BACKGROUND: On October 19, 2011, the parliamentary “reconciliation commission”, which is tasked with drafting a new, democratic constitution for Turkey, held its inaugural meeting. Speaking at the occasion, Cemil Çiçek, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, stated that “this is one of the most exciting days ever in our political history”. He exhorted the members of the commission to bequeath a democratic constitution that enshrines liberty to future generations. He remarked that Turkey has long since been tormented by political and cultural polarization, pointing out that “before dealing with the technical aspects of writing a new constitution, it is essential that the tension is eased and polarization overcome.” He anticipated that the constitutional endeavor is going to help the country overcome polarization, by encouraging tolerance and reconciliation.
The speaker of the parliament underlined that what Turkey needs is a “societal compact”, a constitution about which everyone in society can say “this is my constitution”. That is a completely novel notion in the Turkish political context; the very idea of a societal covenant is alien to Turkish political culture. Constitutions have been dictates imposed by the state, not the result of democratic deliberations that translate a societal consensus. What has mattered since the republic was founded has never been that the citizens recognize themselves in the constitution, but the safety of the state; that the state is kept inviolate from any societal expressions that might endanger its power has been the principal article of faith of the Turkish political elite.
Turkey’s constitutions (from 1924, 1961 and 1982) have all, to varying degrees, been expressions of the determination of the state elite to rein in societal diversity and to tailor a pliant society, and none more so than the current constitution which was commissioned by the military junta in the 1980s. The constitution has imposed a Turkish nationalist straitjacket on society; it has also – while simultaneously professing “secularism” – promulgated Sunni Islam as de facto state religion. Kemalism, the founding ideology of the republic, has not so much separated religion from the state as subordinated it to the state. In all but name, Turkey has always been a Sunni Muslim state.
Historically, the overriding concern of the Turkish polity has been the survival and strength of the state. The words of Cemil Çiçek speak of a shift of paradigm; they suggest that the perennial question with which Turkish rulers have grappled since the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began two centuries ago – “how is this state going to be saved?” – is being substituted for a radically different question: “how is the freedom of everyone in society going to be preserved?” The priorities are seemingly reversed, with the perspective shifting from the state to society, as the lawmakers are explicitly instructed to draft a constitution that protects individuals and society.
The speaker of the parliament observed that the constitutional amendments that have been undertaken in the past in order to reform the constitution from 1982 have failed to expunge the authoritarian heritage that was bequeathed by the military rulers. He noted that the conclusion that has imposed itself is that partial measures will not do; they cannot ensure that universal democratic standards are attained. Çiçek claimed that “all political and societal forces are in agreement about this”. However, that is a dubious claim.
IMPLICATIONS: It is in fact far from evident that the ruling Justice and development party (AKP), which has by now become the party of the state, would really want to expunge the spirit of statism; indeed, there are no indications that the AKP is contemplating to carry out any changes that would circumscribe the power and authority of those state institutions through which society is kept in check. While the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has called for the abolition of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), through which the state controls the universities, and for a reform of the mighty State directorate of religious affairs, so as to accommodate other faiths than Sunni Islam, the AKP has not been forthcoming in those respects. İhsan Dağı, a liberal academic and columnist, recently noted that the ruling Sunni conservatives would have little interest in promulgating a new constitution that circumscribes the power of the state that they have come to own; it is instead, he claimed, the former masters of Turkey, the secularist minority which has lost the state to the AKP, that is in dire need of the protection that a liberal constitution would offer against the state.
In fact, statism is entrenched because it rests on deep societal roots. Historically, what has invested the Turkish state with its omnipotence is that its subjects have consented to the supremacy of the state over society; and they have done so because ultimately they have feared something worse than state oppression, namely the lack of safety, “the state of nature”, where there is no force that upholds order and guarantees survival in a fractured society where one’s neighbor is someone that is feared, not trusted. In Turkish Islamic culture, the state is revered as the last rampart against ever threatening internal strife; Fethullah Gülen, the influential Islamic preacher, has notably stated that “even the worst kind of state is better than chaos”. Nur Vergin, a leading Turkish sociologist, notes that “in this society, there are always substantial groups that live in fear.” Today, the Turks fear that the aspirations of the Kurds threaten the integrity of the state, while the westernized middle class fears the ascendant, religiously conservative middle class.
Mr. Çiçek remarked that “as we are now about to embark on what promises to be a long and difficult road toward a new constitution, we need to trust each other”; he expressed the hope that an atmosphere of trust will develop in the – aptly named – constitutional reconciliation commission, subsequently spreading to and enveloping society. However trust is in short supply. A 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that Turkey ranked strikingly low on the social trust scale; only 39 percent of the inhabitants of Turkey agreed with the statement “Most people in this society are trustworthy”, while 55 percent disagreed. The Turkish survey results were similar to those in Bolivia, Ghana and Ivory Coast; indeed, Turkey ranked low even among the countries of the Middle East, where the survey indicated mutual trust tends to be among the lowest of the regions of the world.
Nonetheless, absent a societal compact, the societal tensions, above all the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, risks becoming exacerbated; the principal demands of the Kurdish movement – that the constitution is rid of Turkish nationalism, that devolution of power to the regional and local authorities is introduced , and education in Kurdish allowed – cannot be satisfied unless a new constitution is adopted. The AKP has demonstrated that it is prepared to consider accommodating Kurdish demands; in that sense, the ruling party has disengaged from orthodox Turkish statism. One former, leading AKP parliamentarian told the Turkey Analyst in 2010 that the “Kurdish opening” of the AKP was both about securing the state and promoting societal freedom; as these words suggest, state interest and societal freedom are no longer necessarily viewed as incompatible, as has otherwise been the case since the republic was founded.
Yet what the AKP has not disengaged from is the statist tradition of treating the citizens as subjects; Çiçek’s words notwithstanding, politics is still something that is basically conducted in the name of society, not in concert with it. As a former governor of Ankara once famously put it, it is axiomatic in Turkish political culture that the state knows best, and that “if something is deemed necessary, then, we, the state, are going to introduce it”.
Indeed, it is in that vein of expediency that the Turkish state has promoted Sunni Islam. Süleyman Demirel, a former president and prime minister, told Turkey Analyst a few years ago that he had deemed it necessary in the 1970’s to take the measures (such as the vast expansion of the religious seminaries) that made Turkey more Islamic in order to keep the Islamists from coming to power; the strategy of the “secularist” state elite thus spelled Islamization without Islamists. Demirel claimed that the pious masses had had nothing to complain about, since the state had ensured that they could live in full accordance with Islam. It is in a similar vein that the Turkish state is deploying a strategy of Kurdish “freedom” without Kurdish nationalism today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is prepared to offer Kurdish citizens certain rights, because state interest calls for it, but just like his predecessor Demirel, who had once sought to accommodate Islamic aspirations, he expects gratitude and compliance with state authority in return; he has certainly little tolerance for elected representatives of the Kurdish opposition raising demands.
CONCLUSIONS: “Since we are making this constitution for our people, we should ensure the participation of the citizens and their organizations at every stage of the process”, said Cemil Çiçek. However, the words of the speaker are belied by the ongoing mass arrests of Kurdish political activists.
The kind of participatory democracy that such words evoke, and a constitution that is a societal compact, and not a dictate of the state, will remain beyond reach if the rulers of Turkey continue to adhere to the age-old Turkish political axiom that the state always knows best.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".