Abdullah Gül's Upcoming Constitution Proposals: Looking at the Glass Half-Full

Now that the Turkish upper classes have returned from their sacred beach holidays and cool winds have at last prevailed on the torturous summer temperatures, Turkey watchers are settling in to observe what should prove to be a rather protracted debate. Turkey's man of the hour, Abdullah Gül, will drop his first bomb shell during the next few weeks. The country's secular elite is more than ready to sound the alarm while the ever enigmatic Turkish military bides its time in the shadows prepared to pounce at any moment.

The substance of this impending commotion will be directly related to Gül's plans to reform the Anayasa, which is Turkey's constitutional document. The spirit in which he plans on carrying out these reforms, as well as some of the particulars of his plan, has been neatly outlined an article from this weeks Economist.

Yet the 56-year-old former economist [Gül] hinted at a looser interpretation of Turkey's unique brand of secularism. Until now this has been defined by Ataturk's renunciation of Islamic symbols and rigid state control over all aspects of religious life. Secularism, said Mr Gul, was a precondition for “social peace” but also offered a model “for different lifestyles”. Some seized on his words as proof that he will support loosening restrictions on the headscarf and religious education.

As Mr Gul approved a new pro-EU cabinet this week, another clash loomed over a “civilian” constitution that Mr Erdogan proposes to adopt next year to replace the current text, written by the generals after their last coup in 1980. Draft clauses leaked to the media are nothing short of revolutionary: senior officers will no longer be immune from prosecution in civilian courts, military appeals courts will be scrapped, Kurdish will be taught as a second language in government schools and the definition of Turkishness will be expanded to embrace citizens from different backgrounds and creeds.
Almost all of the issues above strike at the heart of the national psyche and generally define the way any given Turkish citizen perceives their country. The idea of "social peace for different lifestyles" , whether they be ethnic or religious, is an extremely sensitive one. Particularly among pro-secular and prosperous segments of society, there exists a very strong conviction that there is a single secular, Turkish model by which all citizens of Turkey should abide. When the point is made that certain segments of the country's society, such as the Kurds, might have a different orientation toward "their country", a commonly heard refrain is that, "We are all Turkish people and there is no reason why we shouldn't live together in harmony."

From the perspective of this observer,
the idea of Gül's initiative to achieve legal tolerance for other lifestyles is extremely attractive in theory. Particularly in the realms of education and freedom for cultural expression (including language), there are many segments of Turkey's population, which are explicitly denied the types of opportunities that one takes for granted in Western Europe. Indeed, one could argue that if these segments of the population, which exercise alternative lifestyles or cultures, were not the victims of a political agenda, they would cease to represent such debilitating political issues.

For example, less than a decade ago it was legally forbidden to speak the Kurdish language in public. Did not the easing of this restriction help relations between Turkey and its largest ethnic minority? Would not the continuation of this trend as proposed by
Gül further augment the level of content felt by Turkey's Kurds?

Similarly, scholars have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the traditional campaign waged by the Turkish government against head scarves and the increasing numbers of Turkish women, who choose to wear head scarves as a political statement. Perhaps an easing on this issue would actually diminish the use of the head scarf as a political issue over the longer term.

These would all be positive developments if it is indeed the case that
Abdullah Gül's true intention is to make Turkey a more tolerant of its multiple cultures or "lifestyles". However, it remains to be seen whether his real agenda is in fact religious in nature; a near-term goal to make Ataturk's secular nation more tolerant of other persuasions in order to fulfill a long-term goal of becoming the next Iran.

Whatever the intentions of
Turkey's new president, it is the sincere hope of this observer that the Turkish military gives Gül the benefit of the doubt in the near-term at the very least. Anything short of such restraint by the military would make a further mockery of the institution of democracy in Turkey.


Michael van der Galiën said...

On the one hand I agree with you, on the other hand I also understand the fear of many secularists all too well.

For instance, if women are allowed to wear headscarves in public spaces, the result could be that women who choose not to wear one will be forced to wear one nonetheless (social pressure).

What do you think about this fear some have?

Then there is the famous domino effect of course as well.

Anonymous said...

Social pressure? Why should people be protected against social pressure? They aren't babies, grown people should make decisions for themselves, if they want to give away their rights just to fit in then its their fault.

Blastingcloud said...

The government has proven for multiple decades that it is quite capable protecting women, who chose not to wear head scarves. I don't see why they can't continue to protect this right in the event that observant Muslim women are allowed to wear head scarves in public places.

"Secularism" isn't the same kind of black and white issue that it was in 1923. Turks of all segments of society and background understand the concept of secularism. Furthermore, a recent poll (if I am not mistaken) found that observant Muslims in Turkey still support secularism as a critical institution in Turkish society.

There is no reason why "secularism" can not be "modernized" in order to establish a new Turkish society in which *all* members can concurrently lead the life they want to lead. In a sense, this will require even more diligence and sensitivity from the state, police and military. Whether these institutions are up to the task will only be known with time.