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17 April 2014, Thursday
 
 
Today's Zaman
 
 
 
 

AK Party moves to avert fresh tension

EDIBE SÖZEN, AK PARTY DEPUTY CHAIRWOMAN
14 August 2008, Thursday /TODAY’S ZAMAN WITH REUTERS
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has publicly scolded a top member over a bill proposing prayer rooms in schools, a sign that the party is serious about avoiding more clashes with the powerful secular establishment.
The AK Party narrowly avoided being closed down by the Constitutional Court last month for Islamist activities and was instead fined for undermining the country’s secular principles.

The party was put under the spotlight when a bill prepared by Deputy Chairwoman Edibe Sözen was made public. It called for places of worship to be built in schools for students of all religions and for the introduction of tough rules on the purchase of pornographic publications.

The bill has since been withdrawn. Financial markets are closely monitoring any signs of renewed tension in Turkey.

“The draft was an individual study by Edibe Sözen … The content of the draft of the Protection of Youth Law is not in accordance with the party program, and the draft was not accepted and not approved by authorized bodies of our party,” the AK Party said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Opposition parties criticized the proposal as proof of the AK Party’s hidden Islamist agenda. The issue of places of worship in the education system is highly controversial in officially secular but predominantly Muslim Turkey.

The secularist establishment, including generals, judges and university rectors, has long campaigned against the government, saying it is trying to undermine the secular state.

The AK Party denies these accusations and points to its pro-Western, pro-business record in office, in place since 2002.

The timing of the bill could not have been worse, as the party is trying to show a more moderate face after the court ruling. A harsher judgment could have plunged the country, which is an applicant for membership in the EU, into political chaos.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged after the court verdict that he would try to avoid confrontation in Turkey’s increasingly polarized society, which is especially divided over the role of religion.

“His statement suggests that the party is taking the court verdict seriously,” said William Hale, author of books on Turkish politics and a professor at İstanbul’s Sabancı University.

Hale said the true test of Erdoğan’s commitment to moving his party toward the center on the political spectrum of Turkish politics would be whether he reshuffled his cabinet in the autumn, as many have predicted.

The Turkish media have speculated that Education Minister Huseyin Çelik and senior party member Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat will be among those replaced for statements they have made on religion.

The AK Party, which embraces nationalists, market liberals and center-right politicians as well as religious conservatives, will still need to take care not to alienate its large religious grassroots community before key municipal elections in early 2009.

The closure case was sparked by the party’s decision to push ahead with a controversial reform that would lift a ban on students wearing the Muslim headscarf at universities. The garment is viewed as a symbol of political Islam by secularists but as a personal and religious right by devout Muslims.

The AK Party plans to reform the Constitution, created in 1982 during military rule. However, if it tries to bring Islam back into public life, tensions are set to return. Such a move would be, as Hale put it, “a red rag to the bull.”

 
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