Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum Extends Range of Liberties

The question in the American blogosphere seems to be whether the referendum on Turkey’s constitutional changes was good for democracy or good for the sharia (the system of Muslim law, analogous to Roman Catholic canon law, against which the American right wing is now rallying).

First of all, no one in Turkey is talking about implementing medieval Muslim laws, including the ruling Justice and Development Party– which does want fewer restrictions on the public role of religion in Turkey. The changes to the constitution just make it more difficult for the powers that be to marginalize believers. But to my knowledge, none of the amendments had anything to say about religion or religious law per se.

Second of all, what are American evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics who want to ban abortion (even though there is no secular reason to do so) doing but trying to impose on all Americans their Christian sharia? The people most against the former seem to be all for the latter.

Turkey has been run for decades as a secular semi-dictatorship in which the army was the guardian of the country’s secular values, imposed from above. Turkish secularism is on the militant, French model, in which the government sees itself as an active critic of religious belief and institutions, rather than on the American model, where the government is supposed to be neutral. The army achieved this goal by monitoring officer cadets for signs that they might be religious and then summarily expelling them if they were found to be. One older Turkish intellectual who had been roped, as a university administrator, into assisting with such an expulsion, confessed to me his continued guilt about it. In other words, the Turkish officer corps has been the opposite of the American air force officers, where you pretty much have to be an evangelical Christian or you are hazed.

The other institution that has been deployed actively to discriminate against believing Muslims seeking public roles is the judiciary.

The referendum will make it harder for the army to police itself and keep out believers, by giving those expelled more rights of appeal. It will also weaken the autonomy of the judiciary. Admittedly, the latter step could prove pernicious, and there are legitimate concerns about it. Still, it should be remembered that the judiciary is largely staffed by judges already vetted to support the secular elite, and has often exercised its powers in the past on behalf of that elite.

It is likely, it seems to me, that the outcome of these changes will in fact be a greater role for believing Muslims in Turkish political and public life. I can’t see what is wrong with that, or how it is contrary to democracy. The old Kemalist system of secularism imposed from above by an urban, educated elite, in such a way as to marginalize much of Turkish society, accomplished good but also created inequities.

Moreover, the constitution that is being amended was imposed by martial law. Letting the public weigh in on it, California style, restores a democratic character to at least some of it. Thus, the new constitution will allow much more in the way of union organizing by labor and restores the right to collective bargaining to public sector employees (though still not in the private sector). The generals who made the 1980 coup killed organized labor and the political left (which, ironically, paved the way for the Muslim-tinged right, on the analogy of the Christian Democrats in Germany, to come to power, since discontent had to go somewhere and it could not go left any more).

So, ironically, it is not impossible that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just given a at least some aid and comfort to Turkish leftist and labor movements, which could begin reviving over the next decade– providing a counter-weight to Erdogan’s own more right-of-center emphases.

And, many of the changes were asked for and endorsed by the European Union as a prerequisite for EU membership, which still cannot be ruled out for Turkey (it is a candidate). The EU simply will not admit military dictatorships or countries that explicitly discriminate based on who people are.

So, the question was not democracy versus sharia. It was a more inclusive sort of democracy that might make a legitimate place for believers in politics and public life, versus a continued soft military dictatorship with secular-supremacist tendencies.

Aljazeera English has video:

And here, Aljazeera English explains some of the amendments.

For the political geography of the vote, see Kamil Pasha.

Posted in Turkey | 18 Responses | Print |

18 Responses

  1. Certain EU countries keep raising the bar against Turkey, but the EU economic crisis has yet to run its course and some day Turkey will be glad it’s still outside the EU, which is destined to become a source of busboys and housemaids for prospering Asian countries.

  2. One “secular reason” for banning abortion might be that it is considered by some to be a form of murder. Of course one’s view of personhood will inevitably be informed by one’s religious beliefs, just as with civil rights issues and so forth.

    • All you have to do is compare law and practice in secular societies like France and Holland to those in the US to see the difference it makes when large numbers of people are committed to Christian sharia. No secular society bans abortion because secular people do not believe cytoblasts are legal persons (which would make miscarriages manslaughter.)

