by Waseem Shehzad (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1428)
Three times in the last 50 years – in 1960, 1971 and 1980 – the Turkish military has seized power from civilian governments whose policies they deemed unacceptable. In 1997, Turkey suffered a “soft coup”, when the military forced prime minister Necmeddin Erbakan out of power for being too Islamic.
A similar intervention seems closer than ever as this issue of Crescent goes to press, after the military reacted angrily to the prospect of Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul (pic), becoming president. Gul is a member of the ruling AK party, which is accused of being Islamist. Apparently more objectionable than Gul’s politics, however, is the fact that his wife, Hayrunissa Gul, wears the hijab, like the majority of Turkish women. However, Turkey’s secular establishment, led by the army, is firmly anti-hijab; the wearing of hijab is banned in universities and government offices, and the prospective first lady herself led an appeal against the hijab ban to the European Court.
As a result, the voting for the presidency in Parliament has been boycotted by opposition groups (the Turkish president is elected by members of parliament, not by the populace as a whole.) Nonetheless, in the first round of voting on April 28, Gul won 357 votes, just 10 short of the two-thirds majority required to win the vote. Two further rounds of voting are due; in the third, a simple majority will be enough. However, it is uncertain whether the military or their political allies, particularly the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), will allow this process to continue.
The establishment’s fear of the hijab was made clear by outgoing president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose term ends on May 16. In a speech at Turkey’s War Academies on April 13, he lashed out against too much religious influence “in the private and social life of the people.” He warned: “For the first time, the pillars of the secular republic are being openly questioned,” since its establishment by Mustafa Kemal 84 years ago.
Such sweeping statements reflect the secularists’ lack of confidence despite decades of forcing secularism upon the 70 million Muslim Turks. Following Sezer’s “warning”, 300,000 Turks, most of them university students chanting anti-government slogans and waving Turkish flags, assembled outside the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal in Ankara on April 14 to denounce the alleged threat to secularism. Students were bussed in from all over the country on orders of the military, the real power- wielder in Turkey. An odd assortment of retired generals, led by Eruy Gur, who insist on proclaiming their continued relevance despite having outlived their usefulness, led the march and ranted about the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalists. If the people of Turkey refuse to become secular, this can hardly be blamed on the ruling party, which has been forced to make painful compromises to accommodate the secular ideologues. But these are not enough for the fanatics, as is shown by Sezer’s reference to too much religious influence in people’s “private and social life.”
Even the conservative British weekly Economist (no friend of Muslims) was forced to concede (April 19) that “contrary to claims by the hotchpotch of retired generals, nationalists and anti-European Union activists who organised the rally on April 14, many attendees seemed less concerned by Mr Erdogan’s supposedly Islamist agenda than by a general malaise over their future. This reflects several things: worries over globalisation, violence in neighbouring Iraq, renewed Kurdish separatism, a feeling of being slighted by the EU. Many are also disgruntled by the rampant corruption of some AK officials that Mr Erdogan has failed to curb.”
Mustafa Akyol of the Turkish Daily News pointed out in his column on April 17 that it is not the state’s business to regulate people’s private or personal lives. In a similar column earlier (February 7) Akyol had said that “the principle of secularism as explained in Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution decrees among other things that ‘religion or religious feelings’ can’t be used ‘for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political and legal order of the state’.” He pointed out that the constitution refers to the order of state, not to society or individual life. However, secular fanatics like Sezer believe it is the state’s business to impose their ideology on others. As a former judge, Sezer has had a chequered history in the service of secularism, but he has been around far too long even for his own good. He not only preaches secularism as a principle that should guide human life, he also rewards ideologues who serve this “secularizing mission.” Last year, he gave the annual Atatürk Award to Muazzez lmiye Çig, a controversial historian. Sezer was so impressed by this 97-year-old woman’s insulting depiction of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as offshoots of ancient Sumerian sex cults that he considered it worthy of official recognition. In a few weeks he will be history, but he refuses to depart quietly or with dignity.
The Turkish people are concerned with far more basic issues (employment, inflation, housing, education) than about such nebulous concepts as secularism being in danger. This is an issue constantly played up by the military: promoters of Kemalism who continue to monopolise a disproportionate portion of state resources, depriving people of their basic needs. Officially unemployment stands at 11 percent, but most commentators believe it is much higher; 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and most people cannot afford to eat meat. Petrol prices, at more than US$2 per litre, are among the highest in the world. The 800,000-strong military, meanwhile, consumes 40 percent of the state’s $115 billion annual budget directly, with numerous perks creamed from other sources. Even with such large consumption of the state’s resources, it has little to show by way of achievements. It fusses continuously about imaginary threats from such diverse sources as Russia, Armenia, Iran, the Kurds and Greece, and about Turkey’s being unwelcome in Europe, but is unwilling to show what role it has played in addressing any of these problems.
The European Union, for instance, has cited too much military interference in state affairs as one of the stumbling blocks of Turkey’s EU membership; lack of respect for human rights is another. These realities are undeniable, yet they are excuses because Ankarahas been given a long list of other demands, at the root of which lies Turkey’s Islamic identity. In moments of candor some Europeans have admitted that Europe as a “Christian” continent cannot accept a Muslim Turkey. Even so the military, notorious for its abuses of human rights, refuses to back off or mind its own business. The military chief, general Yasar Buyukanit, referring to Erdogan’s Islamic leanings, said “As a citizen and as a member of the armed forces, we hope that someone who is loyal to the principles of the republic –not just in words but in essence– is elected president.” This was also a veiled attack on Erdogan’s hijab-wearing wife. After Buyukanit’s statement, a member of the opposition People’s Republican Party rose in the National Assembly to ask why Emine Erdogan continued to wear the hijab! This criticism will now no doubt also spread to Gul’s wife.
Erdogan has stabilised Turkey’s economy considerably, but major problems persist. Unproductive state enterprises have been put on the block and exports have increased to more than $73 billion annually. Imports, however, continue to rise and are well over $102 billion, creating a trade deficit and taking the country’s external debt to $170 billion. Although the country has reserves of $52 billion (a respectable sum), its agriculture-based economy, which accounts for 36 percent of earnings, is vulnerable. Industrial production accounts for 22.8 percent, while the service sector brings in another 41.2 percent with tourism playing a large part. The Turkish lira was so low in value compared to the dollar ($1 equaled 1.3 million liras) that people found it difficult to write cheques. The government revalued the lira by slashing six zeroes from it. The new currency, however, has made little difference: people’s earnings remain low; most workers earn less than $450 a month. Junior university professors, for instance, earn between $800 and $1,000 per month, amounts so low that few can make ends meet.
Despite such problems, the direct result of too much spending on the military, and of the secularists’ stubbornness, there is not even a hint that they are prepared to provide space for a civil society to operate on its own preferences. The secular ideologues insist on forcing a reluctant people to march to their beat but have no idea how to address the country’s economic or social problems. It is these contradictions that have turned a country of otherwise hardworking people into a marginal adjunct of Europe instead of a vibrant and leading part of the heartlands of the Muslim world.