TURKISH SECULARISM IS DEMOCRATIC
By E. Haldun Solmazturk
Taspinar paints Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a progressive, committed democrat, who is enthusiastic about embracing Europe. The reality is more ambivalent. On September 2, 2004, for example, Erdogan proposed making adultery a crime.  When the European Union criticized this move, Erdogan told them "to mind their own business,"  for they were not qualified to opine on such issues. On November 15, 2005, after the European Court of Human Rights decided against permitting head scarves in Turkish universities, he declared that "only ulama [Islamic religious scholars] could"  make this decision. These episodes dismissing European consensus and institutions are well-known in Turkey and were featured on the front pages of major newspapers. Turkish commentators and editorialists discussed whether the Prime Minister's statements suggested that religious law guided Erdogan as much as, if not more than, secular law.
Taspinar's treatment of the 2007 presidential election row is also questionable. Ahead of the elections, tensions increased, and on April 27, 2007, the Turkish General Staff placed a statement on its website declaring:
Taspinar condemns this "e-coup" as undemocratic military intervention, an argument he advances by stripping events of their context.
The Turkish General Staff statement should properly be viewed against the backdrop of Erdogan's attacks on both the High Court (Danistay)  and Higher Education Council (Yüksek Ögretim Kurulu).  Following the Prime Minister's verbal fusillades, an armed man attacked the court to "punish the enemies of Islam,"  killing a judge. Then, two days before the Turkish General Staff's Internet statement, an assailant attempted to assassinate the Chairman of the Higher Education Council.  The Turkish General Staff was affirming the Constitutional Court's right to judge freely, absent AKP political intimidation. Taspinar's suggestion that the General Staff's statement affirming its commitment to the Turkish Constitution is somehow unconstitutional is Orwellian.
Other problems permeate Taspinar's analysis. Last year's presidential elections were delayed by four months because of a constitutional challenge. For academics, omission is a sin second only to plagiarism, but this is what Taspinar does. Unsure of what his party's standing would be after scheduled parliamentary elections, Erdogan sought to select the new President with the lame-duck Parliament, rather than go to the polls. Taspinar belittles secularist concerns about the nomination of Abdullah Gül, the AKP's pick as President. But Gül's nomination was unlike any previous presidential choice: By tradition, the Parliament selects for the Presidency a consensus figure approved by all major political party leaders. The President, in other words, is supposed to be above party politics. But, rather than seek such a consensus figure, Erdogan used his party's majority to impose a candidate, declaring Gül his party's choice a day before the deadline, effectively eliminating discussion. Following the July 22 general elections, which ensured an AKP majority in Parliament, he again imposed the same appointee despite promises to seek a consensus figure.  How Taspinar can construe this as "significantly improving the democratic record" is not clear.
Taspinar may not have much regard for dissent, but Turkish parliamentarians embrace it as their democratic right. Unease with Erdogan's actions led many parliamentarians to deny Erdogan and Gül a quorum, an action deemed legal by the Constitutional Court. To suggest that dissent according to constitutional procedures is undemocratic is tendentious. Indeed, Erdogan's statement that compromise is "to accept what the majority decides"  suggests that it is the AKP, rather than the constitutional democrats and mainstream secular parties, that lacks a culture supportive of democratic ideals and practices.
Taspinar is also dishonest in his description of the Turkish Presidency. He says the "post of the President" is "largely ceremonial." But the President has many important functions. For example, according to Article 104 of the Turkish Constitution of 1982, the President returns laws to the Turkish Grand National Assembly for reconsideration, should he believe them unconstitutional; submits to referendum, if he deems it necessary, legislation regarding amendment of the Constitution; appeals to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of either part or the entirety of certain provisions of laws, decrees, and Rules of Procedure of the Turkish Grand National Assembly on the grounds that they are unconstitutional; calls new elections for the Turkish Grand National Assembly; represents the Supreme Military Command of the Turkish Armed Forces on behalf of the Turkish Grand National Assembly; decides on the mobilization of the Turkish Armed Forces; appoints the Chief of the General Staff; calls meetings of the National Security Council; proclaims martial law or states of emergency; appoints the members and the Chairman of the state Supervisory Council; appoints the members of the Higher Education Council; appoints rectors of universities; appoints the members of the Constitutional Court, the chief public prosecutor and the deputy chief public prosecutor of the High Court of Appeals, the members of the Military High Court of Appeals, the members of the Supreme Military Administrative Court, and the members of the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors. The Presidency is one of the most essential pillars of the political balance of power formulated in the Turkish Constitution.
