Monday, February 18, 2008

A Less Liberal AKP? (Part II)

To further comment on the new skepticism that some liberal critics are launching at the regime, I would like to draw attention to two recent columns in the Turkish Daily News. In addition to the two divergent view points represented by the columnists, I would also like to turn readers to a special op/ed in Today's Zaman by Şaban Kardaş, an instructor at the University of Utah and the chair of the Middle East and Central Asia Conference Committee. Most lucid in its recent telling of a decline in liberal support for AKP , Kardaş argues that the amendment package is a positive development in that "it will bring conservative people closer to adopting and possibly internalizing a universal human rights discourse."

The argument has oft been made that AKP's reversal of welfare policy is sincere insomuch as the party came to a realization that the best way to promote the rights of conservative Muslims is to protect everyone's rights. Thus, instead of using democracy as a means to accomplish an Islamist end, the argument goes that conservative Muslims in AKP have adopted rights-based liberalism and plural democratic politics because it is in there own interests to do so.

The first TDN column is authored by Mustafa Akyol who argues that the lift of the headscarf ban is in no way a contradiction of AKP's larger reform agenda and was instead chance to further political rights and meet the demands of its conservative base. Akyol asks, "Why would [religious conservatives] continue to support a “liberalization” that systematically excludes their rights?"

The second TDN column is authored by Yusuf Kanlı and argues that AKP revealed its hidden Islamic agenda when it rushed into its alliance with MHP and therefore "preferred majority imposition to pluralism." Kanlı argues that AKP should have tried to forge a greater consensus outside of Parliament before moving forward with the amendment package.

Here is the entirety of Kardaş' op/ed—a welcome contribution to any discussion of how AKP's amendments should be read in relation to the long-term aspirations of human rights activists.

Turkish academia on headscarf and human rights: bringing the politics back in

On the eve of the Turkish Parliament's recent constitutional amendment intended to lift a ban
on headscarves on university campuses, a group of liberal and conservative Turkish academics organized a petition drive to support the joint initiative of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Though partial, they viewed the proposed changes as a step in the right direction to expand the scope of individual liberties.

The declaration, which was supported by around 3,500 academics, unsurprisingly sparked a counter-coalition of Kemalist academics that insisted on the continuation of the existing ban and argued against Parliament's decision to amend articles 10 and 42 of the Constitution on the grounds that far from being a sincere attempt to promote basic rights, this move was meant to shore up the gains of the increasing conservative influence in the country. It, they believe, will impose one form of morality on the rest of the society, breeding conformity to a religious lifestyle. The growing sense of rift among academics, which is thought to reflect a likely polarization of society should the new regulations go into force, alarmed many would-be supporters of the constitutional changes. These liberal and leftist intellectuals, who have been ardent advocates of further democratization and liberalization, expressed their concern with the way the new political compromise was carried through Parliament as well as with the specific make up of the constitutional changes.

They now organized themselves into, in their own words, a "third way/alternative" between the two polar opposites that supposedly led to a deadlock and prevented any meaningful public debate. Of the various points the supporters of this position make, one in particular stands out. On various occasions they have argued that an attempt to restore the rights of the students wearing headscarves should have been part and parcel of a broader reform package which would have included the rights of other groups, including homosexuals and secular individuals, and concerned the elimination of restrictions on other categories of rights, most importantly limitations on freedom of expression. In other words, such a reform should have come about as a result of a consensus between broader segments of society. This, in their view, is only natural as human rights are inalienable and cannot be rank ordered. They criticize the government and the academics issuing a declaration in support of the constitutional amendment for undermining the powerful pro-reform coalition. The withdrawal of the crucial liberal support behind the governing AK Party, they argue, will only result in weakening the conditions for further deepening human rights.

Such a support for freedoms, though qualified, is no doubt a welcome development. I will, however, take issue with the third way argument on an important point. That position appears to claim an upper moral ground in that it seeks to avoid two so-called extremes: endorsing the continuation of the status quo, hence the restriction of liberties -- a la the second group -- versus expanding the rights for only a particular group, hence subordinating to the political agenda of the governing party -- a la the first group. After all, a third way, echoing the middle ground and common sense, is always thought to reflect common sense rather than the poles. Does it not?
I claim it does not. The supporters of the third way, ironically, coalesce with the advocates of the second position on an odd ground: They "depoliticize" rights by downplaying the politics behind human rights advocacy. While seeking to maintain their privileged position in claiming and defining rights and freedoms according to their parochial worldview and lifestyle, the supporters of the status quo elevate the definition of rights to an extra-political realm. By reserving such a right for the appointed judges and bureaucrats, they ignore politics, and hence societal demands. The calls of the advocates of a comprehensive reform, on the other hand, border on a moral idealism. Although in principle such a position is a noble goal in and of itself, it risks drifting reforms to an apolitical realm.

Individual freedoms

The struggle for the recognition and protection of rights in essence is political. Although liberal human rights discourse is universal and is thought to be applicable to all human beings irrespective of their origin, human rights policy, i.e., promotion of individual freedoms, both on domestic and international levels has been and, unfortunately, will continue to be subject to politics. Drafting a set of universal rights through the UN Declaration on Human Rights and subsequent twin covenants did not necessarily result in the full recognition of those rights worldwide. Adoption, implementation and deepening of human rights at home and abroad, be it in the case of the liberation of women or the prevention of ethnic cleansing, have been filtered through politics and political processes. When it comes to politics, those who make their case best or those who perform better, rather than the particular merits of the right or the group under question, may get their way. Unfortunately politics prioritizes and selects, and it does so impartially at times.

