Wednesday, 09 April 2008

What Animates Turkey's Secular Opposition?

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By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 4 of the Turkey Analyst)

As the confrontation in Turkey over secularism deepens, the psychology and dynamics of the secular opposition need to be better understood. The seculars are animated by the perceived need to defend an identity, which lends the stand-off an intractable character. Democracy risks being imperiled if the  moderate Islamist AKP government abstains from taking decisive steps to allay what amounts to existential fears – be they exaggerated or not – of the seculars. 



BACKGROUND: The threat of dissolution against the ruling Justice and Development party, AKP, has lent credibility to the assumption, prevalent among Western observers, that the confrontation in Turkey is one that pits democracy against an intrinsically authoritarian secularism. That there are seculars who seek refuge in authoritarianism is beyond doubt. But like their Islamist counterparts, the Turkish seculars in fact come in different shapes. While the successive dissolutions of Islamist parties seem to confirm the established perception of Turkish secularism as uncompromisingly Jacobin, such an interpretation fails to take its history fully into account. Indeed, historically, the secular response to the challenge of religious conservatism has not been unequivocally prohibitive.

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It is worth recalling that Deniz Baykal, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main secular opposition party, declared himself to be in favor of lifting the ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities during the 2002 election campaign. The fact that this very issue lies at the core of the current political crisis in Turkey – and that Baykal and his party have raised a row over the issue – is hence largely to be attributed to the current political context. Following the AKP’s success in elevating Abdullah Gül to the presidency, a move perceived by the opposition as proof of a have-it-all attitude, the lifting of the headscarf ban has come to symbolize the perceived thrust against secularism, all the more so since it was executed by a constitutional amendment and forced upon the political system in a single-issue move rather than in a broader package of democratic reforms.

In the eyes of large segments of Turkish society that had not initially been prejudiced against the party, these moves have contributed to shatter the image of the AKP as a moderate party. Indeed, it was not until 2007 and the crisis triggered by the presidential election that a strong secular opposition galvanized. The AKP’s self-declared determination to elect a “religious” president, taken together with other declarations about “redefining” secularism, awakened suspicions that the moderate Islamists were about to abandon moderation. These moves, significantly, attracted substantial attention to the ongoing Islamicization of the cadres in the bureaucracy and judiciary, where religious observation has in practice come to serve as a requirement for employment. This, in turn, has raised fears that citizens who are not believers will ultimately have to conform to religious norms in their dealings with the courts and the authorities, and as employees. Ahmet Hakan, a columnist in the daily Hürriyet and himself a former Islamist, recently observed that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed a mistake by not taking seriously widespread concerns that “religion may become an instrument of oppression even without any religious laws being enacted”, thus turning seculars who did not harbor any resentment against the AKP into a virulent opposition.

Laiklik, secularism in Turkish, strikes a strong, emotional chord. Emulated on the French laicité, it is a constitutive element of the national identity, as conceived by those who adhere to the idea of a “Western” Turkey, and believed to be the essence of the republic. It has a long history, stretching back two hundred years, when the Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and freedom began to be appropriated by intellectuals and politicians in the dying Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the subsequent birth of a Turkish national identity is inseparable from these modernizing aspirations. With the founding of the Turkish republic, the break with the theocratic tradition was completed, as sovereignty was explicitly displaced from the Almighty to the people. The experience of secularism as something that sets Turkey constructively apart in its Muslim environment is significant, as articulated by the liberal writer and journalist Haluk Sahin: “To apply secularism and gradually have it internalized by different sections of society is no mean feat in the context of Islam which aspires to have a say in every walk of life.”

However, critics of Turkish secularism maintain that it is a success which has come at a high price, that traditions and values held dear by the population have been discarded, resulting in a lingering, popular resentment against the republican elites. Undoubtedly, the Islamist parties have been adept at tapping into the wells of popular discontent, whatever its origins. Almost forty years ago, late social democratic leader Bülent Ecevit remarked that religion had become a point of reference for the socially and economically disadvantaged. But neither has religion ever been absent from the official, republican discourse and practices since the transition to democracy in 1950.

IMPLICATIONS: Rather than being insensitive to religious feelings, successive secular governments in fact paid homage to Islam and since the 1970s engaged in a frenzy of mosque-building and inauguration of religious imam-schools. Education in the tenets of Sunni Islam was made compulsory in 1974, a violation of the rights under official secularism of non-believers and of the significant, heterodox Alevi minority. The Islamicization of the education system gathered pace during the military regime of the early 1980s, which actively sought to promote a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” as a new state ideology, and provocatively built mosques in Alevi villages (Alevis do not frequent mosques). The accommodation of Islam was meant to fend off the challenge of left-wing radicalism, but resulted in Islamism being unintentionally strengthened. 

