The headscarf controversy:

Human rights in the era of the AKP

posted by Howard Eissenstat

For human rights advocates in Turkey, all political alliances are necessarily alliances of convenience. The reasons for this are myriad, ranging from the particular militancy of Turkish nationalism, to the bitterness of Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish separatism, to the remarkable trust that Turkish culture continues to bestow on Devlet Baba, the “Father State.” Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is frequently framed as an Islamist Party and just as frequently as a liberal one, supporters of expanded human rights in Turkey have won significant victories and have many, many reasons for concern.

From both the perspective of the state and its people Turkey’s stance on basic human rights is complex. On the one hand, Turkey is a functioning parliamentary democracy with regular, free, fair elections in a region where this is still a rarity. Despite important limitations, the Turkish press is both broad and diverse. If most of the mainstream Turkish media tends toward populist nationalism, there are a number of influential sources (mostly print) that persistently and successfully critique the great and the powerful.

On the other hand, restrictions on freedom of expression and limitations on the press, while enforced only sporadically, are enforced nonetheless, and have a significant cooling effect on public debate. More important is the extent to which the Turkish public accepts these restrictions and other basic limitations on human rights. Among the myriad problems facing Turkey, only one percent of the population cites the justice system as the most important problem facing the country, and only two percent cite democratization. The fiercely nationalist quality of much of Turkish public discourse makes many types of debate suspect, with even the most basic criticisms often seen as treasonous. Similarly, a recent poll suggests that Turks are remarkably accepting of the state’s use of torture, with a slight majority favoring its limited use in terrorism cases and as much as eighteen percent believing that the state has the right to use it freely. Support for a total ban on torture in Turkey was lower than in any of the countries polled in both the Middle East and Europe. At the same time, despite frequent reports of abuse by security services, the military remain far and away the most popular institution in the country, with eighty-one percent of the population expressing confidence in them.

The painful reality is that domestic pressure for expanded freedom of expression, minority rights, and protection from abuse by members of the security services is extremely limited. There are important NGOs working to document human rights abuses and defend basic freedoms in Turkey, but they represent an embattled fringe and have a limited role in popular discourse.

The AKP and the dynamics of human rights reform

Turkey’s human rights record has generally improved under the AKP, but it is hardly spotless. Restrictions on expression and assembly continue, torture still occurs, and security officials still act with relative impunity. In fact, after some years of significant improvement, general human rights conditions in Turkey have begun to trend downward again.

Given the lack of popular domestic pressure, however, it is the very real improvements in Turkey’s human rights record since the AKP first came to power in 2002 that most need to be explained. By understanding the dynamics of the AKP’s efforts to improve Turkey’s human rights situation, more recent setbacks can best be understood.

Although previous governments had made efforts to address Turkey’s human rights record, none were willing to engage in the broad, transformative effort envisioned by the AKP. That the AKP was willing to do so was rooted in both political philosophy and political calculation. Perhaps the largest element of this willingness had to do with their distance from traditional state institutions. Suspect because of their religiosity, members of the AKP maintained the fierce nationalism evident throughout Turkish society but were less inclined to venerate the state and state institutions. As Jenny White has deftly shown, the roots of the AKP came from grassroots mobilization that simultaneously bypassed and fused with state institutions.

The AKP also reflected broader changes in Turkish society that had been in motion since the late eighties. One element of this was the indirect role of the West: a large number of the young technocrats who supported the AKP in its rise to power were young men and women who had spent significant portions of their youth in Europe or the United States. In their time abroad they had experienced an environment in which they could express their religiosity more openly than they could in Turkish professional life. These individuals, comfortable with pluralism but personally devout, formed an important technocratic core for the emerging leadership of the AKP. The diversification of Turkish media allowed for the development of a sophisticated Islamist press, while the opening of the economy and expansion of education created a large and devout middle class. Finally, a number of NGOs developed that were simultaneously distinctly religious in character and dedicated to the issue of human rights in Turkey. Of these the most prominent is Mazlum-Der, founded in 1991, which is now an important element of Turkish human rights activism. While these groups were not necessarily large, they played an important role in merging the language of human rights with the specific concerns of Turkey’s devout and in building bridges with secular human rights groups both in Turkey and overseas.

The AKP developed as a party willing to overturn long held certainties of the Kemalist state. In foreign policy, Turkey simultaneously improved relations with its Arab and Iranian neighbors and made important steps toward resolving the continued division of Cyprus. The AKP’s most important efforts, however, were in the attempt to move forward with Turkey’s long held aspirations at European accession, and it is here that the AKP’s foreign and domestic policy are most clearly merged.

