Friday, June 6, 2008

Profile #2: Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey's most powerful court ruled this week that female students cannot wear the hijab (the Islamic headscarf) on campus. The NYT reported yesterday:

The secular opposition Republican People’s Party, called the verdict a triumph of justice and said it showed that secularism and democracy were “constitutional principles that can’t be separated from one another.”

Mr. Erdogan calls the case a matter of individual rights, contending that all Turks should be able to attend universities no matter what they wear or believe.

All but lost in the debate have been the voices of the women whose futures are caught in the political cross hairs. Neslihan Akbulut, 26, a sociology graduate student, said she cried when she heard the verdict.

“There is no way for me in Turkey now,” she said.

I agree with Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamic conservative, on this one.

It seems to me that the secular Republican People's Party doesn't have a handle on secularism. Secularist governments shouldn't be in the paranoid business of banning religious expression, they should be in the business of protecting individual rights, including religious expression. Government's only role in regulating religion is to make sure that institutions charged with doing the people's business—legislatures, schools, the police, public hospitals, banks—don't endorse or promote a religion. Certainly, this involves preventing a school from making women wear the hijab, but that shouldn't be confused with stopping a woman from wearing a hijab.

Let's rewind.

On February 9, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's governing conservative party passed legislation, getting 441 yes votes in the 550-seat parliament, allowing female university students to wear the hijab. (Wearing the hijab had been banned in public buildings since 1980.)

"Tayyip, take your headscarf and stuff it," demonstrators chanted as an estimated 200,000 people gathered in a rally for "Secularism and Independence" to protest as parliament voted.

Erdogan addresses parliament

Yesterday, Turkey's highest court, The Constitutional Court, ruled that allowing women to wear the hijab on campus violated Turkey's secularist guidelines.

More from yesterday's NYT report:

Turkey’s highest court dealt a stinging slap to the governing party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, ruling that a legal change allowing women attending universities to wear head scarves was unconstitutional.

Turkey's top court ruled today that Islamic head scarves violate secularism and cannot be allowed at universities. The Constitutional Court said in a brief statement that the change, proposed by Mr. Erdogan’s party and passed by Parliament in February, violated principles of secularism set in Turkey’s Constitution.

The ruling sets the stage for a showdown between Turkey’s secular elite — its military, judiciary and secular political party — and Mr. Erdogan, an observant Muslim with an Islamist past.

Prime Minister Erdogan, head of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) is in his second term. He was first elected in 2003 and again in 2007—the second time by an even wider margin.

He's definitely a social conservative. As mayor of Instanbul, he outlawed alcohol in cafes. And as PM he's fought to have Islamist justices appointed to Turkey's famously secularist courts. He can also be a firebrand. He was briefly jailed in 1998 after he emerged as the charismatic spokesperson for the outlawed religious conservative Welfare Party (the party he had represented as Mayor of Istanbul, which was declared unconstitutional by the state in 1997 for its apparent Islamic agenda.) Specifically, Erdogan was charged with "religious hatred" for invoking the Islamist poem, "Prayer of the Soldier" at a rally to protest the government's decision to ban his Welfare Party:

Mosques are our barracks,
domes our helmets,
minarets our bayonets,
believers our soldiers.
This holy army guards my religion.
Almighty our journey is our destiny,
the end is martyrdom.

The Welfare Party reinvented itself as the Justice and Development Party, AKP, and Erdogan was elected PM as the AKP's leader in 2003.

The Constitutional Court, a zealous enforcer of secularism, has a history of banning religious-leaning parties, and observers believe the Court is going to use the flap over the hijab to outlaw AKP and bar Erdogan from politics.

If the secularist arbiters in Turkey aren't careful, they're going to stir up a heated backlash.

Coming from a working class background, Erdogan, 54, (here's a BBC profile), emerged as a promising political figure in the 1970s when he joined the National Salvation Party (which was outlawed in 1980), a precursor party to the Welfare Party.

Recognizing Erdogan's political skill and charisma, National Salvation Party leader Nercmettin Erbakan—who himself would become Turkey's first Islamist prime minister in 1996 as the leader of the Welfare Party, promoted the young Erdogan, a former semi-pro football player who worked at Istanbul's transit authority. Erdogan became chairman of the Welfare Party in Istanbul in 1985.

Erdogan ran (and lost) for mayor in suburban Istanbul (the Beyoglu district) in 1985; ran repeatedly for parliament, finally winning in 1991—when, for the first time, the Welfare Party passed 10 percent threshold; and, tapped by Erbakan, was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994—a powerful and high-profile position that eventually turned him into the popular, dissident spokesman for the outlawed Welfare Party in the late 90s.

Erdogan softened his Islamist image to win election as prime minister in 2003, condemning the radical Turkish Islamist group, PKK, for example. (Although his opposition from the center-left Republican People's Party doesn't buy it).

Erdogan advocates a pro-Western economic platform (he's pushing to join the EU) and is admired—even by his secular foes—for his success running the economy.

In other news from Turkey this week: Turkey has joined forces with Iran to fight the Kurds in Northern Iraq. And as I posted (skeptically) earlier this week, religious scholars from secularist Turkey figure prominently in the news that the Islamic world has begun to reevaluate al Qaeda's orthodox ideology.


Morgan Malmquist said...

There are some areas of Istanbul where I would be publicly scolded if I were to venture out without a headscarf so I live and confine myself to the European side which is quite modern and cosmopolitan.

Except among an educated, progressive minority, women are mostly considered property and it is extremely strange to be walking down the street and have men bump into me because it would never occur to them that they should move a few inches to the right and share the sidewalk with me. I obviously had no idea what it felt like to be considered a non-person and it has been an interesting experience.

The headscarf issue was something I never understood while I was in the states, now I'm starting to empathise with the Europeans who want to restrict them. Istanbul was a very modern city in the 1960's and many women I talk with are bitter about what they perceive as a backslide with separation of church and state and women's rights. There is outright hostility between women who wear scarves and the women who don't. Its also been really interesting to watch the way some traditional women relate to men, the only way they know to get what they want is to manipulate their husbands through their children, the resulting societal psychology is really dysfunctional and depressing.

However, the headscarf issue is less about religious freedom than it is about distracting the public from more important issues such as gender inequality, poverty and corruption. It reminds me of the Rovian tactics during the 2004 election. Using Gay Marriage to divide and distract voters from bigger issues like the war and the economy. Anyway. Come visit any time.

Martian Bracelets said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I understand the headscarf issue seems like "backsliding" on women's rights, but wouldn't it be less of a hot button distraction issue if the liberals just said, "Sure wear the hijab if you want to, and so anyway, we were talking about women's pay..."

Phil said...

To paraphrase an ancient saying, "Learn before you talk".

PKK is not Turkish or Islamist/Islamic. Its Kurdish and its basically communist/socialist.