The battle for secularism in Turkey
EuropeNews May 07 2008
Essay by Henrik R Clausen
Largely underreported in Western media, a significant constitutional battle is taking place in Turkey these days. On March 14th 2008, the Chief Prosecutor filed suit in Constitutional Court demanding the closure of the incumbent AKP party:
... as it is understood that the party became center of acts against the principle of secularism.
This is a very serious charge. 24 have been shut down since the 1960s, including the AKP’s predecessors, and this could very well happen again. Not one of the 11 constitutional judges voted against accepting the case. To many, this indicates that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
EU reactions to the case were swift - and openly negative - to the court's decision to accept the case:
European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn voiced renewed concern on Monday after court's decision. Rehn said he would report to the European Commission on the case on Wednesday, saying it showed a "systemic error" in the Turkey's constitutional framework.
Olli Rehn said that the court case was a mistake. Both he and Javier Solana have indicated that if the constitutional court banned the AKP, the accession negotiations would be off – or at least that is how the Turkish press have interpreted their statements. (Kerkuk.net)
In the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament, he added that it is unimaginable that a legal, popular political party which does not use or propagate violence, would be banned.
[Actually, this is not true, as such a ban took place in Belgium in 2004. Olli Rehn ignores this, as explained in this open letter.]
Other EU officials and institutions have made similar statements, on the obvious assumption that this court case constitutes some sort of illegitimate political coup against the current government of Turkey. However, in doing so the EU system falls into another trap, that of not respecting the integrity and validity of the Turkish Constitutional Court.
The stakes, obviously, are high. The European Union as well as the Turkish AKP party have both invested considerable effort and prestige in the EU accession process, and up until 2005, the project was also a significant impulse for the modernization of Turkish society. The court case is a torpedo against that project:
One person [in Brussels] working on Turkey told me that “it seems in Brussels as if Erdogan himself views the EU negotiation process as something that can be turned on and off. In fact, suspending talks is not a tactical weapon of the EU; it is the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear weapon.” The EU would certainly react very strongly to a decision by the court to ban politicians or the party. (Turkish Daily News)
Curiosly, the European Commission seems more dedicated to the project than the Turkish government.
But what is the case actually about, does it have merit, and chance of success?
First, a couple of background notes.
Turkish politics is a complex beast, and radically different from most modern political systems. The Turkish military, the Kemalist 'elite' and the so-called 'Deep state' (see Ergenekon (RFERL) for more on this issue) are unusual factors in a modern democracy.
Turkey has seen four military coups in the last half-century with the most recent one in 1997, when the first Islamist-led government was ejected after it began investigating links between the army and organized crime.
But this elite, which used to be the real power brokers of Turkey, is on its heels. A major factor in this is the rise of the so-called "Anatolian Tigers" (PBS documentary here: Anatolian Tigers), a new class of conservative Islamic businessmen, whose close ties to the AKP has developed into an informal network of mutual friendship and support. A 2003 change of the law regulating public contracts on utilities and a simultaneous reduction in retirement age to 61 years enabled the AKP party to position many supporters in the administration, and then to reward its business supporters with lucrative government contracts.
This system has worked to the mutual satisfaction of AKP and the Islamic oriented "Anatolian Tigers", much to the dismay of the traditional secular Kemalist businessmen who found themselves marginalized by this dubious amalgam of political and economical interests. Further, the system has entrenched support for AKP in the wider public, ensuring the 2007 election victory. Economic growth in Turkey, with solid support from the IMF, is rapid, and another reason for the popularity of the AKP.
What, then, would cause the Constitutional Court to attempt to derail this success?
The answer is quite straightforward, namely the Court's claim that the AKP is resuming a creeping Islamization of Turkey. This has been ongoing in small matters for some years, but the matter must be seen in the context of the preceding Refah (Welfare) Party, which was banned on January 16th 2008 under the same article, a ruling importantly upheld by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The AKP, having many former Refah members (including Erdogan, and formerly the current president Abdullah Gül) in their ranks, is seen as quietly restarting this move towards Islam. Statements by PM Erdogan have fueled the concerns, and it is worth noting that Erdogan himself was banned from politics due to Islamist statements in his time as mayor in Istanbul, and a change of law was needed to make it possible for him to enter the parliament and assume the position of prime minister of Turkey.
The issue has caused massive turmoil in Turkey, peaking with pro-secular demonstrations counting millions of participants (CBS News).
What made the public prosecutor act now was the seemingly minor issue of the headscarf. The government has made what seems like more significant moves for Islam in politics, but the headscarf is pivotal. And rightly so, as it is a very visual element of fundamentalist Islam, and embodies the concept of repression of women in Islam. Removing the ban would open the doors to intimidation against the women who do not wear Islamic clothing.
Can a court legally dissolve a political party?
Yes, this is explicitly sanctioned by the Turkish constitution, has been done repeatedly, and (as above) upheld by the ECHR. Quoting the indictment (a 25-page summary is available here: EuropeNews):
Political parties [who] ... aim to demolish democracy ... may be subject to closure.
Evidence about the existence and closeness of the threat against democracy should be convincing.