The state establishment, where a nationalist, centre-right ideology has traditionally dominated, has been confronted with an Islamist challenge on the ascendancy since the late 1970s, but electorally significant since 1994. In 1997, the General staff intervened against radical Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who courted Iran and Libya, posing a threat to Turkey’s alliances with the United States and Israel. But a few years later, then Chief of staff General Hilmi Özkök was instrumental in actually strengthening the hold of the AKP on power. In 2004, together with the present chief of staff. Yasar Buyukanit, General Özkök allegedly faced down junior generals who would have liked to unseat the AKP government. These generals were notably incensed by the government’s readiness to “give up” Cyprus, and by its embrace of EU reforms that they saw as a threat to Turkish nationalism. The full details of the 2004 episode are yet to be disclosed, but there can be no doubt that General Özkök’s intervention is a landmark event in recent Turkish political history. It is also an event that shows how deceptive it is to portray the military as being uniformly and in programmatic opposition to civilian challenges to official state ideology.  

After initially having taken an active stance against the AKP government in the current crisis, the General staff has refrained from further public interventions. Its silence has given rise to speculations in the Turkish media about a possible understanding being reached between Chief of Staff General Yasar Büyükanit and Prime Minister Erdogan. Concurrently, there are speculations that the silence of the General staff in reality is intended to allow the judiciary the lead in undermining the AKP. That both theories exist testifies to the fact that the military’s ultimate ideological orientation and cohesion cannot be taken for granted. What can be assumed is that there are differing views among the officers as to what, if any, course of action should be taken, but not that it will be possible for the military to remain disinterested if the crisis deepens and gets out of hand.

The current crisis is set apart by the popular mobilization in favor of secularism. During the “republican rallies” of spring 2007, millions gathered, chanting “no to Sharia and no to a coup d’état”. Western observers have largely failed to appreciate the significance and novelty of these rallies, dubbing the participants “old Turks” supposedly searching to restore an authoritarian order. That interpretation is in part due to the fact that those representing Turkish secularism, social democrats and other “kemalists”, have become isolated from the international exchange of ideas, opting for a resentful neo-nationalism, unlike the Islamists who have spent the last decade actively courting European intellectual circles. The identification of secularism with nationalism has, as explained above, its historical roots. However, a more nuanced view of the social constituency of the secular opposition reveals a potentially more promising picture.

The republican rallies were dominated by urban middle class women and Alevis, both of which are increasingly alienated by a rising conservatism that is believed to threaten a cherished, Western way of life. Sociologically, these categories represent the backbone of the Westernization of Turkey; indeed urban middle class women are its main product. Politically, these categories are far from being intrinsically anti-Western. The question is whether it will be possible to channel this popular secularism into its logical furrow between the opposing forces of moderate Islamism and isolationist nationalism. However, given the ongoing polarization, the realization of such an alternative remains a faint possibility in the short run.

While being a welcome manifestation of the popular implantation of secularism, the downside to the secular rallies has been that they have been interpreted as an expression of hostility by the conservative classes, thus exacerbating societal polarization. But the case can also be made that this polarization reflects real differences about the cultural identity of Turkish society which call for a resolution that Turkey no longer can afford to postpone.

Republican demonstrations, April 2007

CONCLUSIONS: The moderate Islamists in the AKP will have to recognize that social and political stability will elude Turkey if the concerns of a secular, urban middle class that represents the best educated part of society are not taken into due account. Its fears, whether exaggerated or not, will have to be allayed. The secular side, on the other hand, must come to terms with the reality of religious conservatism. But that is easier said than done.

What makes the Turkish crisis seemingly intractable is the fact that ultimately, it is existential, being about identities that by definition are never easily negotiable. Not least the seculars, who fault decades of accommodation of Islamic aspirations by the state – contrary to the West’s faulting of a supposedly inflexible secularism – are  inclined to perceive the crisis as a final reckoning, as the last stand of the republic. Thus, they are disinclined to make further concessions to an already ascendant religious conservatism. And herein lays Prime Minister Erdogan’s problem: he may have been sincere when on election night last summer he promised to reach out to society as a whole. But subsequent policies disclaiming that promise may indicate that Erdogan himself no longer controls the inevitable political reverberations of the sociological reality of an ever stronger religious conservatism.

Prime Minister Erdogan has the ultimate power to defuse the crisis and avert Turkey’s descent into chaos. It would go a long way to ease tensions if the government desists from its scheduled plans to tailor the constitution according to its particular needs. In such a case, Erdogan would be hailed as a responsible statesman by broad sections of a relieved Turkish society, and the deliberations of the constitutional court would take place in a radically different political atmosphere.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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