Rethinking secularism, The headscarf controversy:

Turkey’s coup by court

posted by Jenny White

Running like a geological fault beneath Turkey is a long-standing split between the popularly elected government and the state. The elected government (at present dominated by the Islam-influenced Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP) is at odds with the state, which includes the military, judiciary, and other administrative institutions. Today the country is face to face with what many see as a judicial coup d’etat as the Constitutional Court deliberates whether or not to ban the popularly elected ruling party and bring down the government. This decision by seven judges (the minimum needed to convict) will change Turkey’s future.

The state sees itself as the guardian of secularism and of the integrity of the Turkish nation-state. The government, on the other hand, sees itself as representing the interests of the electorate, a large percentage of which is devout or conservative in lifestyle. The state has consistently interfered in the working of the elected government since the first multi-party election in 1950. There have been three coups against elected governments, several operations just short of a coup, and the Constitutional Court has shut down 24 political parties. The usual reason given is to safeguard secularism against elected parties seen as being too Islamic.

The AKP is the offspring of a series of overly Islamist, at times pro-shariah parties that all were closed down over the past twenty years. The earlier parties, led by Necmettin Erbakan, were influenced by the Nakshibendi Sheikh Mehmed Zahid Kotku and by Islamist writers like Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, whose works were translated into Turkish in the 1970s. They advocated Islam as a political project in place of Westernization. In 1975 Erbakan laid out his vision, Millî Görüş or National View, which was a nationalist form of Islamism with a strong racialist component based on Turkishness, Turkish blood and history. Millî Görüş advocated withdrawing from NATO and the West in general, but was not against modernization. In fact, Islam provided an authentic Turkish justification of modernization that did not rely on the West, and it also provided a justification for orienting Turkey to the Middle East, that is, to its former Ottoman territories.

By 2000 the charismatic junior party member Recep Tayyip Erdogan eclipsed Erbakan’s ideas with a more moderate, liberal conception of the role of Muslims in politics. Erdogan founded the AKP, which claims to have abandoned Millî Görüş altogether, including both its ethno-nationalist and Islamist views, and to have become a conservative democratic party. The idea is that Muslims bring their moral values to politics, but run a secular system. There is still a strong Islamic component to the party, but its roots have shifted from Nakshibendi influence to the more globally oriented Nurcu, particularly the Fethullah Gülen movement that focuses on modernizing Islam through education and popularizing it through outreach. There are estimated to be between five and six million followers of Fethullah Gülen’s Nurcu movement, many in business and the professions. Pro-business currents based explicitly on Muslim ethics have become prominent within Turkish Islam and the pious business community has become very successful, especially in the Anatolian provinces. The confrontation between government and state is in many ways a power struggle between the old secular and the new pious elites.

Both the AKP and the secularist supporters of the state have a problematic relationship to democracy. The secularist side is quite open about their discomfort with liberal democracy, with some people wishing for a coup to get rid of the hated government and its Islamic influence. The AKP, despite its liberal rhetoric, has applied democratic principles in an a la carte way that betrays a functional attitude toward reform. For instance, while the government has pushed to repeal the ban on headscarves in universities, it has not followed through on promises to expand and protect the rights of Christians and minority Alev Muslims. The AKP recently made only cosmetic changes to the notorious Article 301 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting Turkishness, and which has been used to muzzle writers, activists, publishers and scholars, including Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Having said this, the AKP government has made some strides in aligning Turkey’s laws and institutions with EU standards as part of the accession process and is in the process of replacing the military-designed constitution with a new civilian constitution. While this is a good thing for democratic liberalization, it must also be seen as part of the continuing battle between government and state, since many of these changes will increase the realm of Islamic practice and discourse in society, and reduce the ability of the military and nationalist courts to step in to stop it.

The state’s saber-rattling continued last year when the military issued a memorandum on its website in effect threatening to intervene if the AKP’s choice for president, Abdullah Gül, was elected by the AKP-dominated parliament. Gül’s wife wears a headscarf, which an opposition party MP recently likened to Nazi Brown Shirts. The AKP government responded to the threat by calling early elections, winning 47% of the vote, which insulated it somewhat from outright military interference. So Gül and his veiled wife moved into the presidential palace and the AKP, buyoed by its strong electoral showing, began to focus more on Islamic concerns, for instance rescinding the headscarf ban and restricting the sale of alcohol. Reforms dealing with minority rights, freedom of speech, and so on, languished. In other words, in what appears to be a display of hubris, the AKP squandered the political capital it had built up and provided fodder for those arguing that the AKP is just using democracy to undermine Turkey’s secularism and make it into an Islamic state. It’s a long leap from allowing the headscarf in universities to imposing sharia law—and I don’t believe AKP has any interest in making that leap—but the battle between the government and the state’s secular nationalist supporters is intensifying around these issues.

Turkey at present is experiencing a slow-motion coup as its Constitutional Court hears a case against the AKP that accuses it of undermining the secular nature of the state and seeks to close the party and ban 71 members and former members of the party from politics, including Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gül. If seven justices on the 11-member Constitutional Court vote to convict, this will in effect topple the popularly elected government. The indictment cites as evidence, among other things, the parliamentary approval in February of a constitutional amendment to allow university students to wear a headscarf, even though the law was appealed and has been overturned.

