Using Secularism as an Excuse

Turkey's secularist elite would like to prohibit the AKP and would have the world believe that the Turkish people are incapable of doing anything without the guidance of the state, ergo if the people of Turkey do anything, it can only be at the instigation of foreign enemies. A commentary by Günther Seufert

Erdogan with a poster of Kemal Ataturk in the background (photo: AP)
Dynamite at the foundations of the republic? Turkey's secularist elite has attempted to ban Erdogan's AKP

​​Just off the pretty holiday village of Ayvalik on Turkey's west coast lies the little island of Cunda. Although Cunda is Turkish territory, a Greek church still stands on the island. Close by the church is a small hotel that is run by a family whose ancestors were forced to leave the island of Crete in the 1920s because they were Muslims.

When the oldest female member of the family, who still speaks Greek, took it upon herself to look after the empty church and keep it clean and tidy, the police were sent in to stop her. Despite the fact that she is a Muslim and had no intention of doing anything of the sort, the old woman was suspected of proselytizing. Although this is not against the law in Turkey, the General Staff decided that what she was doing was a "threat to national unity."

This little episode explains why the public prosecutor in far-away Ankara has applied for a hearing regarding the prohibition of the AKP, the party that has governed the country on its own for the past six years and received about half of all votes cast in last July's elections.

Not a hotbed of Islamist activity

And there certainly is a need to explain why such an application has been made. After all, the reason is definitely not that the AKP, which has brought Turkey closer to Europe and has opened up its economy, has become a hotbed of Islamist activity. If it had, the public prosecutor would have been able to list actions taken by the party instead of just quoting statements made by party members, which have not been a justification for criminal prosecution in the past.

The actions that the public prosecutor did tender as evidence generally have to do with the fact that the parliament has exercised its right to pass laws, for example, by passing a law that allows women to wear headscarves at universities.

That, however, is no more than a motive; the actual reasons go much deeper. They are deeply rooted in a mentality that sends police officers on the little island of Cunda scurrying to intervene as soon as a citizen takes the initiative without first asking the state's permission.

Civil society: a stateless rabble

The daily newspaper Taraf recently provided a clear insight into the workings of the minds ruled by this mentality. It published documents from offices within the General Staff. These documents portray most of Turkish civil society as a stateless rabble. According to these documents, in order to feather their own nests, this useless rabble is allowing foreigners to fund dangerous projects in Turkey, thereby laying dynamite at the foundations of the republic.

Almost every Turkish intellectual of renown as well as liberal media and universities that have connections abroad are portrayed in these documents as the lackeys of dark, enemy powers. A series of diagrams illustrates the complex mazes of interdependencies and mechanisms of influence involved. Right at the top is the United States' National Security Council, which is pulling all the strings and controlling civil society in Turkey.

The documents claim that this apparatus is setting the agenda for debate in Turkey with the help of the National Endowment for Democracy, institutes run by US Democrats and Republicans, and a variety of European Union funds and German political foundations.

Crowds waving Turkish flags and the flags of the AKP (photo:AP)
Even though 20 per cent of the Turkish population believes that Islam is a threat, the vast majority supports the AKP, according to surveys

​​"Jews" and "Crypto-Jews", the "Greek-Turkish Forum", and the EU representation in Ankara are all somehow involved too. But who is apparently being controlled by this apparatus? Here too, the documents have the answers: private universities, liberal media, Turkish foundations and initiatives, but also religious groups - especially those involved in interreligious dialogue.

One of the documents was completed in March 2006 and sent to the deputy head of the General Staff for approval a short time later. According to the 70-page document, "this report was drawn up to provide information about the activities of NGOs that the USA and the EU are grooming to meet their own ends and to ask for approval for counter measures." One such a counter measure is the establishment of NGOs that toe the military line and help foster solidarity between the military and the people.

"Weakening the authority of the state"

What this document is saying is that the Turkish people are incapable of doing anything without the guidance of the state, ergo if the people of Turkey do anything, it can only be at the instigation of foreign enemies and with a view to weakening the state. The reprehensible goals of these NGOS include "weakening the authority of the state", "civil control of state authorities" and an "extension of religious freedom".

If we follow this line of thought, it becomes clear that the people who hold these attitudes believe that only the state knows what is good for society and do not like seeing society getting involved in politics. Yet that is exactly what the AKP has done; in seeking compromise and agreement instead of division on the Cyprus issue, it went against the will of officialdom and the military.

Reforms create a liberal atmosphere

The policy of privatisation and the opening up of the economy has robbed the state's bureaucrats of influence and money and is, as a result, opposed by many. EU reforms created a liberal atmosphere in which demands for more cultural freedom were put on the agenda. Secularism and the Islamic threat are now to be used to put a stop to all of this.

Surveys show that 20 per cent of the Turkish population believes that such a threat does exist. However, only 3 per cent say that they have had to live a more conservative life in the past five years. The vast majority, however, support the AKP. In fact, if elections were held tomorrow, it is likely that the AKP would be returned to power with an even greater share of the poll than in the last election.

This is why Prime Minister Erdogan is relaxed, despite the fact that everything points to a prohibition. His party will face the process and continue to advance democratization. The top priority is to change Article 301 and then to amend the constitution. It will not be so easy to change the mentality of some.

Günther Seufert

© 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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