Turkey, free and independent

I have been watching the crisis over the election of a president of Turkey with considerable interest. The following remark by a young woman at the protests earlier this week against the ruling party’s candidate nicely summarizes the unusual dimensions of Turkish politics:

We, the free women of Turkey, do not want the hijab. We want to be like the European females, but we do not want to join the European Union. We want Turkey to stay free and independent.

–via Abu Dhabi TV, 29 April, 2007, as translated and broadcast by Mosaic on Link TV.

Is there another country where the dimensions of political issues cut this way, with the most nationalist sectors also being the most secular? I would think not. And, while I do not claim to know much about Turkish politics, I do suspect that, with the Turkish presidency actually being much weaker than the prime ministership that is already in the “Islamist” party’s hands, that the opposition has at least as much to do with resistance to economic liberalization (among the requirements for EU membership) as with the secular-religious divide. Of course, it is the latter that evokes more intense popular passion. Perhaps someone who actually knows Turkey can tell me why I am wrong about that.

I hope to be back with a more detailed post on the institutional aspects of this crisis in the coming days.

In the meantime, I leave you with a fact that has not been widely noted in the coverage I have seen: The ruling party rules on only 34% of the votes cast at the last election. Just four seats short of two thirds, this must be the biggest distortion of votes to seats in the annals of electoral systems, or very close to it.

Early parliamentary elections have been called–for July (about four months ahead of when they would have been required). Can the AK make it to two thirds?

Recommended reading at other blogs: The Head Heeb, A Fistful of Euros, and PoliBlog.

0 thoughts on “Turkey, free and independent

  1. Of course, there are some contradictions in her statement: she wants a free and independent Turkey apart from the EU, but she also wants to “be like” European women. The former is nationalistic, but the latter isn’t.

  2. Agreed, Steven, and that contradiction is precisely what I was getting at. In social policy (secular-religious), the opposition to the current government is “liberal” but in economic and security matters, it is “conservative” (i.e. nationalist). The Turkish military sides with both of these views, and that is quite an unusual combination.

  3. I can think of other placed where nationalism and religion aren’t so well aligned.

    The most fervent modern Quebec nationalists are usually secular, though they ally with more traditional sectors when convenient. In Israel, the ultra-religious charedim were historically not at all nationalist, though that has changed somewhat. France has a considerable nationalist-secular element. Both Communist nationalism and early Arab nationalism have been secular too, though if you’re being picky you might call them pan-national instead.

    Turkey is among the most striking cases that’s still around, I agree. I wonder why secular nationalism is so much rarer and even unusual nowadays?

  4. Matthew,

    I take you point, but what I was noting was that it would seem, at least in terms of the quote, that it isn’t a case of the secularist being purely nationalistic–but instead selectively so. I would be curious to know if an of the religious side claim anything Turkish at all in their cultural-religious claims. Could it be that nationalism itself is bifurcated in some way in the Turkish conscious? Or, perhaps, is Turkish nationalism divorced from certain cultural issues that we would normally associated with nationalism?

    Of course, I suppose it makes sense for the secularists to be the more nationalistic in this case, as identification with Ataturk means, by definition, rejecting religion in politics. And, conversely, to fight for increased religion in politics means fighting against Ataturk’s nationalist vision.

    At any rate, it is all quite interesting.

  5. Pingback: PoliBlog

  6. All I can say is that secularism in Turkey is a joke. The government appoints Imams to all the mosques. How can that be a strict separation of religion and state? It’s sounds like the Turkish state is heavily involve in Islamic religious education. The secularists in Turkey have created a devil and it has bit them back.

    Turkey has a very warped definition of what secularism is, it just sounds like pseudo-secularism. I suppose the secularists in Turkey fear that the AK party will establish Islamic Sharia courts for family matters like they have in some Muslim countries like Malaysia.

    The early elections will bite them back. Isn’t it unusual that elections are held in Summer, July 22?

  7. I just read something on Turkey that suggests laicism as a preferred term for official Turkish policy towards religion and state, rather than secularism. Unfortunately, it did not provide a definition.

  8. We recently had a job candidate (for a Middle Eastern politics position) who specializes in Turkish politics. He also explained the idea of “laicism” and how while it’s not strictly a separation of church & state (does *any* society live up to that standard?), it’s actually radically different from the way religion is used in, say, Saudi Arabia. According to our candidate (who we hired), the Turkish government subsidizes religious figures, but also controls (if that’s not too strong a word) the content. As such, the Turkish state stands *above* religion, rather than as tool of religion. Mostly, it seems, the Turkish state (since the 1920s) wanted to turn Turkish Muslims into good citizens, stressing things like hygiene, education, and the like.

  9. That’s actually not too different from Malaysia where Islam is in theory a privileged religion (the elected king or Yang di Pertuan Agung must be Muslim, religious courts rule on personal law issues, conversion attracts serious consequences) but in actuality is controlled by the government. The role of religion in Malaysia is complicated because the religious divide Islam/others reflects the ethnic divide Malays/non-Malays.

  10. Indonesia is another country where the most nationalist sectors also are the most secular. The previous largest party (the Indonesian Democratic Party / Struggle) caters to secular nationalists, while the current winner, Golkar (Functional Groups; the party of ex-dictator Suharto) is closer to business, but also have more links with Islamic politics.

  11. Also, laicism is originally a French concept, I believe? (Laïcité.)

    Basically the separation of church and state, like in the USA, as Miguel explained. The hijab issue can be likened to the American secularists’ campaign to keep school prayers out and remove references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

    Indonesia has a bizarre middle-ground, with the first of the Five Principles forming the state ideology professing belief in a unitary God. The country is officially theistic, but with no official religion; it is quite amusing to see Christianity, but even more so, Hinduism (multiple gods) and Buddhism (that does not mention God in its scriptures) being interpreted to fit the ideology.

    Religious education is compulsory in school, with mission schools providing classes only in their affiliated religions (Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism), state schools, I believe, offer classes for religious minorities as well.

    One is required to list one’s religious affiliation in identity cards, and recently, to get a civil marriage license a couple must be wedded in a religious ceremony first, which is a shame as in the past Indonesia is one of the few Muslim-majority countries where mixed marriages occur easily (the current system puts too much power in the hands of the clergy, putting strains not only on couples where one of them is Muslim; the Catholic church, for instance, requires a promise that children of a mixed marriage will be raised in the Catholic faith, and some Protestant denominations are known to require the outsider to convert)

    One is tempted to set up a Unitarian church there, just to provide a legal escape valve for agnostics and non-conformists. it will be interesting to see the reaction of the established religions.

  12. Just for precision, there’s no ruling party in Indonesia right now. Golkar nominated its own unsuccessful candidate, Wiranto, and switched support to Megawati in the runoff.

    President Yudhoyono’s own Partai Demokrat holds only 7.5% of the legislative seats. Jusuf Kalla, the vice-president, was Yudhoyono’s running-mate against Golkar, but took over Golkar after winning the vice-presidency.

    Yudhoyono depends on Kalla and Golkar for his legislative majority.

  13. Alan’s right; it’s the largest party in the pro-government block in the House of Representatives (DPR).

    No party has managed to capture the majority of votes (and seats) since 1999, so all cabinets since then, though reporting directly to the President, who’s also the Head of Government, have been in practice coalitions.

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