Backtracking From Secularism

After the Second Victory of Turkey’s Conservative AKP, An Islamic State There is Becoming Increasingly Likely

Kemal Mustafa, or Atatürk, the founder and first president of modern secular Turkish | Photo: Govt of Turkey

A pro-secular rally in Istanbul this last year | Photo: Miguel Carminati

pro-secular rally in Istanbul this last year | Photo: Miguel Carminati

Atatürk

Kemal Mustafa, or Atatürk, the founder and first president of modern secular Turkish | Photo: Govt of Turkey

Turkey is in trouble. After the second victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and a growing conservatism over the last six months, it is increasingly easy to envision that the secular Turkey of Atatürk will soon become something quite different – and we may be adding the “Islamic” in front of its name, like the Islamic Republic of Iran.

What leads to this pessimism? After all, wasn’t it Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party who started the negotiations to join the EU? Didn’t he declare before the elections that they had no secret agenda, as the secularists claim, but a conservative democrat party like the Christian Democrats in Europe?

“We are for human rights and freedom and we do our best to have European standards in human rights and democracy,” Erdogan has said repeatedly, most recently at the World Human Rights Day ceremony Oct. 12, 2007.

But what he does stands in total contradiction to what he says. With US support and an absolute majority in Parliament, he will not even have to wait for the next election to implement the “non-existent” secret agenda.

Indeed Erdogan, President Abdullah Gül, the parliamentary ministers and bureaucrats have already implemented a lot. For example Erdogan recently announced an upcoming change to the constitution to allow women to wear headscarves at the university. Two days later, another member of his party said the change would apply to all public places including high schools, primary schools, hospitals, etc. But if it is acceptable to wear a headscarf at the University of Vienna and many other schools and universities in all over Europe and the U.S., what is so problematic about this?

Nothing, if it were only about human rights. As a lecturer at Webster and the University of Vienna, it has never disturbed me to have students wearing a headscarf in my classes. But this is different, and the way it was done gives a clear hint of his “secret agenda.”

A pro-secular rally in Istanbul this last year | Photo: Miguel Carminati

“We will have this law passed in any case,” Erdogan said following the announcement. “We do not need to ask anyone for permission. Now that we have the power, we can do what ever we want to.”

And while the prime minister talks about unlimited power and changing the constitution, President Abdullah Gül welcomes the world’s most famous dictator: Ömer El Besir, the President of Sudan, who came to power with a military putsch, installed a very strict sharia regime and is responsible for the deaths of some 400,000 Sudanese, a probable genocide.

None of this is consistent with international standards of human rights, democracy or joining the EU. At the same time, in the eastern parts of Turkey, women are being forced to cover their heads by their parents, husbands, relatives, neighbours or friends. Earlier they had been able to withstand the pressure by arguing that they wanted to go to school, where they were not allowed to cover their head. Or by saying, “I am working at a public school or bank or hospital and the law does not allow me to cover my head.”  With the extreme pressure many women will feel under the new law, the streets of Istanbul may soon look no different from the streets of Tehran.

pro-secular rally in Istanbul this last year | Photo: Miguel Carminati

Equally disturbing is the silence, which I believe stems from fear. Many people do not openly protest or even comment on these changes because they fear for their jobs or even being accosted on the streets by radical Islamists. Most are aware of the pressure the government exerts on the police, as well as over the justice system. Recently,  Minister of Finance Kemal Unakitan revealed inadvertently over an open microphone the planned replacement of career civil servants with political appointments. Reports of the slip stayed on the news for one day before being suppressed. In a western democracy this would have been a scandal costing the minister his job. In Turkey, nothing happened and there were no explanations.

All of this is discouraging.  As a secularist and a democrat, I find it depressing that the next elections will probably not change the picture.

Still, unlike other liberal secularists in my country who are willing to call out the army push to stop this nightmare, I believe it should be done within the democracy. Why should I want another form of dictatorship to replace the existing one?

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