  3. (even though there is no secular reason to do so)

    This is not commonly accepted among pro-life advocates. Even secular ethics-philosophers don’t denythat there is a potential issue with it. So this is a rather poor example.

    It is a somewhat better case with marriage legislation, but even there it’s not hard finding attempts at arguming from common ground.

  4. It’s not self-evident that excluding believers from important government positions will discourage democracy. Believers are typically anti-democratic. Their magical thinking causes them to believe that human activity is subject to God’s will, as interpreted by “his” invariably male representatives on earth. Believers can thus win an election and thereafter rule via clerical edicts, as in Iran.

    Believers should be allowed to vote, but religion should be treated like alcohol, gambling, and fatty foods – permitted but frowned on. The government should run ads discouraging religion similar to those discouraging smoking.

    • Any time a government takes it upon itself to limit, or discourage, or exclude a particular set of beliefs it is anti-democratic. A democratic society is created from the consensus of the citizenry not by having a self-designated elite impose their own values on the rest of the community.

      The army achieved this goal by monitoring officer cadets for signs that they might be religious and then summarily expelling them if they were found to be.

      No, there’s nothing anti-democratic about this. Nor could choosing military officers based on their professed ideology lead to disruption of democracy by the military; that Turkey’s military has stepped in on multiple occasions to dismiss democratically elected governments with whom they disagreed is pure coincidence and totally pro-democratic in any case.

    • Watson says: “Believers should be allowed to vote, but religion should be treated like alcohol, gambling, and fatty foods – permitted but frowned on. The government should run ads discouraging religion similar to those discouraging smoking.”

      What would have you done Watson, if any of the following Clergymen would have been elected President of the United States of America:

      Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
      Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1984 and 1988.
      John Ashcroft, with heavy Pentecostal background … ran unsuccessfully to be the 2004 Democratic nominee for U.S. President…
      Pat Robertson, television evangelist, ex-Baptist minister and businessman who espouses American Christian Right political views. What he has said about Haiti earthquake?

      White House will be full of smoke & religion. What edict these mullahs will use to run USA government?

      What name would you give to American democracy, if any preacher becomes the president of USA?

      • Touche’, Mr. Shahid.

        I believe that religion is one of the tools used to conceal the role of money in politics, and to insure that the US is more an oligarchy than a democracy.

  5. Very good analysis. You clearly lay out what is at stake in Turkey right now. To a first approximation, I like to think of the transformation Turkey is going through in terms of Latin American politics. An “educated”, wealthy and arrogant old elite struggling to hold on to its immense power and privileges, in the face of popular demand from unprivileged, oppressed masses for a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. And yes, Erdogan is the Chavez of Turkey, though arguably with less emphasis on correcting economic injustices: Chavez-lite, if you will.

    • Erdogan: less oil, better strategic position. Turkey is a relatively middle-class country; the issue is not starvation like it was for the masses in neoliberal Latin America in the ’90s, but whether ordinarily religious people can have their beliefs used against them as an excuse to preserve an undemocratic elite. I think of Erdogan as being more like JFK, who struggled to prove that his faith – and that of many working-class Democrats – did not make him un-American in 1960, and succeeded so well that such fantasies have hardly been uttered since. Of course, that doesn’t mean that many of the Catholic benefiaries of that breakthrough have been friends to the poor or non-white in subsequent years, nor will the beneficiaries of the AKP be assumed to support economic justice or minority rights. But it raises the standards.

      Where it figures into the larger world is that increasingly we see labor beginning to organize in China and neighboring countries, we see gay rights become the norm in most of Catholic Europe, we see all sorts of social progress as countries pass up America left and further left. Turkey is one of those many countries, all of them increasingly aware of each other’s progress – and America’s backsliding. America is now what the Ottomans were, overarmed and underbrained and too obsessed with past glories to heed the warnings of concerned persons abroad as we roll happily down the wagon ruts to the canyon.

