The unseeing eye may categorize the case to ban Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) as just another blow at an infant democracy and call it a “judiciary coup.” However, the judiciary in Turkey is independent and free of ideologies. Its decisions are based on the constitution and do not have the secret agenda of coup d’etat. The constitutional court does not compete with political parties, but rather checks on them. The law is higher than the government; therefore does not fit into the dichotomy of “us versus them”, which Tayyip Erdogan pronounces often; “us” being the public’s choice, “them” being those against it. The chief persecutor’s indictment stems from and bases itself on the constitution; therefore any critique of it opens the constitution itself to debate. The Turkish constitution is already in process of reform, but still holds its validity. Rather than targeting the lawful indictment and questioning the political role of the judiciary, Turkey should now discuss ideas of secularism, democracy and their integral coexistence.

A simplistic view of the modern Turkish state sees secularism as containment of Islam, thus reproduces the polarity between “secular Kemalists” and “traditional Islamists”. In fact there is no such polarization for both the state and the traditionalists adopted each other’s values to gain popularity. Behind the 47% vote lays Tayyip Erdogan’s successful incorporation of religion and modern “Western” values. During his first term as the prime minister, Erdogan remained loyal to EU reforms, put the economy on a stable track and kept a moderate tone in his speeches. His clever politics gained him the support of those who would not normally vote for a political party that keeps an Islamist profile. The secular public felt ready to accept a president who had a wife wearing a headscarf or a prime minister with radical Islamism in his background. Tayyip Erdogan was the promise of an end to the superficial dichotomy between the “Kemalist state” and “Islamists”. After his election for the second term, he made a speech embracing all factions of the society; “we regard your differences as part of our pluralist democracy,” he said, “our promise is to Turkey as a whole without discriminating.”
As it turned out he did value his party’s differences. During the last six months Erdogan has made the “headscarf issue” the center of his agenda. There was nothing in newspapers or on TV for months, but bunch of debates over a piece of cloth. It’s been amazing to watch how dress code can be the subject of the entire quarrel, how suddenly every other discussion, be it the EU reforms or the economy or even the Kurdish issue evaporates. The “headscarf issue” is of course symbolic, and would have never been an issue if all parties of the parliament agreed to remove the ban; in other words if the issue was discussed, rather than dictated. Erdogan’s acute change in agenda is also understandable though, since the removal of the ban on headscarf is the main request of his base electorate. Especially when he legitimized his sending off his kids to US for college as a way for them to dress freely, a lot of questions and complaints rose as to why he did not make removal of headscarf ban his political agenda so that every headscarf-wearing girl would benefit from it. Although his move may have been legitimate, Erdogan adopted a rather aggressive attitude in his endeavor. In accordance with right wing populism he and the party’s ministers made speeches undermining secularism. Most importantly Erdogan strayed away from his all-embracing motto and disregarded the sensitivities of seculars towards an unlawful domination of religion in public life.
That’s why today we’re not discussing whether the ban on headscarf should be removed or not, but rather the way to do it. Erdogan relied on the 47% vote and with the supposed-freedom the electorate gave him, which he calls the “national will”, set out to do whatever he wants in however way he wants. But is this really our contemporary understanding of democracy? Counting only on the elections is rather a Schumpeterian understanding of democracy, where people give their vote to the representative and then disappear from the political scene. The prime minister does represent the public, but where then goes the role of the opposition? Where and how are those differences that Erdogan mentioned as essential to democracy debated? Democracy means equal participation in decision-making and in a Muslim country that can only be guaranteed through secularism that respects religion but keeps public life removed from it. 95% of Turkish citizens belong to Muslim religion by birth and have it written on their ID card, but are also free not to practice it. Secularism, as the 2nd article of the constitution, guarantees that women and men, regardless of their societal status and religious orientation, keep that freedom.

The case against AKP is an opportunity for Tayyip Erdogan to prove that he is in fact secular. Rather than trying to change the constitution after facing charges, he and his party should prepare a solid defense. Erdogan first reacted furiously to the indictment, but couple of weeks later, he has now become milder. He brought the EU reforms back to his agenda, starting with article 301 this week and often states his respect for law when asked about the case. There are talks of possible reconciliation between the opposing party, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), and AKP; the two party leaders met in person last week for the first time since 2006. The court’s decision seems to depend on AKP’s defense and the party’s overall attitude towards law.

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