Turkey Buys Some Time

I have blogged about the tenuous state of secularism in Turkey before, and now there is some slightly good news to report. As Scott Powell mentioned on his blog, Powell History Recommends, in April:
Turkey’s supreme court has accepted a case that could lead to a ban on the ruling party. The AKP party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though democratically elected, has a platform that contradicts the secularist tenets of Turkey’s constitution. If it isn’t stopped by the court, another military coup is likely to occur.
The court case Scott referred to dealt with the passage of a law by the AKP-ruled government that lifted the ban on headscarves worn in public institutions and universities. From CNN we find that the "good guys" won this round:
Turkey's top court has upheld a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves at the country's universities.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the Turkish Parliament overstepped its bounds earlier this year when it passed constitutional amendments that would have led to allowing universities granting women the right to wear headscarves.
Why is this important? Because Turkey is in a pitched battle with itself, and its place in the Middle East as the most secular state around hangs in the balance (admittedly, that's not saying much). Says Scott in a great post that outlines the history of Turkey and its limping, crippled attempt to modernize (make sure to read the whole thing - this is but an excerpt):
By the time Turkey was formed in 1923, the educated Westernized intelligentsia still constituted less than 10% of its population. Most of the people were still agricultural peasants, and still under the sway of their local imams (”priests”).

Not surprisingly therefore, when Turkey’s great modern leader, Mustafa Kemal, came to power after WWI, he found that it was necessary to “force the people to be free.” He would establish a benevolent, secularist dictatorship, until a more stable foundation could be erected and the people could be entrusted to direct their own progress.

Primary and secondary education were secularized. Women were emancipated, and given access to all levels of education. All symbols of traditional submission, such as long beards and headscarfs, were eliminated within government institutions. Even the alphabet and the calendar were Westernized. Given such measure, within a few generations, perhaps, the people would be ready.

It may seem surprising that Kemal, and his successor Ismet Inonu, who were both oppressive dictators after a fashion, were indeed committed to freedom. They definitely crushed any opposition–often violently. Critics could be exiled, or just as likely hanged in public, while the reform program was imposed upon the people. Still, Turkey’s leaders continually tinkered with democratic forms, trying to expand the peoples’ participation in the government.

Sadly, they found them still incapable of understanding and defending their own freedom. In 1950, hoping that the time had come, Inonu allowed the first free elections to be held, and the incumbent regime was removed. From this point on, Turkey’s history is a dizzying, erratic succession of democratic and military regimes, with coups almost as numerous as elections. The army, the most westernized institution in the country, has repeatedly defied the majority of the population’s wish to re-inject Islam into the government. Most recently, a democratically elected Islamic party was ousted by the military in a 1997 coup, only to be succeeded by a new democratic regime whose leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also intends a shift towards Islamism.

The situation in Turkey is inherently unstable.

With the recent court ruling, reasserting secular practices on a divided people, it appears that Turkey has taken steps to slow its seemingly inevitable descent into Islamism. Without a fundamental shift in political philosophy, however, this is just rearranging deck chairs. Turkey is fighting the growing influence of Islamism, but the only weapon it has is the historical example Kemal. He established a "benevolent, secularist dictatorship," but there is no indication that the people themselves widely adopted those ideas. Secularism--not secular ideas themselves, but a particular set of commandments in the constitution viewed now almost as "revealed truth"--is now limping along from rote memory. Why maintain secularism? "Because we have always done so." Or, "Because Kemal said so." It's a reactionary response from entrenched centers of power. And that offers very little protection from a virulent, violent ideology like Islamism.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the court ruling can be termed a victory for the "good guys". The question is: Is it ever proper (or practical) to violate a principle for perceived short term gains?. The principle here being that the state should have no say in the personal lives of the people.

C. August said...

That's a good point, K.M. I put the scare quotes around "good guys" because I meant it in relative terms to the Islamist faction. And though they aren't truly good, at least they're trying to keep from adopting an official state religion. It's all part of "the history of Turkey and its limping, crippled attempt to modernize."

You're absolutely right about the core principle. Even a "benevolent secular dictatorship" is still a dictatorship and is still wrong. Thanks for adding a key piece that I neglected to mention.

Stephen Bourque said...

Good post.

The terrible irony with Turkey - and the reason the situation is unstable - is that what little freedom is to be had has to be essentially forced down the citizens’ throats via edict. If true democracy (i.e. majority rule) were permitted to flourish, the people would probably vote themselves into a theocracy, extinguishing freedom outright. As long as democracy is mistaken as liberty, this confusion will persist.