  6. I strongly urge those who are interested in constitution making in Turkey to take a look at Andrew Arato’s writings on the constitutional debates in Turkey!

    Professor Cole: If you had a chance to follow the details of the process and the outcome of the referendum, I believe you’d agree that this new ‘patchwork’ passed as an amendment will create even more serious problem of legitimacy. For the sake of brevity, let me just remind you that in quite number of districts, the ‘no’ vote was over 70 percent !

    58 % vs 42 % is not an expression of “overwhelming support” as many of the media outlets claim, when the issue is the Constitution. What is even more worrisome is that, three of the amendments will simply eliminate the independent judiciary and will put it under AKP’s political power, and it is not as trivial of an issue as you seem to be making it in your recent commentary.

    What AKP have done was not to undo the authoritarian Constitution of 1982 but to capitalize on it.

    I think it is time that we leave behind understanding the religious politics in Turkey simply as “the democratic nature of the pious vs authoritarian secularists.” And it is just too simplistic to understand Turkish case through an analysis developed for Latin America.

    Turkey does need a new constitution. I’ve never heard anybody in his/her right mind arguing against it. But that’s not the question here. Can a political party in Turkey make a constitution without creating even a greater problem of legitimacy?


    • This is the only insightful comment I have read on this page. The rest is bilge and posturing.

      My understanding is Erdogun is consolidating power and will use next year’s election to remove the last vestiges of opposition.

      • Your understanding is based on what? Pro-American news sources? Because as we all know all democracies LOVE America! It can never be otherwise!

        Have you ever considered the idea that the Turkish people are MORE anti-American than Erdogan and he’s holding them back?

  7. Is monitoring Cadets to make sure that they do not have religous tendancies any different than monitoring cadets to insure that they do not have communists tendacies, or capitalist tendancies, or athiest tendacies, or anarchists tendacies, or seperatist tendacies, or fascist tendacies? Oh, wait that last one is perhaps wrong. Can an army exist if it expells cadets with fascist tendacies? That seems to be almost a pre requisit for becoming a military officer in any country. (Define facism some one says, A person who follows the idea, I support my traditions right or wrong to the last breath)

    So here is the real catch. All states have been established through a period of struggle by one ruling faction who have had to defeat other potential ruling factions who have been at odds with each other over political (collective policies). Gaining majority support is a tactic used by these competing factions to gain strength over thier opponets.
    Every state has sacred bridges over which the majority of its citizens may not be allowed to cross, such as nationalization of industry or privatization of industry. If I am not mistaken a key idea in the establishment of modern Turkey is that religion was a key cause of the collapse of the Ottomon Empire.
    Almost 90 years later it seems many Turks have now come to the conclusion that implementation of non religous ideas can be just as stupid as the implementation of religous ideas. I think that it would be hard for people on one side not to see those on the other as backwards at best and as have a hidden motive at worse.

  8. “Second of all, what are American evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics who want to ban abortion (even though there is no secular reason to do so) doing but trying to impose on all Americans their Christian sharia?”
    Not only abortion…the Christian Shariaists want to ban gay marriage and adoption, stem cell research, and drugs and alcohol–as you say, for no secular (or practical) reason, but just because they want to use the law to force everybody to obey the dictates of their religion.

    • It’s not just that. The Christian Right is out to destroy every secular institution that has in any way eroded the power of the Medieval church: public education, public health, unions, the separation of church and state and the establishment of secular law over clerical law. It has embraced near-unlimited property rights and economic inequality. It has abandoned any opposition to war. What do these measures point to? A populace reduced to the status of debt peons to corporations that function as a new nobility, while the president is only called “commander-in-chief”, a tribal war chief whose only power is to kill foreign babies rather than feed our own. We know what role the church plays in such a society; the dispossessed throw themselves on its mercy and are indoctrinated against revolution, and it pretends to soften the abuses of the landlords when it is itself one of the biggest landlords. I’m not just describing Medieval Europe, but in parts the church of Catholic Fascism, that of Chile and Guatemala, and that of rural 19th Century United States.

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