The Turkish parliament on October 3 passed 34 amendments to the constitution. Designed to ease Turkey’s entry into the EU, they are impressive only on paper. They do not affect the constitution’s secular tenets and the sweeping powers it grants the authorities to suppress activities they deem to be ‘terrorist’ or inimical to the security of the state. Almost every amendment stipulates that the constitution’s provisions on secularism, national security and public order must not be affected by the changes it purports to introduce.
One of the changes relates to freedom of speech, and decrees that organisers of public rallies need not obtain prior official authorisation. But the new freedom is not available for public meetings advocating that the separation of religion and politics be abolished. The Turkish people may hold anti-secular opinions, but may not try to translate them into practice.
Another heavily qualified change abolishes the death-penalty for ordinary crimes, while retaining it for those committed in war or during an act of terrorism. The restriction serves to prevent Kurdish activists who are already sentenced to, or facing, capital punishment, from escaping it. Turkey has not carried out any death sentence since 1984, but legislators have been reluctant to lift the threat of execution hanging over alleged separatists and ‘terrorists’.
The reforms also pave the way for the removal of the ban on Kurdish-language broadcasting. Education in Kurdish, however, remains banned. The reforms may well turn out to be of little or no use to Kurdish activists, whom the authorities dismiss as terrorists or separatists. Shortly before the vote on the amendments, for instance, 17 members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party were accused of “promoting separatism” because they had organised a football match in which one team wore the colours of the banned Kurdish flag. But the amendments apparently make no difference to the prosecutors, who are now seeking up to five years’ jail for the offenders.
Even secular human-rights organisations can be denied protection when it suits the Turkish authorities. When the Human Rights Association of Turkey organised a public meeting on October 7, the police intervened to prevent people from signing an anti-war petition launched by the organisation. The new right to hold public rallies without authorisation will clearly not enable Turks to organise even peaceful public protests against the US’s ‘war on terror’.
Last June General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, chief of general staff, warned of the threat still posed by political Islam to Turkey’s secular democracy. He said that he would “fight Islam for a thousand years”. This shows why commentators attribute the limitations of the new reforms to pressure from the generals, who really rule Turkey.
The vehicle for the generals’ political weight is the National Security Council, a constitutional body dominated by the military. The status of the NSC was tackled by the amendments, but not convincingly. The importance governments must give to the recommendations of the NSC is to be downgraded, and civilians will in future constitute the majority of its membership. The generals are certain to fight any meaningful changes that reduce their political influence. They carried out three military coups between 1960 and 1980 to keep the power allocated to them under the system introduced more than 70 years ago.
The secularists will have ample opportunity to truncate the new reforms even further, as almost all the amendments have to be implemented by new legislation within a year. The authorities will certainly not be in a hurry to prepare the relevant draft legislation, and when they do so the result will bear the stamp of the generals.
The EU’s response to the reforms will be known officially when the EU commission’s annual progress report on Turkey is published in November; there is little point in speculating about it. Turkey’s membership of NATO is now less valuable to the West, partly because former ‘communist enemies’ are now members and even Russia wants to join. But with a new world order opposed to Islam being evolved, secular Turkey as the only Muslim member of the EU could prove an attractive prospect. Turk believe that Turkey will never be admitted to the EU because it really is a Muslim country, despite its imposed secularism.