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Sahin Alpay, Today’s Zaman, October 7, 2013

What has been said and written about the latest “democratization package” announced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a week ago gives a good idea of the remarkable broadness of the spectrum of opinion in Turkey.


At one end of the spectrum are those who claim that the proposed reforms “do not in any way broaden the scope of rights and liberties,” and at the other are those who proclaim that these simply mean “the end of the Turkish nation-state.” The truth, surely, lies somewhere in between.

The legal and administrative measures which will hopefully soon be adopted are significant mainly in respect to the further lifting of restrictions on the expression of Kurdish and Muslim identities. The measures will entirely liberalize campaigning in Kurdish and open the way for bilingual (Turkish and Kurdish) education for Kurdish youth, if only in private schools for now. The ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf for public employees, except for soldiers, police, judges and prosecutors, will also be lifted. These are no doubt welcome steps towards a regime in line with European Union norms, away from those defined by Kemalist secular nationalism.

If Turkey is to be a country where people seek recognition of their rights by peaceful means, where legitimate demands are met and territorial integrity is secured only when government by elected politicians, respect for individual and minority rights and rule of law are consolidated, it is necessary to move forward towards becoming part of “contemporary civilization” as advised by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while its regime is freed of its Kemalist shackles.

The founders of the Republic of Turkey, under the influence of an authoritarian understanding of modernity widespread in central and eastern parts of Europe in the early 20th century, aimed to create a unicultural Turkish nation-state in place of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire that collapsed at the end of World War I. Their ideology, commonly referred to as Kemalism, rested mainly on three pillars: 1) Authoritarian government by modernizing elites. 2) State monopoly and control over religion and restriction of religious rights. 3) Assimilation of the entire population into the Turkish language and culture.

Since the introduction of multi-party politics at the end of World War II, under bottom-up pressures, there have been relaxations in respect to all three pillars: 1) Direct rule by military civilian bureaucracy was replaced by a sort of democracy under military-civilian bureaucratic tutelage with highly restricted rights of association and expression. 2) State monopoly and control over religion remained intact, but certain measures to meet the demands of conservative masses were adopted in the 1950s and, the largest religious minority, the Alevis, were from 1990s onwards allowed to open their places of worship without legal status. 3) At the end of the Cold War, the ban on the mother tongue of the largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, was finally lifted and its use has been gradually liberalized.

The driving forces of these changes were mainly threefold: gradual transition to a liberal and open economy beginning in the early 1980s, the EU accession process that started in the mid-1990s and the adoption of a pro-democracy stance by the majority of intellectuals, who had until then mostly subscribed to authoritarian and totalitarian political ideologies. With these forces at play, Turkey entered a gradual process of liberation from its Kemalist shackles. The recently proposed reforms are surely far from consolidating democracy on EU norms in Turkey, but they are undoubtedly steps in that direction.

Turkey is going through piecemeal regime change. Kemalist parties (the Republican People's Party [CHP] and the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP]) are resisting change, while the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is leading it, not because it is committed to a liberal and pluralist democracy but because it represents Muslim victims of Kemalism and feels the pressure on itself from the bottom up.

Note: This column is taking a break next week due to my visit to Brazil to give a talk on “Turkey and the Middle East” at the Cardoso Foundation.





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