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October 27, 2008, Monday

High Court’s secularism threatens democracy

In Turkey the notion of secularism is used to disable democracy, which redistributes power and resources, a redistribution that does not privilege the Kemalist elite at the center, instead benefiting the conservative/democratic masses at the periphery.As such the Kemalist secularists see democracy as a threat to their position and privileges in the system and use -- or rather, abuse -- secularism to limit democracy. Therefore the fight in Turkey is not about secularism but democracy, which is a means to empower the masses vis-à-vis the Kemalist elite.

In this struggle secularism has become an instrument to exclude the masses from the center where power and resources are distributed. And this is not a phenomenon of recent years: In 1925 the Progressive Republican Party, the opposition movement in Parliament, was closed down by the Republican People's Party (CHP) government on grounds that the former had an article in its program stating that "the party is respectful to religion." This simple clause was the only justification for the closure of the powerful opposition party when secularism was not even a constitutional principle.

The contemporary versions of this phenomenon are the Constitutional Court's "reasoned" decisions on the constitutional amendments to Articles 10 and 42 and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) closure case, which provide hard evidence that the Kemalist bureaucracy use secularism to exclude the conservative/democratic masses.

Exclusion on the grounds of secularism serves to de-legitimize social and political actors and their demands while elevating the Kemalist elite as the legitimate vanguard of the system. What I mean can be elaborated through examining the two cases on which the court disclosed its reasoned verdicts. The first is the ban on headscarves at universities. Almost all public opinion surveys demonstrate that around 75 percent of society wants the ban on headscarves at universities removed. Moreover the constitutional amendment passed last February lifting the ban was approved by 411 members of Parliament. All parliamentary groups except the CHP voted in favor of the amendment. This huge social and political will and preference was described by the Constitutional Court as contrary to the principle of secularism.

The second is the AK Party closure case. A political party which has been governing the country for the last six years and enjoys the support of almost half the population was depicted as a center of anti-secular activities. So the people who vote for such a party have undermined secularism. The court tells us that people are not aware of secularism, that they are not secular and that they have to be corrected.

What is the result of this reasoning? The implication is that the people are not trustworthy, that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong and thus still need tutelage, not full freedoms and rights, simply because they do not know how to use them.

This is the primitive logic behind the latest decisions of the court. In this logic one cannot find respect for people and their rights, demands and preferences. It is the logic of the authoritarian vanguards of one-party rule who are anachronistic dreamers of the Kemalist golden age when there was no competing political party, no civil society, no market economy and no global dynamics calling for democratization.

What if the masses in Turkey are not trustworthy in terms of their commitment to secularism as portrayed by the court's decisions? Then it is the duty of vanguard of the republic, the Kemalist bureaucracy, to protect the secularist system. It is through this deliberate act of exclusion of the masses as anti-secular that the Kemalist bureaucracy's right to rule is expected to be justified.

Secularism is thus a shield behind which the Kemalists conduct a struggle for power vis-à-vis the conservative and democratic periphery. Those judges who gave the verdict know that the problem is not secularism per se but the rising power of conservatives and democrats in politics, in academia and in business. In order to keep them under control they have usurped the notion of secularism and are destroying institutions and the values of democracy.

I am not surprised by the latest reasoned decisions. The judges who have a vested interest in an ideological (Kemalist) state are not expected to rule on universal values but the provincial logic of Turkish authoritarianism. No bureaucratic apparatus can ultimately resist people power in an open society with a market economy which is part of a global network. The threat of the Kemalist notion of secularism against democracy will not hold.

Previous articles of the columnist