Turkey

Why Both Islamists And Secularists Are Winning Battles For Turkey's Soul

Analysis: Critics who accuse Turkey's ruling - and largely unchallenged - AKP of trying to gradually implement Sharia law are missing the point. Religious conservatism is indeed gaining ground in Turkey. But so too is secularization of the countr

On the Bosporus (overfly)
On the Bosporus (overfly)
Taha Akyol

ISTANBUL -- Religion is on the rise. In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – known for its conservative roots – governs without any serious rival. Recently, the AKP passed a new education bill that will promote more religious education in public schools. Historically, the military and the judiciary powers acted as counterweights to religious conservatism, but both of these institutions have lost their former stature. Is Turkey inching closer to becoming a Sharia-law state?

Broad segments in Turkey share this concern. A growing number of people are even expressing regret that the country's main opposition group, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has taken a less hard-line stance on state-enforced secularism.

When I point out that our legal system has been moving closer to European Union standards during the AKP government, I often encounter the same criticism: these reforms are just a ruse. The AKP's real aim is to insidiously implement Sharia law.

I'm well aware of the controversy surrounding this debate, but I feel compelled to make one point clear: Turkish legal culture is not moving toward religious law. It is clearly oriented in the direction of European legal standards. In fact, this trend has been obvious since the Tanzimat reforms instituted by the Ottoman government in the 19th century. These reforms replaced the former legal code with laws transplanted directly from Europe, using these standards in all areas of life except for family and inheritance law. The leader behind these reforms was Sultan Abdul Hamid.

At the "Legal Reform Commission" debates, the great Islamist thinker Elmali Hamdi Efendi argued that Islamic law was not sufficient to meet contemporary needs and that Western laws needed to answer these challenges. Non-Muslim legal experts were brought to the commission to counsel on reforms. The commission translated the entire Swiss Civil Code into Turkish.

These reforms brought monumental changes to society, but they were not a permanent solution in a rapidly changing society. New reforms were attempted from 1916-1925, but it wasn't until 1926 that new Western-inspired laws began to be instituted on a systematic scale. This approach was hasty and led to some unintended consequences, but in principle is was the right move to make. Looking back, these reforms set the pace for long-term development of rule of law.

From Ataturk to AKP

The early years of the Turkish republic – constituted in 1923 – combined Europeanization with revolutionary projects to secularize a traditionally religious society. This might suggest that radical secularization and Europeanization go hand-in-hand. But if this is the case, how do we grasp the AKP's term in power, which has heralded the most comprehensive secularization and Europeanization campaign since the early republic?

In 2004, the AKP government proposed amending the Turkish Constitution to recognize the supremacy of international laws, and began reforming criminal and commercial codes to match European standards. This new legislation brought improvements on gender issues and individual liberties.

Serious efforts for further reforms are underway on the part of the Justice Ministry, Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. These efforts include cooperation with European legal experts on methods for continued reform of Turkey's legal culture.

Paradoxically, both religious conservatism and secularization have been on the rise during the AKP-era. Interestingly, a study led by two prominent Turkish scholars, Binnaz Toprak and Ali Carkoglu, shows that in recent years religious conservatives have become more accepting of secular legal regimes. This is because both secularism and religious conservatism are becoming more liberal in their character, meaning they no longer represent a threat to one another.

But won't a rise in religious conservatism create social pressure for those who do not subscribe to the same beliefs as the majority? This is a separate issue, with its own layers of complexity.

However, if we focus on the institutional and legal aspects, the surprising truth is that the AKP government shares much in common with the early Turkish republic. The difference is that today's Europe is more liberal, making for a more liberal evolution in Turkey. In today's Turkey, radical secularism no longer resonates. Only a social democratic platform stands a chance of challenging the AKP's popularity. Singing the same old tune just won't work any more.

Read the original article in Turkish

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