Turkey’s turning point

Istanbul.  By a stroke of luck, I have found myself in Turkey, enjoying a ringside view of a political event seldom seen in this part of the world — a democratic referendum aimed at erasing the last vestiges of authoritarian rule. This delicate exercise is bound to change the way this staunchly secular nation with a multi-ethnic but predominantly Islamic population will govern itself in the coming years. If this bold initiative succeeds, it will chart a new path to Islamic modernity.  If it stalls, it could plunge Turkey back jnto a cycle of political instability and military rule..

The symbolism of September 12, the date chosen for the referendum, cannot be missed by anyone in this country who is old enough to remember the day the military seized power in 1980. That was the original September 12.  lt is to the lingering legacy of that masterfully executed coup that Turkey is responding, thirty years later, with a democratic referendum.  The medium is the message.

The referendum revolves around twenty-six amendments to the 1982 constitution that was supposed to pave the return to civilian government.  Instead of holding a separate vote on every issue, the recent referendum asks the voter to vote “Evet” (Yes) or “Hayir” (No) on the whole package.  Many have criticized this all-or-nothing formulation. More than half of the amendments deal with affirmative reforms in favor of women, children, the aged and the disadvantaged, that no one in his right mind can possibly oppose. But a couple of issues are controversial. They include amendments nullifying provisions of the existing constitution that have long buttressed the hegemonic hold of the military on the nation’s political life.

One of these is Provision No. 15, which conferred permanent immunity from criminal prosecution on the military officers who led the 1980 coup .  A “Yes” vote would erase this immunity, making the leaders of the coup legally accountable for everything they did in relation to the 1980 coup. A related provision in the current constitution permits the trial of civilians in military courts. The abrogation of this martial law feature is likewise sought I. The proposed amendments. Thirdly, the highest court itself will be restructured, allowing the government to appoint additional members. This is expected to end the domination of the court by a bloc that has instinctively opposed moves towards the full democratization of Turkish society.

The history of these martial law powers is quite complex. In the years leading to the 1980 coup, Turkey was torn apart by internal political strife that seemed insoluble. Murder and violence became the rule of the day. Many turned to the military to intervene. This is consistent with the military’s heroic image as the nation’s ultimate protector. When the soldiers stepped into the political stage, order was instantly restored. The killings abruptly stopped, prompting suspicions that the chaos had been orchestrated to justify military rule.

No government in recent memory has confronted the legacy of militarism so directly as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  AKP is riding on the crest of a record economic performance that has placed Turkey in the roster of the five fastest growing economies in the world.  This spectacular achievement, in a region still reeling from effects of the global financial crisis, immensely strengthened Turkey’s long-standing bid for membership in the European Union.  It is commonly argued nowadays that the final move in this bid for full acceptance in the European community has to be the harmonization of Turkish governance with Western political values.

What this synchronization precisely requires of Turkey is the crux of the current political debate in this amazing country —  a nation that willfully created itself out of the fragments of the Ottoman Empire.  Under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey established a strong republican tradition premised on a modern secular state.  So pronounced is this secularism that until today, the Turkish state expressly bans all manifestations of religious identity in the public square.  This includes the wearing of the Muslim veil or headscarf in schools and government offices.

Over the years, this strict secularist policy has given way to a more liberal practice that allows reasonable space for the practice of religion and the manifestation of Islamic faith and identity in various spheres of social life. This has come about partly as a result of the growing influence of Islamic ideas in the formulation of a vision for modern Turkey, but largely as an outcome of the renewed confidence that Islam is giving to its adherents in a globalized world. This is a development that is not adequately captured by simplistic labels like Islamic fundamentalism. No doubt it is a return to faith, but I suspect it is above all a quest to find one’s own bearings in a world that is rapidly being flattened by the global forces of the market.

The problem that this immediately poses for a society like Turkey is how to craft a delicate balance between a strong republican tradition premised on secularism, on one hand, and the claims of an Islamic identity that is comfortable with Western modernity, on the other.

By late evening of referendum day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has steered this country through challenging times since 2002, was profusely thanking everyone who participated in the exercise, regardless of how they voted.  The victory of the “Yes” votes was announced barely three hours after the polls closed. This is a vote for Turkish democracy, the prime minister said. Interestingly, he had special words of thanks for a Muslim intellectual who is abroad and who had quietly spoken for a “yes” vote. He did not mention the name but i am told he was alluding to Fetullah Gulen, possibly the most influential Islamic figure in Turkey today.

Most of the academics and intellectuals I have met on this trip are passionate in their hope that this referendum is the start of Turkey’s decisive emergence from the ruins of militarism. Inshallah. What is of special interest to me as a sociologist is the role that the Islamic faith appears to be playing in blazing a different path to Turkish modernity.  The rest of the world is surely watching, reading all kinds of meanings into this intriguing turning point in the life of the Turkish nation.