Turkish Islamists try ‘shock and awe’

Sunday 01/05/2016

The debate stirred up by Turkey’s parlia­ment speaker who suggested the removal of secularism from the constitution repre­sents the latest, and perhaps the deadliest, attempt to dismantle the secular and democratic structure of the Turkish state by the country’s overzealous Islamist rulers.

“We are a Muslim country, therefore, we should have a reli­gious constitution,” Ismail Kahra­man, an Islamist politician who was elected parliament speaker after last November’s elections. “Secularism would not have a place in a new constitution,” he vowed, lamenting the lack of religious references in the Turkish constitution which the ruling Jus­tice and Development Party (AKP) is determined to overhaul.

Although Kahraman later par­tially backtracked from those re­marks in the face of reaction from the opposition, the debate took a new form when AKP chairman, Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto­glu, suggested the government would seek a liberal interpretation of secular values while drafting a new charter. Sounding softer in tone and gentler in approach, Davutoglu is nevertheless cut from the same cloth as Kahraman.

The way that secularism was brought up for debate in Tur­key carries the hallmarks of the “shock-and-awe” approach often adopted by the Islamist-rooted AKP, which is bent on changing the modern-state structure of Turkey according to the creeping pan-Islamist, self-aggrandising ideology.

Dropping a sudden bombshell on a public debate with a provoca­tive remark, followed by series of controversial commentaries and wide coverage by pro-government media, helps Islamists shape the discussion on their own terms. The AKP contemplates playing the secular card in an upcoming referendum about the constitution or even during snap polls for the legislature. This will mobilise core supporters at the Islamist base during the campaign period.

The issue also shows the degree of confidence and the level of comfort enjoyed by Islamist politicians whose governing AKP barely escaped closure in 2008 on charges of undermining the secular structure of the Turkish state when it attempted to lift the ban on headscarves for univer­sity students. In 2007, the Turk­ish military was very vocal in its disapproval of then-presidential candidate Abdullah Gul, another AKP Islamist, because his wife wore a headscarf.

All that hypersensitivity on sec­ularism is water under the bridge when the military, the staunch supporter of secular Turkey, was pushed back to its own barracks under government-led legal cases targeting senior officers. Likewise, the judiciary, used to be quick in acting against the government even in small infractions of the constitutional articles, was subor­dinated to the government with partisan and loyalist holding key judicial positions.

Things got worse when the ma­jor corruption cases of December 2013 that incriminated then prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his family mem­bers and associates were derailed and eventually hushed up.

The AKP has been emboldened by the pervasive impunity and the absence of any accountability and transparency in the governance of the country. Now even radi­cal Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Kurdish Hezbollah, listed as terrorist organisations in Turkey, are able to have major con­ventions across Turkey.

The project of turning secular Turkey into a bastion of political Islam picked up speed in recent years after the Islamists consoli­dated their powers. The national education has been redesigned to cater to publicly funded religious schools at the expense of others while the religious directorate, a mammoth government institu­tion that controls some 80,000 mosques and 150,000 clerics nationwide, was transformed into a propaganda machine for political Islamist doctrines.

Key positions in the civil service were staffed by committed par­tisans who exert greater control and influence on decision-making processes while playing a major role on the redistribution of the wealth in the country through government contracts and tenders. Corporations that are seen as supporting opposition political parties or civic groups critical of the government were shunned, face hefty financial penalties and, in some cases, seized arbitrarily on trumped-up charges.

With the free, independent and critical media, by and large, gone in Turkey following series of government takeovers of media outlets including the best-selling daily Zaman, the Islamists’ en­croachment upon the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and demo­cratic principles is no longer facing any major scrutiny.