As it was witnessed in the history of Modern Europe, totalitarian movements that were organized in the form of political parties go stronger [sic] in democratic regimes and then wanted to get rid of democracy ...
Central to this is what the representatives of the AKP party have said or done, more so than what their party program may contain.
Without any doubt, statements of a party chairman and his acts bind the political party ... Such acts are more effective on voters than abstract party programs.
Whoever wrote this must be a political genius. Political statement, and in particular those that form a coherent pattern, is much more relevant than abstract programs which can be relatively easily modified anyway.
Consider the fundamental fact that a statement cannot be literally 'taken back'. Once said, it's there. More so, of course, if it has been recorded, less if it is just quoted by some journalist. The idea that a statement can be 'retracted' is largely rubbish. Statements can be admitted to be wrong, regretted, abandoned or contradicted, but it cannot be retracted. It just exists on record, and, if not contradicted, will continue to have some kind of validity, and can be returned to at a latter opportunity if so desired.
To truly and effectively annul a political statement, the person who made the statement needs to admit that it was wrong, have sincere regret for his mistake, abstain from making similar remarks in the future, and actively work for the opposite point of view.
In the case of the AKP party representatives, that would mean openly admitting that all Islamist-oriented statements and actions previously made are wrong, not to be repeated, but to be contradicted.
Take the poem read out by Erdogan in 1997: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." (BBC News) This blatantly Islamist quote earned him a 10 month prison sentence, and barred him from holding a public office in Turkey for life.
Yet, Erdogan is currently the prime minister of the country, without having solidly abandoned and contradicted his radical Islamist views, and quietly supports the perception of him as still having an Islamist agenda by working for numerous Islamist-inspired changes in Turkish society, and rarely, if ever, doing anything to the contrary.
The indictment is generally a joy to read for anyone appreciating law and logic, and contains numerous statements against political Islam that Western politicians could learn from, if they ever gain the courage to speak the truth so directly. For example:
Political Islam and its constitution sharia are not democratic but totalitarian. Political islam uses democracy as a tool and sharia as a goal. For this reason, in order to evade from watching of [sic. A more understandable wording might be: "In order to avoid respecting"] rules and institutions to protect itself, it uses the method of "takiyye" (deceit) which finds its sources in sharia.
Clear and succinct. Statements that would land most Western commentators or politicians a label of "Islamophobia" on the spot. This, however, is a verbatim quote from the public prosecutor of Turkey, who must be assumed to be Muslim, at least nominally, himself. Actually, this is a very safe assumption. It is widely known that non-Muslims in Turkey are not eligible for holding positions of significance in the Turkish administration, indicating that freedom of religion is not functioning properly. But that's a side issue. The chief prosecutor continues to explain the secular principles of the Republic of Turkey, making extensive references to the 1982 Constitution, and affirms that:
... the principle of secularism is a view which is dominant over all basic principles adopted by the Constitution and added that it is the ground for the Constitutional order.
These principles are obviously in line with the secular principles of the European Union. It is peculiar that Olli Rehn, Barroso and the other EU officials do not appreciate this application of fundamental secular principles, but instead choose to denounce the court case. They should be the first to appreciate the importance of secularism and the Rule of Law.
The indictment moves on to extensively (95 pages) document Islamistic quotes made by Prime Minister Erdogan, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, Education Minister Huseyin Celik and other high-ranking AKP members over the last decades, placing special emphasis on the issue of the headscarf ('turban' in the document) issue. It is obvious that AKP and Erdogan have been waiting for the right opportunity to ease the ban, as proof of his commitment to enable further Islamization of Turkey, as well as his systematic disregard for the principle of secularism as opposed to religiousness.
Then comes an eight page list of other acts of the AKP government against the principle of secularism. The individual changes may seem benign, yet their cumulative purpose is clear: To blend Islam into the state of Turkey, and specifically to admit students of Islam to be present in every major institution.
Finally, the prosecutor in eight pages sums up the reasons that this case is justified under Turkish law as well as under the ECHR. A couple of highlights:
The prosecutor reiterated his view to the effect that political Islam does not remain limited between the individual and the God but aims to contain the state and social system and that it is totalitarian.
... the main purpose [of AKP policies] is to create unlimited sphere of freedom for political islam under the disguise of freedom of religion and conscience.<
Here, as elsewhere in the document, we touch upon something important, yet tricky. Erdogan and the other AKP officials consistently argue for the use of the headscarf and other religious customs under the label of 'freedom'. Yet, this 'freedom' opens the door to unlimited intimidation from religious fanatics. Using only pure, abstract logic, it might seem that removing the ban on the headscarf and other religious customs would create more freedom. Yet, secular Turks are well aware of the purpose of the restrictions of religion in public life, which is why they join the large demonstrations in defense of secularism.
As Michael Rubin states on MEF:
The legal case against the AKP is an affirmation of democracy rather than an assault upon it. Democracy rests upon the rule of law and constitutionalism. Neither plurality support nor a majority in parliament should place any politician or party above the law.
European politicians should pay the utmost attention to this case, and the principles at stake in it.