20 September 2010

Secularism and democracy in Turkey

Earlier this month, Turkey held a referendum on changes to its constitution, with 58 percent of Turks saying ‘yes’ to the amendments. The proposed changes aim to reduce the power and remove the privileges currently enjoyed by the military – who created the present constitution after a 1980 coup – and restore the sovereignty of civilian institutions, among other goals. According to UCLA School of Law acting professor Asli Ü. Bâli, the revised constitution will include provisions that “empower civilian courts while reducing the jurisdiction of military courts; strengthen gender equality and protections for children, the elderly, veterans and the disabled; improve privacy rights and access to government records; expand collective bargaining rights; and remove immunities long afforded to those responsible for the 1980 military coup.”

This all seems like an obviously good thing. But what complicates the matter is Turkey’s idiosyncratic politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a socially conservative Islamic party, while the military sees itself as the guardian of Turkish secularism and thus the true heir of modern, secular Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. For an ardent secularist (like yours truly) and democrat (ditto), the situation in Turkey presents an uncomfortable dilemma: does one support the protectors of secularism who use undemocratic means to pursue their objectives, or does one stand with the majority of Turks who democratically vote for an Islamic government?

I have previously expressed my position on this matter, and for the most part my stance remains the same. Now that the results of the constitutional referendum indicate that most Turks welcome the proposed amendments, I am even more inclined to accept their decision. It is their country after all. Its destiny should rightly be in their hands, and theirs alone.

The AKP initiated the constitutional reform in the hope that it would benefit Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Leaders of both the EU and the USA have congratulated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his nation’s milestone. While Turkey’s cozying up to Iran is a cause for some concern, I think that any fears of Turkey turning into another Islamic theocracy are unwarranted. In fact, acceptance into the EU will all but guarantee that Europe’s interests will become to a significant extent Turkey’s interests also. And having a member nation with a democratically elected Muslim-majority government will be an asset to the EU, since Turkey could play the vital role of intermediary and peacemaker between the West and the Middle East.

This is not easy for me to admit, given my (vehemently critical) views on the role of religion in the public sphere, but in any instance where strict secularism is pitted against democracy, the lesser evil is for democracy to win. If citizens elect to have a government that adulterates its civil authority with doses of superstition, lashings of atavistic laws and spoonfuls of divine authority, then that is their folly to make. People get the governments they deserve.

Still, the optimist in me sees the good that can come from a constitution that restores power to civilians while defanging the military. After all, nothing, not even secularism, should ever be forced upon others. I hope that Turkey will succeed in gaining EU membership, for the reasons mentioned above. The country will then be an example of a Muslim European nation serving as an agent for peace and goodwill in a troubled geopolitical region.


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