Other “crimes” against secularism mentioned in the indictment are statements by Prime Minister Erdogan in which he calls Turkey a Muslim society, a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell calling Turkey a “moderate Islamic republic,” and Erdogan’s participation in the U.S. “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which the indictment defines as an American project aimed at installing moderate Islamic regimes in the region. The indictment claims that in its almost six years in power, the AKP has hidden its true intentions of imposing shariah law, by violence if necessary, behind a façade of interest in human rights, democracy, and freedoms of religion and conscience. The headscarf is a banned symbol of religious fanaticism that the AKP has tried to pass off as a right reflecting freedom of religious belief.

On May 1, AKP presented its defense, which argued that the indictment is politically motivated and not based on legal grounds. However, the general expectation is that the court will close down the party. There is no consensus on what will happen next. The Democratic Society Party (or DTP) which represents a Kurdish constituency in parliament, may also be closed down by the court (in this case for allegedly supporting the PKK). Closing the AKP and the DTP in effect would disenfranchise almost the entire Kurdish population, which voted heavily for AKP. At least a dozen lawmakers are scrambling to found new parties or revive old ones. It is almost certain that the AKP will split.

One group will be made up of Muslim democrats or what some are calling the “new right.” These are people who favor globalization, a competitive liberal economy, and are pro-West. They make up about 66% of the AKP and would include followers of Fethullah Gulen and some Naksibendi under Nurettin Cosan, who replaced Said Kotku as head of the influential Iskenderpasha Mosque in Istanbul. Another group would be the conservative religious faction, still influenced by Millî Görüş and, thus, anti-West, anti-EU, and anti-globalization.

It’s worth noting that many secular nationalists, the people supporting the judicial coup, also are suspicious of globalization, are against liberal rights, and do not support joining the EU, as well as being anti-Islam.

The secular nationalists are willing to go to great lengths to overthrow this government. Over the past few months, the police have arrested a diverse group of shadowy figures, including former military officers, secret police, prosecutors, and others, accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government, preparing to assassinate Prime Minister Erdogan and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, and of being involved in the murder of other prominent Turkish figures, including last year’s killing of ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The issue around which this gang organized its activities was the protection of Turkish blood and identity against foreign powers whom they believe to be acting against Turkey through its Armenians, Christians, and other minorities (Kurds, for instance) and through missionaries. The group is thought to have ties high up in the state apparatus (the Turks call this shadowy network the “Deep State”) and probably in the military. There is some similarity to the Gladio affair in Italy, another state-linked and financed group involved in criminal activity. The Ergenekon Group, as it calls itself, is accused of plotting to destabilize Turkey through assassinations and bombings blamed on the PKK, creating enough chaos that the population would welcome a coup.

The majority of the population views the court case against AKP as politically motivated and most do not see the party as a threat to secularism. In fact, after the case was filed, AKP’s popularity soared; in an election today, their share of votes might reach 70%. But if the government is brought down through judicial means or even a “coup,” you won’t see anyone climbing on a tank to protest. After the initial jaw-dropping moment of learning about the indictment, the population, media and politicians already seem to be adjusting to the inevitability of the government’s demise. There is a popular ennui that this is happening again.

The tendency to attribute problems to outside forces is due to lack of knowledge and heavy ideological indoctrination. Although the details of the court case against AKP and the Ergenekon arrests are debated in the media, readership of newspapers is very low. Most people obtain information from friends and family, radio and television, where what is consumed is opinion, rather than information. School textbooks glorify the state over the citizen and warn against “plots” by unspecified outsiders to undermine Turkey and betrayal by disloyal insiders who are in cahoots.

Not surprisingly, the public tends to blame outside forces (the CIA and EU) for any unrest in Turkey. Despite the revelations about Ergenekon and the Constitutional Court case against the AKP, in a recent survey, the military was still the most trusted institution, followed by the Constitutional Court. A warning sign is the spread in recent years of virulently xenophobic attitudes and ultra-nationalist conspiracy theories among highly educated professionals. In 2007, only 9% of Turks held a favorable opinion of the United States, down from 23% in 2005, the lowest of 46 countries in the Pew Poll.

The wounded AKP has renewed its efforts at reform, but it is hamstrung with regard to some of the most important issues on the table, from Kurdish rights to Cyprus, as these are all issues the nationalists can use against the party. This judicial coup should not go unremarked as an internal matter of no concern to the U.S.. Despite its conservatism and occasional Islamic rhetoric, the AKP is not a threat to Turkish democracy. Turkey is drifting toward a more openly conservative and pious society, which is not without its problems, but the AKP government has created the basis for stability, broader rights, global integration, and an eventual nearing to EU standards, even if the accession process falters. The alternative is an intolerant, threat-oriented state authoritarianism that is suspicious of the outside world, a militantly secular Fortress Turkey that, like the Soviet Union, is modernizing without democratizing.

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