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Freedom and Islam in Turkey

These are tumultuous times for Turkey. Even in a land accustomed to turmoil, the head-spinning developments of the past few weeks are phenomenal — and, for some, unsettling. On the line are Turkey’s credentials as a secular, liberal-democratic country with a majority Muslim population. Foremost among these developments was the move to allow women to cover their heads in universities. The change engendered fierce opposition, including from hard-core secularists whose commitment to liberal democracy is at best suspect. The judiciary, most university rectors and many academics predicted catastrophe and a return to dark ages for women, as uncovered students may feel pressure to toe the line. Some opponents argued that the freedom to wear the headscarf would be extended to secondary education, de facto if not de jure, in due time. More interesting was the impact of the move on secular circles, including academics who have a deep commitment to liberal values and democracy and who supported the lifting of the headscarf ban in principle. Over the last five years, these groups have supported every major effort by the ruling party to expand the space of individual freedoms and deepen Turkish democracy. Yet some of these secular democrats expressed concern at the way the ruling party, the religiously conservative AKP, pushed the matter through the parliament as a constitutional amendment. They argued that the draft of a new more liberal constitution that would end all infringements on fundamental rights was already at hand. And there were other long-pending laws to change — notably the notorious Article 301 of the penal code against “insulting Turkishness” — that were also directly related to fundamental rights and liberties. As if to underline these secular democrats’ point, the AKP is acting as if it has run out of breath for further reform, even EU-related changes, despite its overwhelming electoral victory in last July’s elections. Instead, AKP leaders seem more interested in promoting their own idea of piety. Together, these impressions have bolstered secularists’ assessment that the AKP cares only about religious freedoms. The unconditional supporters of the headscarf move in the secular-democrat camp accused their former comrades-in arms, who opposed the singling-out of the turban issue, of not being true liberals. For them, a true democrat would rejoice whenever and wherever liberties flourished. To suggest otherwise would mean that there is a hierarchy among different causes. In their minds, this attitude would betray a residual Kemalism among the protagonists, with all the authoritarian-secularist and modernist implications of the term in today’s Turkey. The story is more complicated still. “Lifting the ban” is actually a misnomer: The “ban” stemmed from constitutional court decisions in 1989 and 1991 that struck down a law permitting the headscarf in universities. However, there is no statute that specifically outlaws the wearing of the headscarf at universities. In fact, Atatürk’s much-celebrated efforts to modernize Turks by governing their attire were limited to men. Out went the fez and in came the top hat — but the father of the Republic imposed nothing on women. That said, women were expected to go along with the Westernization. In time, “looking Western” became as much a sign of the elite as it was a symbol of modernity. And here lies the crux of the headscarf controversy. As Turkey modernized, traditional segments of the population began to partake of urban life and created their own forms of integration. The modern headscarf, or turban, which exposes no hair and unlike other scarves covers part of the face, facilitated the appearance of women in public spaces. They attended universities and became professionals, public intellectuals, journalists. In time, a wide variety of dressing styles and colorful outfits, including tight blue jeans, flourished among them. Modernity for them no longer meant looking like a Westerner. Equally, to be pious did not negate modernity. This fundamental shift in Turkey’s social composition and understanding of modernity must be understood in order to make sense of what is happening now in the country. Ultimately, such a confrontation is necessary if there is to be a liberal-secular-democratic synthesis in a Muslim society. Obviously, lifting the ban is a case of fundamental freedoms: The state should have no right to prohibit students from wearing a particular outfit. Many observers also saw the matter as a clear case of religious freedom against coercive secularism. This part of the argument is incontrovertible. Yet there is also no doubt that the ruling party mishandled the issue, generating much unnecessary tension. This is why it is highly likely that the political storm will continue. President Abdullah Gül has yet to sign the changes into law, and the courts are eagerly waiting to rule on the new statute’s compatibility with the principle of secularism. Because of the government’s carelessness, students who don headscarves may remain in a limbo for a while longer. Turkey is trying hard to deepen its democracy and liberalize its secularism. The political class must rise to the occasion — particularly the AKP, whose fate is much more tightly linked to political liberalization and the EU membership process than its leadership realizes. Keep watching. Soli Ozel teaches international relations at Bilgi University. This piece first appeared in the “Wall Street Journal Europe” on February, 15, 2008.

