The Turkish High Court’s decision on Wednesday 30 July to not ban the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) was hailed by some as a victory for democracy. The decision was the outcome of three days of deliberations over the case, which had first reached the court early in March. Of the 11 judges, six were in favour of closing the AKP; seven votes were needed for an actual closure of the party. However, although the Court did not find the charges against the AKP serious enough to close it down, ten of the 11 judges voted to cut the party’s funding by half. Only one judge – the chairman – voted against both the party closure and the heavy sanctions. After this verdict, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again denied the charges that the AKP is a hub of anti-secularist activities, and promised to work towards “social peace” and “national unity” in Turkey.
While the Court’s decision is to a certain extent a relief, there are also grounds for cynicism about it. There would have been many unpleasant consequences for the secularists had the Court voted to ban the AKP. First, the EU has made it clear that such decisions should be made at the ballot-box, not in courts: for Turkey to be able to ban political parties in a High Court is a very undemocratic and highly undesirable feature of Turkish politics, says the EU. Indeed, a case is currently in the courts to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) on charges that it has links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The decision to ban the AKP would have badly damaged Turkey’s chances of gaining EU membership.
Secondly, although in recent history Turkish politics has survived the banning of 20 pro-Islamist or pro-Kurdish political parties, none of these parties enjoyed the popularity of the AKP, which was voted into government last year with 47 percent of the votes cast. The decision to ban it and 71 of its members, including the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would have resulted in a political crisis and much resentment in the Turkish population. Even those who think that the AKP is less than ideal agree they should have the support of the Turkish people as the democratically-elected political party of the day; to ban such a party is to take away the voice and will of the Turkish people. Thirdly, it cannot be denied that since the AKP came to power in 2003 the Turkish economy has improved significantly. This has been noted and appreciated by all Turks and, since being first elected, Erdogan has increased in popularity just for taking Turkey to a better economic future; to ban the AKP now would have been to destabilise the Turkish economy.
In effect, the High Court’s decision was a political compromise. The secularists could not afford to ban the AKP, nor did they want to let them off scot free; so they labelled them “anti-secularist” and warned them to tread very carefully in the future by cutting their budget from the National Treasury by half: a loss of $15 million a year. As a result the AKP is now indeed treading very carefully, so as not to raise the secularists’ ire, giving the impression of a political party with one of its two hands tied behind its back. It seems that the AKP will not now be allowed to address the religious concerns of 80 percent of the country’s population without the fear of being branded anti-secularist and, therefore, anti-constitutional. Only two weeks ago,prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan disowned his own party’s bill to curb pornography and provide prayer facilities in schools. Although Edibe Sozen, deputy chairwoman of the AKP, who had proposed the bill, claimed that it was based on laws already in place in Germany, the proposal was withdrawn under protest from secularists, who said it was further evidence of the AKP’s “Islamist agenda”. The AKP’s hands, it seems, are tied where such reforms are concerned.
Visiting Turkey last month, after the court’s decision eased the political crisis for the time being, several things were clear. Firstly, Turkey is not so much politically divided as it is a melting-pot of different opinions, points of view and feelings – sometimes even varying widely and inconsistently within one person. Some points of view were more surprising than others. The secularists accuse the AKP of being anti-secularist, but the “Islamists” accuse the AKP of not being Islamic enough; indeed, they suspect the AKP of attempting to lift the hijab ban in universities simply to appease their Muslim voters. What does he care, they point out; Erdogan’s own daughters have gone abroad to study. On the other hand, they agree, there is no better alternative to the AKP available at the moment.
Many Muslims who have not voted for Erdogan before say that they will do so next time because he has proven his reforms to be good for the economy and society, and they feel he is basically honest and clever. The military, they point out, will see to it that he does not change the democratic nature of Turkey and bring about shari‘ah law: they do not worry about the secularists’ claims about the AKP. In any case, they feel he is neither a secularist nor an Islamist, but that he is in the middle, which suits them fine. This does explain the discontent both the secularists and the Islamists feel with regards to the AKP: each camp feels that the AKP is in their camp. Whatever the secularists and Islamists feel about this, however, it may well be the smarter line for the AKP to take where Turkey is concerned. Most Turks seem to be neither secularist nor Islamist as such, but rather are secular Muslims whose primary concern is the economy, with concern about the practice of the deen in their private lives coming later. While the Republican Peoples’ Party points out the AKP’s failings, it has not offered the Turkish masses a desirable alternative
There are mixed feelings in Turkey about the hijab ban, with comments ranging from, “if we let women go to universities with hijab, they can change the democracy and bring Ottoman rule because we are a dangerous country” to “The hijab ban is not good. Every woman should be free because Turkey is like [a Turkish term which means state and religion are separate]”. When it comes to EU membership, the same Turks agree that joining the EU is a bad idea; they feel that they have nothing in common with Europe compared to Iran and the Middle East, for example, and fear that EU membership will result in a bad economy and the migration of a significant number of young people to other EU countries. They feel, where foreign policy is concerned, that their place is with other Muslim countries and that Turkey could play a significant role as an intermediary between the East and the West. It is also clear that although the Ottoman Empire is a source of pride for most Turks (“it is our history”), Ataturk is also their leader and their national hero as the saviour of Turkey (“Ataturk is not just the best Turkish leader, he is the best of the world leaders”). The Turks speak of Ataturk with light in their eyes and reverence in their voices. Other than the “fundamentalist” minority, “everyone likes Ataturk”, and the tourist in Turkey is bombarded with secularist propaganda about this man. It is no wonder that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, president of Islamic Iran, refused to pay homage to this man’s mausoleum early last month, a protocol that is demanded of all foreign visitors to Ankara; the AKP got around this problem by inviting him to Istanbul instead.
Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s frequent pleas for national unity, reconciliation and compromise over the last few months are very appropriate to Turkey and telling to the outsider of the current situation in Turkey, where everyone has a different opinion on everything: secularism, Islamism, fundamentalism, democracy, the hijab ban, the separation of powers, the AKP, CHP and the DTP, the Kurdish issue, the EU, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the US, the economy, society, Ergenekon, the role of the military and judiciary in Turkey, Turkish, Muslim and Arab culture, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Ottoman Empire, to give but a few examples.
It is clear that the Turks’ first course of action should be to force the secularist military and judiciary to loosen their grip on Turkey for the good of democracy as they see it. Once the secularist hold has been relinquished, the Turkish people can vote for a political party that says it will provide a new constitution were it to be re-elected – one that will serve its people (rather than the Turkish people serving the constitution, as seems to be currently the case). The secularists need not worry: even with power back in the hands of the Turkish Muslim majority and the constitution being rewritten, an Islamic revolution in Turkey is nowhere in sight – even Turkey’s own Islamists are realistic about this. The dedication of the people to Islam and the rule of Allah (swt) on Earth required to bring about an Islamic revolution are severely lacking in the vast majority of Turkey’s Muslim population. Anyway there is not enough unity in the Muslim population to hold fast and make the secularists relinquish their hold on Turkey in the first place. Nor is there any compromise or consensus among the secularists, Muslims, Islamists and everyone else in the melting-pot that is Turkey to bring about “social peace” and “national unity”. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his work cut out for him.