of Ataturk s legacy. It is the Justice and Welfare Party (known here as the AKP) that has sought to increase human rights in Turkey to meet EU membership requirements, including eliminating the death penalty and granting more freedom to the Kurds.

Ataturk and his successors deliberately and painstakingly turned Turkey into a modern, secular nation-state, in part by attempting to eliminate religion from the public square. The Ottoman political structure, which had developed over nine centuries, was abolished overnight. The Turkish language was changed from Arabic to Latin script. Traditional forms of Islamic dress were banned and, for a while, the state demanded that the Muslim call to prayer be conducted in Turkish instead of the traditional Arabic. Turkish nationalism, defined as strictly secular, became the paramount value of politics and society.

But it is far easier to change the formal political structure than it is to change the culture. Faith, in particular, can be a more powerful force than government actions that run counter to the human need for spirituality and belief. The survival of the Jews across millennia of repression testifies to this fact. So does the immediate resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It s clear in China today, and I saw it two years ago in my visit to Cuba, where the Catholic Church remained vibrant despite Fidel s attempts to marginalize and delegitimize it. Longstanding faith traditions cannot be snuffed out by government fiat.

Despite official state secularism, Islam is deeply engrained in Turkish culture. This becomes obvious when traveling around the country, seeing the minarets of mosques in most neighborhoods and the many women wearing traditional Muslim dress--even in the most modern parts of Turkish cities. As I ve discovered at dinners in people s homes, wealthy, highly educated Turks who dress in the latest European fashions can be devout followers of their Islamic faith.

There is intense distrust between the secular and religious political parties here. Observant Turks are asking for greater liberty to practice their faith in public, but their secular opponents fear this could be the first step in turning Turkey into another Iran. The great irony is that Turkey s approach to Islam, drawing upon its multicultural Ottoman past, is far more moderate, tolerant and flexible than what exists in many other Muslim-majority countries today. It is hard to imagine that allowing more freedom of religion will turn Turkey into a radical Islamist theocracy.

This week tensions came to a head. Turkey s Constitutional Court struck down an amendment to the 1982 Constitution that would have rescinded the ban on girls wearing headscarves in public universities. The court argued that the amendment violated the Constitution by undermining Turkish secularism.

But according to Turkish law, the high court is only supposed to review the procedural correctness of constitutional amendments, not their substance. All Turks seem to agree that, procedurally, there was nothing wrong with the headscarf amendment. It had been passed overwhelmingly by the AKP-dominated parliament with the support of the hard-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and was then signed into law by the AKP-affiliated president, Abdullah Gul. Many Turks, including MHP members (who are secular), believe that the court issued a blatantly political decision that was beyond the scope of its legal mandate. In American parlance, it was a radical act of "judicial activism."

The headscarf issue is just the tip of the political iceberg. The Constitutional Court is soon expected to declare the AKP, an openly Islamic party, to be illegal and ban its members--including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan--from parliament. This may preserve Turkey s secularism, but it is hard to see how it preserves its democracy.

Despite the current constitutional crisis, Turkey is a stable country in an unstable region. Prime Minister Erdogan is not the next Putin or Ahmedinejad, and the AKP is not interested in turning Turkey into the next Iran or Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a country that welcomes Israeli as well as Iranian tourists--and it is the AKP government that has provided mediation for the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Ankara.

There is a lot to suggest from Turkey s modern history and its rich Ottoman past that this crisis can be overcome in a way that could strengthen the country s democracy--if cooler heads prevail, and if the right signals are sent from Washington and the EU.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008 | 15:14 WIB 237