Friday, 20 June 2008

Interview With Süleyman Demirel

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By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 9 of the Turkey Analyst)

In late May 2008, three researchers from the Joint Center’s Turkey Initiative met with Turkey’s 9th president, Süleyman Demirel. This is a summary of his comments, which focused on the background to the current Turkish political crisis. Mr. Demirel, a towering figure over Turkey’s conservative forces for half a century, defines the problem as a struggle between modernity and bigotry.

Question: Mr. Demirel, what is at the core of Turkey’s problems today?

Demirel:  Let me start with a question: Is secularism possible in Islam? With the revolution, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced the separation of religion and the state. This was a first in the Muslim world, something new for the conservative, pious masses. He introduced modernity, made Turkey a modern state. What the republic did not do equally well was to explain to the people the separation of religion and state – to explain its essence, which is that you cannot force religion on people.

This is the difference between modernity and bigotry: a modern person does not interfere with personal, individual religiosity. The bigot does, wanting to force everyone to pray. Still today, this is what the fight is about. The issue is not that religion has been under pressure – there have never been any obstacles to exercising religion in Turkey. And as you know, I am a believing Muslim, I consider myself a good Muslim. What are the pillars of Islam? The profession of faith, Shahadah. No problems there. Praying five times a day. Have people been stopped from praying? No. Third, Zakat, giving alms. No one has been prevented from giving alms. Fourth, fasting during the month of Ramadan. Has anyone been prevented from fasting in Turkey? Maybe people get into trouble for not fasting in Ramadan, but no one has ever been prevented from fasting. Finally, the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Has anyone been prevented from that? Well, the Saudi government is the one setting quotas for countries. Within those, anyone from Turkey wanting to go has been able to go. So, has Islam been under pressure, have Muslims been under pressure? No. So, what are they [the forces in government arguing Muslims have been suppressed] complaining about?  What they want, is to force everyone to behave as them, to force everybody to pray.

Question: How did this current crisis come about?

Demirel: It was Bülent Arinç who started it, saying [in 2006] that secularism must be redefined. Then, I stepped up, because I know the implications of this problem from my own experience. What problem? The introduction of religion into politics. When this happens, everything changes, because if in politics you seek to limit the role religion, you are portrayed as anti-religion, as un-Islamic. Then, of course, you lose. So there are really two options. The easiest, but also the worst option, is for every party to use religion for its own purposes. But this destroys both – it destroys politics, and it also destroys religion.  The other option is secularism. In the Islamic world, religion and the state are like Siamese twins. Separating them is like surgically separating two twins, joint at birth. As we know, in such a surgery, anything can happen – both may die, one may survive, or in the best case both survive! In this part of the world, only in Turkey did we succeed. We had made it in Turkey. But those wanting to introduce religion into politics came in the way. I told people when [Necmettin] Erbakan (Turkey’s first Islamist party leader) started using religion for political purposes: “Don’t believe people trying to sell tickets to heaven!”

I know the hardship of confronting those who exploit religion for political purposes. Hard-line secularists once  accused me of pandering to religion. But remember the context! When they [Erbakan and his followers] exploited religion for their purposes, you had to be very careful, inserting yourself between them and the people. I managed to check Erbakan. And there is a second issue. When the republic was created, there was no nation [millet], only the Ummah [Ümmet]. So you had a people, but no nation. This is what the revolution was about! Creating a nation, making Turkey modern. Breaking with the past and its backwardness. I want to break with our past. This is where laws about dress code come into play. People say there is a contradiction between the revolution and democracy. I say there is not. Take the headscarf issue – are you going to take this country into chaos for the sake of seven thousand? [referring to opinion polls showing less than one percent of girls see the ban on headscarves in university as a reason not to study.] Can the republic interfere in people’s dress? Yes, because the republic is about modernity. Look at our constitution. Look at paragraph 174. In every constitution we had, from 1924 to 1960 to 1980, a lot of changes were made, but one item always stayed: the protection of the revolutionary laws. What are those? They are many. They relate to education. If you want to be religiously educated, you can go to Saudi Arabia. There is also the “hat law” [the Şapka law, which prohibited the fez]. What does the revolution have to do with people’s hats? A lot, I say. Because the republic was about leaving the middle ages. Changing the dress code, changing people’s mentality – that is what the republic was about. It is about modernity. You are going to change the way you dress, you are to be modern, western.

Question: So what will happen?

Demirel: In Turkey, the revolution is being pushed back – the past is coming back and challenging it. But sense will prevail [Akil galip çikacak]. It is not just a prosecutor or a judge facing down this challenge, they are not alone. Nor are there any guns behind them. The generations of the republic are behind them, and will ensure that law and justice will prevail. Have no doubt; there are millions who will defend this republic. We saw them last year (during the republican rallies). We did not find this republic on the street, and we will not abandon it to anyone.

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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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