The process of European accession provided the AKP with a number of important benefits. First, by being more “pro-European” than any of the secular opposition parties the AKP was able to support its claim that it was not an Islamist party, but rather a forward-looking party of the center-right. Second, the policy was electorally savvy because the proposition of European accession was extremely popular at the beginning of the AKP’s term in office and, despite considerable setbacks, maintains considerable popularity to this day. Third, progress in European accession helped lure in considerable foreign investment, which in turn served as the engine for rapid economic growth through the first years of AKP rule. Fourth and finally, the process of liberalization that the European Union demanded would also serve the AKP’s domestic interests by undermining the power of Kemalist strongholds in the bureaucracy and military and by opening greater opportunities for religious expression that were expected by the AKP’s base.

Whether one believes the AKP acted primarily from idealism or from political calculation, its early program of liberalization was impressive. As Sultan Tepe shows, bans on publishing and broadcasting in Kurdish were lifted, citizen access to government documents was broadened, and the penal code was reformed. Quietly, Kurdish villagers who had been forcibly relocated in the previous decade were allowed to return to their homes. Torture and harassment became less frequent. As one Kurdish activist told me, “When we have a gathering, we are still arrested. But there isn’t torture like there used to be.” The AKP was initially optimistic that the broadened freedom to use the headscarf in public institutions would also be addressed under a “European umbrella”; however, in 2004 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that banning students from wearing the headscarf in the university did not constitute a limit on religious freedom. Thus, while the general human rights record of Turkey was in many ways improving, the AKP was failing in addressing the one issue that most concerned its base.

Whether it was because they were opposed to the reforms that the AKP was implementing or because they saw these reforms as a cover for an Islamist agenda (or both), both the parliamentary opposition and Kemalist elements in the military and courts worked to undermine the AKP reform agenda. Military and security services were involved in the 2005 bombing of a Kurdish bookstore in the town of Şemdinli, which killed one and injured others, and they seem to have been at least indirectly involved in the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. These attacks, as well as a far broader pattern of harassment and threat, served three purposes simultaneously: they demonstrated the limits of AKP power, they undermined the AKP’s international support, and they served as a fundamental damper on those who wished to take advantage of the AKP’s liberalization program. Prosecutors as well as private lawyers used the loosely framed Article 301, which makes “denigrating Turkishness” a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, as well as similar statues in the same way. These cases carried a message for the Turkish public, which was underlined by the opposition in Parliament: that the AKP, with the support of Western powers, was intent on undermining Turkey through criticism of its greatest heroes and most venerated institutions.

As European accession faltered, the AKP became more defensive in the face of these attacks and less ambitious in its reform efforts. It allowed the case against the soldiers implicated in the Şemdinli attack to be tried in a military rather than a civilian court, thus limiting the possibility that high level officers would be implicated. At the same time, the AKP rank and file seemed to be as leery of ridding themselves of 301 as the opposition. The government suggested various changes in nuance to Article 301 rather than doing away with it altogether.

The 2007 elections and after

In the spring and summer of 2007, a constitutional crisis over the selection of the next president resulted in the AKP calling early elections, which they won in a landslide. Initially, at least, the AKP seemed to be ready to renew a program of broad reform and even began discussions of rewriting the constitution, originally written under the auspices of the military following the coup d’état of 1980.

It was not to be. Increased separatist violence effectively forced the AKP to give in to the military’s demand for a more aggressive policy with regard to the Kurds, including incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan. More tellingly, as Jenny White described in her February article for The Immanent Frame, the AKP made an alliance with the militantly nationalist MHP, in which the MHP agreed to lend its parliamentary support to a broadening of freedoms for the headscarf, in return for which the AKP would drop its plans for a far wider program of liberalization. The decision suggests both the centrality of the headscarf issue for a significant section of Turkish society and the limitations of the AKP’s own commitment to a broad human rights agenda for Turkey.

Ironically, the alliance bore little fruit. The constitutional amendment lifting the ban on headscarves in the universities, which the AKP and MHP had passed, was struck down by the Constitutional Court in June, 2007, while a case which threatened to ban the AKP itself continued to wind its way through the legal process. In the end the AKP avoided, by the narrowest of margins, an outright ban. It emerged, nonetheless, significantly chastened by the experience.

In the intervening months, AKP reform efforts have been markedly muted. Rather than move forward on human rights or constitutional reform, it has turned its attention instead to foreign policy initiatives, such as its recent overtures to Armenia, and to quietly supporting the on-going court case against the ultranationalist Ergenekon network, which, not incidentally, seems to have included many of the AKP’s most militant critics. The unraveling of the Ergenekon conspiracy is, without question, a remarkably important component of Turkey’s democratization.

The recent past has taken much of the luster off of the AKP’s record for human rights reform. Many human rights advocates still see the AKP as the best hope for broad reform in Turkey. Nonetheless, the AKP’s record shows that its commitment to human rights, while real, is limited and contingent. They are not, to be sure, the secret Islamic revolutionaries envisioned by the Turkish military and some of conservative commentators in the United States. But neither are they the shining model for Muslim liberalism that some have imagined them to be.

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