Taspinar is also prone to exaggeration. Turkey did not, as he suggests, "come to the brink of a military coup." Amid a constitutional crisis brought on by a heated presidential election, Turkey went to the courts, just as the United States did seven years before. If anything, the resolution of the crisis through submission to established institutions confirmed Turkey's maturity. A few analysts talked of a military coup to grab headlines, but, for the most part, such talk was a red herring advanced by Islamists and their fellow-travelers to stifle criticism of the AKP. Erdogan's supporters branded anyone who questioned his policies as coup supporters or Fascists.
Such dishonesty is the rule rather than the exception in "The Old Turks' Revolt." While Taspinar is right to consider that the veil has become central to discussions over Islamism and secularism in Turkey, his assertion that women were ever "prohibited from wearing the Islamic veil in public" is false. Perhaps for partisan reasons, Taspinar further misconstrues the Turkish debate. Not all veils are the same. The traditional Turkish head scarf is quite different than the Saudi-style head covering that Erdogan and Gül's wives favor.
And, while it is true that the prospect of a veiled first lady was a source of controversy before the election, the debate over Gül's wife, Hayrunnisa, went deeper.  In 2002, she sued Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights over the head scarf, but, based on an unfavorable decision upholding the ban and establishing a clear precedent, she had to withdraw her complaint in 2004.  If the wife of a major U.S. presidential candidate sued her country in an international court in order to make an end run around the democratic process, many Americans would object to her ascendancy. Turks are no different. As to why Taspinar ignores this episode, only he can say.
Taspinar is also incorrect to label Kemalism, the governing philosophy introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as "radical secularism." Separation of religion and governance is not radical, nor is Turkey anti-religion. What the Kemalists have done, and, perhaps, what Taspinar dislikes, is forbid the use of religion for political ends. That Turkey's Constitution relegates the practice of religion to the private sphere is no more radical than the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state. Taspinar is dishonest to suggest that Kemalists entertained the eradication of Islam. This is as absurd as saying that the U.S. Founding Fathers sought the demise of Christianity.
Erdogan has presided over a remarkable transformation of Turkish society. Fifty-one percent of Turkish Muslims surveyed in 2006 think of themselves as Muslim first and Turkish second. A year earlier, only 43 percent thought of themselves as Muslim before Turkish.  Such figures are not consistent with Taspinar's statement that Turkey has become a more "democratic and Western-oriented Turkey under AKP leadership."
The AKP's record is not all bad. Under Erdogan's stewardship, average per capita income doubled. Taspinar falls short, though, in dismissing the legitimacy of secular and constitutional democratic parties' criticism of the AKP's economic management. Under the AKP, debt also doubled. As the dollar weakens and Ankara struggles to meet its debt payments, Turkish citizens realize that many of the gains that the AKP claims are ephemeral. In addition, they recognize that corruption has again become a major problem. For example, Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan has become famous for his ability to put together arrangements ranging from the sale of real estate to special-case import tax regulations that profit his family; the AKP has used its parliamentary majority to stymie calls for investigations.  Corruption has long been a problem in Turkish politics and in Turkish society at large, but Erdogan's bullying and the AKP's secrecy has made Turkey's economy more opaque rather than more transparent hardly an indicator of commitment to constitutional democracy.
Given Erdogan's intolerance of the independent media and judiciary, as well as those university rectors, industrialists, and ordinary citizens who do not subscribe to his party's precepts, in addition to his efforts to purge party members who voice independent positions, it is difficult to understand how Taspinar can describe the AKP as "embracing democratic and liberal positions." Constitutional democracies are not ruled by sultans. And scholarship is not advanced by falsehood.
 Sabah (Istanbul), Sept. 17, 2004.
 Radikal (Istanbul), Nov. 16, 2005.
 Turkish General Staff statement, no. BA-08/07, Apr. 27, 2007.
 Zaman (Istanbul), Feb. 11, 2006.
 CNN Türk, Feb. 21, 2007.
 NTV-MSNBC, May 19, 2006.
 Haberler (Istanbul), Apr. 25, 2007.
 Hürriyet, July 24, 2007.
 NTV MSNBC, July 12, 2007.
 Tulin Daloglu, "Covering Customs in Turkey," The Washington Times, Nov. 27, 2007.
 "Grand Chamber Judgment: Leyla Sahin v. Turkey," The European Court of Human Rights, press release, Nov. 10, 2005.
 "Turkey and Its (Many) Discontents," Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and Pew Global Attitudes Project, Washington, D.C., Oct. 25, 2007.
 Guler Komurcu, "Peki Unakitan'i kim tasiyor?" Aksam (Istanbul), Feb. 28, 2006.
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E. Haldun Solmazturk is a retired Brigadier General in the Turkish Army.
The foregoing article by General Solmazturk was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Summer, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1929)
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