Friday, August 1, 2008

Can Salvation Bring Redemption?

ART WORK: Peter Schrank / The Economist

Although Constitutional Court chairman Haşim Kılıç sounded off that Tuesday night's close decision is a strong warning for AKP, it is yet to be seen that AKP will take the opportunity to mend fences and rebuild ties with reformers who have been critical of the ruling party's recent politics. It should be noted that Kılıç is the Court's only member to opt not to sanction AKP for allegedly anti-secular activities, but his announcement of the Court's decision was quite strong and the close verdict should not be taken lightly. While AKP can do little about those who are stubbornly set in their opinion that the party is nothing but a smarter reformation of Refah, the party does have a critical opportunity to prove itself a center-right party determined to expand economic opportunities and contribute to the development and institutionalization of a healthy set of democratic norms--namely, the protection and expansion of individual and press rights and attention to the EU's demands for human rights reform.

Although many point to the party's restrictions on alcohol, fewer in Turkey have paid attention to AKP's treatment of the country's religious and ethnic minorities, in particular its Director of Religious Affairs recalcitrant stance on Sunni Muslim education for the country's Alevi religious minority (and contrary to multiple decisions by the European Court on Human Rights) and the party's stubborn denial of Kurdish cultural rights (despite the fact that granting these rights was strongly advocated by Turgut Özal, who many AKP members deeply respect and see as a predecessor of their own style of political rule). To my mind, some of the party's more Islamist tendencies, while certainly contradicting the strict laicism that defines the state's treatment of religion, vary little from the advocacy of Christian parties and seem in many ways less threatening than reforms advocated by religious conservatives in Christian countries. (If one compares Erdoğan to the likes of Christian Coalition conservatives in the United States, the former is surely less threatening.) A center-left party that might more rationally oppose AKP's plans to expand the role of Islam in Turkish society is surely welcome, but the party can hardly be characterized as any more religionist than many other center-right religious parties.

However, in a country where civil liberties have yet to fully take root and where truly liberal reformers are desperate to expand traditionally denied freedoms of expression and political participation, AKP finds itself in a much different political context than other conservative political parties. It seems that in order to truly gain legitimacy as a center-right party, AKP must join with other, perhaps more liberally-minded reformers to fix the country's constitutional structure. While AKP is a coalition of religious conservatives and an odd assortment of liberals and pro-market reformers (think pre-Jacobin classical liberalism), it is the religious conservatism of the party that causes, and perhaps rightly so, the most concern among its detractors. When AKP shelved constitutional reform for a last-minute deal with MHP on the headscarf (see Jan. 20 post), the country's arch conservative political party with a quasi-fascist political history, it seriously undermined its self-espoused liberal credentials. Further, as the party has done little since 2005 to move boldly forward with EU-inspired reforms aimed to harmonize Turkish law with EU standards, these credentials are subject to further criticism. For those skeptical to affirm AKP's center-right identity, the party must move away from the intra-party authoritarianism that characterizes all of Turkey's political parties, open its eyes and ears to the complaints of liberal reformers, and renew its commitment to constitutional reform—change that seeks to expand personal liberties and redefine Turkish citizenship along lines much more agreeable to contemporary understandings of democratic pluralism. Additionally, the party must also answer for the absence of women in high-level political posts. There is only one woman in the entire AKP-formed cabinet, and she is charged, not surprisingly, with women's issues. If AKP can meet these demands, it might one day avoid such crushingly stupid indictments as the one that almost brought about its closure. Further, it will surely eschew oft-sounded harangues about it being an Islamist party hell-bent to bring theocracy to Turkey. Such arguments fail to realize the fundamental differences between AKP and Refah and the complexity of AKP as a political party capable of bringing about broad and positive change.
(Important to note is that AKP is currently the only political party capable of such doing).