Turkey’s Quest to Modernize Remains on Track

Rare are the moments in a democratic country’s history when a sitting government increases its level of support substantially, as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) did last Sunday. These elections consolidate a spectacular realignment that has brought disparate social forces together to challenge the existing distribution of power and privilege. One must look at the social forces the party represents. The AKP originated from Turkey’s Islamist movement, which was defined by anti-westernism, anti-secularism, xenophobia and an anti-market economic program. Younger dissenters created the party in a generational and ideological break from the founding fathers after the military’s ousting of Islamists from power in 1997. Responding to changing demographics and economic geography as well as the public’s democratic aspirations, the party positioned itself as pro-market and pro-European. In 2002 it ran on a platform of democratization, integration with the world economy and openness, and won. An extraordinarily efficient political machine, with its hand on the pulse of its constituents and sensitive to the needs of the general public, the AKP became a formidable force. It received much support from the rising provincial entrepreneurial classes that are globally integrated but are socially and culturally more conservative than existing elites. At the same time it gained the backing of poorer segments of the population in metropolitan centers, through diligent social and organizational work and municipal services. Policies such as more accessible healthcare, free distribution of schoolbooks, increased grants for students and housing credits for the lower middle classes and the poor explain its appeal to the less well off. The AKP’s unfettered market orientation endeared it to the existing financial and economic elites as well, although the latter were concerned about the incompatibility of the AKP’s conservatism with their own lifestyles. In addition, the AKP’s promise of a more liberal and democratic political order appealed to segments of Turkey’s secular population that were increasingly disenchanted with the authoritarianism of the ruling elites. Their support for the AKP, despite their disillusionment with the party’s recent performance on political reform, proved critical, especially in the period after the military’s recent intervention in the choice of the president. Last, the AKP managed to appeal to the Kurdish population of Turkey’s troubled south-east through religion and careful political maneuvering. Thus there was a mosaic of candidate profiles, from old leftists to members of the Alevi community, from Kurds to thoroughly modern and unveiled women, as the party claimed the center of Turkish politics. As a result the AKP received almost even support from across the country. It was the only party whose support was not confined to a specific region or class. Notably, female viagra sildenafil its victory over Kurdish nationalists in many predominantly Kurdish provinces provided it with a mandate to launch a new democratic opening to deal with the Kurdish problem while fighting separatist terrorism. The result of Sunday’s critical vote was the victory of hope over fear, civilian government over military tutelage and economic and political openness over introversion. It was a vote of confidence in the AKP’s economic performance, which has given Turkey an average growth rate of 7.5 per cent over the past five years. It was also the electorate’s response to the military intervention by “e-memorandum” on April 27. In that sense the Turkish electorate remained true to its tradition of resisting the dictates of the military rulers for the post-coup management of the country. Therefore, these elections strongly highlighted the democratic maturity of the Turkish public. What these elections do not mean is worth emphasizing. The choice was not between an Islamist Turkey and a secular modern one. Turkey has not, by these results, gone back to “the road not taken” at the beginning of the republic and given up on its quest for modernization. Turkey’s modernization track is just of a different type, one that is embedded in cultural conservatism and in search of an appropriate synthesis between Islam, capitalism and secular, liberal democracy. This is why the experiment in democratic transformation is significant beyond its borders. How well the AKP manages this transformation as well as how the world, especially Europe and the US, responds to it will, therefore, have global implications. Soli Ozel teaches International Relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul. This piece first appeared in “Financial Times” on July 25, 2007.