Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

May 23, 2008

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasI’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).

I’ll get back to this issue in a later post.

In the meantime, feel free to post questions in the comments box and I’ll try to answer them.


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Hi Tom…

What does “liberal stand on religious freedom” mean in Turkey to the man or woman on the street…or to the student at a university?



Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Hi Tom…

Quick follow-up, please.

I’m an American. We have the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights (which seems to have been put “on hold” to some degree here by the current “wartime” administration).

Do the citizens of Turkey have something comparable to our religious freedom (as well as speech & press) and separation of church and state codified in their Constitution or later law?



Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Thanks for the questions, Jack. Although Turkish society is overwhelmingly Muslim, the state officially upholds secularism in public affairs. That is usually understood as the separation of church and state and non-interference in each other’s affairs(as in French laicité). But it takes a special twist in Turkey. Turkish secularism defends the state against pressures from religion by controlling Islam (the state runs the mosques and the imams are state employees) and keeping tight controls on minority religions. In this model, religion is bound to non-interference in public affairs but the state can interfere heavily in religious affairs.

There are many democratic freedoms in Turkey and the press is quite free, but there are limits. As Prime Minister Erdogan has found, if you try to challenge the secularist establishment (based in the military, judiciary, nationalist parties and secularist intellectuals), you can be taken to court for violating secularism. Criticising the country too much can land you with a court case for slandering Turkishness or the state. Unlike in the U.S., an independent preacher could not just set up his own mosque — the government has a monopoly on that.

What does a “liberal stand on religious freedom” mean to individual Turks? It depends on where they stand on Turkish secularism and the sides are quite polarised. Prime Minister Erdogan, who won a decisive reelection victory last year, thinks the restrictions are too tight and some — such as the ban on headscarves at universities — should be lifted. Presumably many of his voters agree. But you may have seen the huge demonstrations in Istanbul last year against him and his reforms. They obviously think differently. There are also polls showing that many students don’t care about the headscarf issue. So it’s impossible to say what the “average Turk” thinks.

The secularist elite is clear in its rejection of any relaxation of the current rules. They see any concession as the thin edge of the wedge that will open the gates to the Islamists. This may once have been true, but Erdogan’s AK Party — as I explained in my story — gave up any dream of Islamic rule long ago in favour of greater civil rights including freedom of religion. Many serious observers in Turkey say there is no hidden agenda there, just a realisation that a fully democratic society would give religion more rights. The issue now, though, is that this reform drive has run out of steam and few if any changes are expected.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Thank you for your response, Tom.

Well…thank goodness that with an opposition (democrat) party government looming on the horizon here in the States, that America’s razor-thin-majority experiment with religion-based government policy is almost over (for now).

I can’t say that I’m in favor of the heavy handed method with which secularism in Turkey maintains the separation of church and state.

However, I believe that once government policy and religion get mixed together in the pot, that bad things happen. U.S. religious hysteria and a right-wing religious president got America into Iraq (and Afghanistan).

Now there is no telling how long it will take to get out…or what the long-term consequences will be for SW Asia (as well as for the United States and a world that relies on oil).

Immigrants (including mine) colonized the New World for several reasons. One was wealth, and another was religious freedom.

By the time the framers of the U.S. Constitution finished amending it with the Bill of Rights, we Americans got the foundation for the codified separation of church and state that we have today.

I like it that way.

Thank goodness the pendulum swings in America…and in Turkey too I guess.


Posted by Jack | Report as abusive