Along these lines, more food for thought is an op/ed from Serg Truffaut in Quebec's LeDevoir via
By one vote and one vote alone, the ruling government party in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP, has avoided a judicial ban. Although the Constitutional Court judges agreed not to outlaw this party in order to avoid a major political crisis, they did, on the other hand, deem the accusations leveled against the party to be well-founded. Thus is it written that the fierce struggle between Islamists and secularists will continue with renewed vigor.

. . . .

To return to the subject of the day - the court's decision - one must understand that the event that instigated it was not an isolated event. It was also not a primary event that previewed a chain of events, but an event that shines a light on the AKP's desire to broaden religious presence in spheres of activity it had not yet been involved in. One thinks, of course, about the wearing of headscarves in universities - which the AKP proposed and this same court moreover prohibited several months ago.

Before, well before, Erdogan attacked the university world through the interposition of the headscarf, he had applied himself meticulously to handing Turkey's crown jewels over to businessmen sharing his religious views. His first target? The media. He exploited all the holes observed in television legislation to "pass along" the Sabah-ATV conglomerate - the second-most-important in the country - to a pro-AKP financier. You won't be surprised to learn that the latter appointed Erdogan's son-in-law president of that company.

After the media, it was the banks' and big companies' turn. Every time Erdogan and the current president, Abdullah Gul, had the opportunity to place AKP intimates at the head of influential entities, they hastened to seize it. The same rule held true for the apparatus of the state as for the private sector: AKP militants were given preferential treatment. That program's distinguishing feature? The number of women occupying important positions has melted like snow in the sun. In passing, let it be said that among the ministers, assistant ministers, secretaries of state and undersecretaries of state, one finds one woman and one woman only. Of course, she is responsible for Women's Issues.

Strong from the hold they have over the country, Erdogan and his intimates have found nothing better than to brutally strike out at those who criticize them. Notably journalists, some of whom are today in prison. The victory, however narrow it may be, that the prime minister has just won on the legal front will certainly encourage him to continue down the road of Turkey's Islamicization, unless he should renounce the ideas that are at the heart of the AKP. Eventually, it's likely that Turkey will be more like Jordan - half-secular, half-religious - than like any democracy of the European Union that Turkey nonetheless still wants to join.
(A note: In a section of this article not excerpted, Truffaut mentions that the Turkey of the 1980s moved closer to religion in response to the PKK. This is not really explicative of the entire story, as the government's more tolerant stance toward Islam and religion in politics had much more to do with being distracted by the fear of communism (see "Where Have All the Leftists Gone?" Feb. 12 post.) Another critical note is Truffaut's reference to imprisoned journalists. While some journalists have been imprisoned under Turkey's harsh speech codes, I know of no case where a journalist has been imprisoned for criticizing AKP.)

I take objection with Truffaut's notion that AKP "attacked the university world through interposition of the headscarf" and the general tone that the party is highly-organized and is planning a slow, but sure Islamicization of Turkish society. Truffaut's suggestion that Erdoğan must renounce the founding idea of the AKP if further Islamicization is to be avoided oversimplifies what is actually going on here and takes it for granted that AKP has some sort of set, Islamic ideal. In fact, the party's public language and what might best be interpreted as an articulated political platform is not so much about Islam, but about democratic liberalism and an expanded space in which Turkish citizens might exercise fundamental freedoms (religious and otherwise). However, what the party stands accused of by more knowledgeable experts of Turkish politics is "creeping Islamicization" and this in spite of its repeated public assertions that it has no such Islamic agenda. AKP does not at all have to renounce its heart to save Turkey from Islamicization, but rather match rhetoric with action. Most importantly, the rhetoric itself must be more sophisticated, rising above platitudes about the virtues of liberal democracy and instead communicating a clearer idea of how it envisions resolving the eternal conflict between majoritarian democracy and rights-based liberalism—what Robert Bork famously called in American politics the "Madisonian dilemma" (see May 14 post). If AKP can come to a reasonable consensus in this regard, my mind, for one, would surely rest much easier and Truffaut could be dismissed with Rubin and other detractors.

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