There is no such thing as a wholesale granting of rights once and for all. The spread of rights to different groups has advanced through a gradual process and mostly as a result of fierce struggles for equal recognition. The relevant question therefore is who defends human rights discourse and carries those demands to the political realm. Philosophers might be the pioneers in raising awareness and struggling for rights. As a matter of fact, however, those who waged the war for the recognition of universal rights are the groups victimized by the dominant groups or the repressive state policies. To the extent that those groups framed their own quest in the language of universal human rights and internalized this discourse in their political outlooks they have been able to expand the scope of freedoms not only for themselves but also for other groups in the society at large.

It is in that sense no surprise that the cause of human rights in Turkey was taken up by the left, the Kurds, conservative groups and, lately, people with alternative lifestyles who have been discriminated against and subjected to violations of basic rights at various degrees. The denial of a basic right to a large group of people, as in the headscarf ban, serves only to alienate these people and weaken the coalition for freedoms. The best way to expand freedoms and solidify the coalition is to let individuals enjoy their basic rights. This will not only broaden the constituencies behind freedoms, but will also give them a chance to internalize a universal human rights discourse. One cannot delay a right supported by an overwhelming majority of the people on the one hand and expect the same people to embrace a broader notion of human rights on the other.

The societal quest for rights, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for their realization. The movement for recognition of rights still requires a political enactment. I believe it is only natural that the AK Party and the MHP, two political parties with popular mandates, will respond to the societal demands for the abolition of an unwarranted practice. This political compromise, no doubt, involved more than a concern for removing yet another barrier before the realization of rights. It is most probably a mixture of sincere concerns and backdoor politicking. But what political act intended for humanitarian good is a product of pure motives anyway?

Is disengagement from this political move -- and instead arguing for a reform package that introduces a comprehensive set of rights -- the advisable course of action? I believe this moral idealism is tantamount to philosophers' seeking refuge in an abstract and unfeasible agenda, an ivory tower of sorts. Rather than representing a middle ground, the third way in fact presents a utopian extreme to the position advocated by the supporters of the status quo. It is only ironic to call for top-down liberalization yet ignore an actual and, to some, more pressing societal demand the solution of which will represent a genuine domestic impetus for reform. This position also downplays the fact that much of the supposed polarization is a result of the deep-seated fears of the supporters of the status quo, which wanders on the verge of hysteria. The secularists are opposed to not only the elimination of the headscarf ban but more so to other freedoms demanded by the liberals. The third position needs to show realistically that a comprehensive reform package, easing among others the restrictions on freedom of expression and cultural rights, will meet less opposition from these circles than the current resistance to the constitutional amendments.

Through their pragmatic moralism, the organizers of the first petition drive, therefore, are on a more solid ground and have taken a bold stance by stepping out of their ivory towers. The removal of the ban will end an injustice and expand the scope of freedoms in Turkish society. First, it will bring conservative people closer to adopting and possibly internalizing a universal human rights discourse. There is no guarantee that the former victims will moderate their discourse and not turn into new oppressors. Recalling that many past advocates of freedoms, particularly in the ranks of the Turkish left, still object to the extension of rights to different groups, while others have developed a genuine human rights discourse, it is reasonable to conclude that not all conservative groups will take this crucial step and adopt a liberal human rights discourse. I, however, believe that there is no better way than trusting the people and giving them a chance. It is worth a try and is more prudent and humane than the continuation of the ban.

Understanding the other

Through these changes, on the other hand, the secularist segments of the society that have emerged as a new cultural and ideological minority may for the first time start to realize that maintaining a privileged position over other groups and protecting their own rights and lifestyles through their monopoly over the coercive powers of the state is no longer a viable option. As they fight for their own rights on a civil platform, they may come to appreciate the rights of others. Ironically, their putative fear of victimization at the hands of the majority may force them to reconsider their position on the rights and force them to discover an all-encompassing universal human rights discourse, breaking the last bastion of restrictionism, further broadening the pro-rights coalition. They may start realizing that they cannot take their rights granted while systematically delaying those of others.

As the supporters of the third position are well aware, any reform project needs an agent to sponsor it in the political realm and the AK Party remains the only force capable of doing so. These intellectuals, however, have to concede that they cannot expect the AK Party to deliver on the issues that are important to themselves while at the same time tying its hands when it comes to delivering on an issue that has been vital to its core constituency. One simply cannot have the cake and eat it, too. I believe, having solved this problem, the AK Party and liberals will be better positioned to deepen the reform process. While the AK Party can mobilize its grassroots behind a reformist agenda, liberals will be justified to insist on the AK Party broadening the scope of rights into new directions.

The third way academics join the restrictionist secularists is in their questioning the sincerity of the AK Party, the MHP and their core constituency to democracy. They also need to recognize that they have to convince the rest of the society that they are committed to the rights for all, irrespective of lifestyle. Asking for further public deliberation by the time a consensus on a broader reform package is reached, or asking the government to avoid destabilizing the economy through "its untimely insistence on the headscarf issue," in effect, means keeping a large number of students from going to their classes yet another day or attending school yet another year or semester. Delaying rights for the sake of political stability and economic development has been a common strategy of authoritarian regimes, not liberal reformists. For true liberals, freedoms go hand in hand with stability and development. As Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, "A right delayed is a right denied."

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