Uncovering the Issues (Exttract)

Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Lifting the headscarf ban and an indictment against the democratically elected government are two of the newest skirmishes in the battle between Turkey's Islamicists and secularists Living in an earth-quake-prone land, Turks are accustomed to the sensation of feeling the earth shift under their feet. But few Turks were prepared for the jolt that shook the country on March 14, when the top government prosecutor asked the country's Constitutional Court to consider closing down the ruling party, and barring the prime minister and the president from politics for five years. The prosecutor accused the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won 47 percent of the vote in the last elections in July 2007, of violating the secular principles of Turkey's constitution, dating back to the Ataturk revolution of the early 1920s. In addition to banning the AKP, the prosecutor also asked that 71 of its leaders - including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul - be barred from politics for five years. The prosecutor's move, the court's eventual ruling and the public response will be closely watched by all sides of the debate over what role Islam should play in Turkish public life and whether politics in Turkey have matured enough so that differences can be resolved through democratic means. The AKP represents itself as a pro-Western socially conservative democratic party, but its secular opponents believe it has a hidden Islamic agenda. The party has been a political juggernaut since its inception in 2001, winning clear majorities in Turkey's last two parliamentary elections and sweeping the country's local elections. Formed by members of a reformist wing of one of Turkey's oldest Islamic parties, the AKP appeals to voters who, though they may want to see the ending of certain restrictions on religious expression, such as the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities, are also supportive of Turkey's EU bid and - according to surveys - are not interested in seeing Islamic law introduced. AKP officials have strongly rejected the indictment's charges and are currently preparing their defense. The motion, Erdogan told the press, goes against "the will of the nation." Meanwhile, in a unanimous decision on March 31, the court, which has broad powers to shut political parties down, decided the indictment had enough merit to be considered. Since its establishment in 1963, the constitutional court has closed down 24 parties, some permanently, for violating the constitution. It is currently considering a motion to close the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), accused of promoting ethnic separatism. But to many Turks, the fact that the court would consider closing down the party that won 47 percent of the vote in the last elections and has presided over a period of record economic growth and important political reforms represents a profound escalation in the ongoing battle between the AKP and Turkey's secularist establishment encompassing the army, the courts and the bureaucracy. With the secularists unable to beat the AKP at the ballot box and perhaps unwilling to allow the powerful military to intervene, as it has several times in the past, against threats to the secular nature of the state, the prosecutor's motion is described by some AKP supporters as a kind of "judicial coup" that threatens to plunge Turkey into an extended period of deep political and economic turmoil. "This case may be seen as a political attempt by the state [secularist] elites to remove a democratically elected government from power," says Zuhtu Arslan, a constitutional law expert at the faculty of security sciences at Turkey's national police academy who has advised the government on the drafting of a new constitution, which, unlike the current one, drafted by the military after the 1980 coup, is expected to favor civil liberties over protection of the state. The indictment, written by chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, doesn't mince words. The AKP, whose founders cut their political teeth in a now banned Islamist party, he alleges, was "founded by a group that drew lessons from the closure of earlier Islamic parties and uses democracy to reach its goal, which is installing shari'a [Islamic law] in Turkey," the indictment says. "There is an attempt to expunge the secular principles of the Constitution." Yalcinkaya even reminds the court that the Nazi party also first came to power through democratic means. Among the evidence cited are numerous speeches of Erdogan's, as well as descriptions of municipal AKP actions, including banning the sale of alcohol, and the party's recent successful parliamentary effort to lift a ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities. "A lot of the efforts of the government and their public statements are aiming to make Turkey an Islamic country rather than a secular country. There are a lot of indications that we are going from a Western-style country to an Islamic state," says Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which itself had once been shut down for several years as part of a general closure of parties following the 1980 coup. "We would prefer to compete with our political rivals in elections, but Turkey is a country where the law prevails. All political parties should respect the rules of the constitution," he says. The evidence cited in the indictment is, in many ways, thin. Some of it is based on news reports from the notoriously unreliable Turkish press. And without a doubt, some of the "anti-secularist" statements attributed to Erdogan and other AKP leaders would seem completely innocuous outside of Turkey. In one of the citations, for example, Guldal Aksit, a former AKP minister, is quoted as saying: "Turkey has a headscarf problem. [The ban against it] constitutes a hurdle before the education of our young girls." Hardly the kind of thing that would send people to the barricades in other countries or even in Turkey. Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.