Finally, after over a decade in power, the true face of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is surfacing. The speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, said that the new constitution that the AKP is preparing will have no reference to secularism.
AKP officials quickly denied the intention but many Turks felt as if an idea was planted in their brain -- an idea they would have to get used to. Fearing a secularism-free constitution would be the first step towards introducing Shariah law in their republic, secularist Turks immediately started defending secularism fiercely. Apparently, they do not realize that this secularism got them in trouble in the first place.
From the very first day the AKP won its first elections in 2011, many Turks feared that the AKP, rooted in Islamist parties that were banned by the Constitutional Court for undermining the secular order, would "Islamize" Turkey. Turks feared the AKP's initial democratic reforms were no more than a cloth to cover their hidden agenda: to introduce Shariah law in Turkey. Over the last couple of years, that fear has been overshadowed by another fear, or more precisely, by another reality: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, party leader and prime minister in the first years of AKP rule and president since 2014, became an increasingly authoritarian leader. Instead of Turkey turning into another Iran, it started to resemble Putin's Russia.
Turkey refuses to transform its 'secularism' to serve all citizens.
With the suggestion that the new constitution will no longer have any references to secularism, the "Iran fear" is back. And so is the old divide in the Turkish political debate: Islamism versus secularism. The slogan "Turkey is secular and will remain secular" is heard again. The slogan was extremely popular in 2007, when Erdogan's predecessor, Abdullah Gul, one of the AKP's founders, was about to become president. Secular Turks feared that the combination of one-party AKP rule and a president of the same denomination would undermine the secular state's foundations.
In those days, tens of thousands of people gathered in cities like Izmir and Ankara to defend Turkey's secularism. There as a journalist, I saw hardcore Turkish nationalism, with king-size (easily 100 meters long) Turkish flags and countless portraits of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Many attendees were working for state institutions like the army and the judiciary and were actually sent to the rallies by their employers. These state institutions considered themselves the guards of Turkish secularism and feared takeover by the new religious powers.
That fear has become a reality in the last couple of years. The army was discredited with a huge trial based on concocted evidence, and generals who were not loyal to the government were forced to resign. The judiciary has been brought under full government control, with the help of constitutional reform; this intensified after corruption charges emerged against government officials up to the highest echelons in 2013. The AKP is appointing and replacing prosecutors and judges as it pleases and ordering political trials against its opponents -- be it Kurds, leftists, followers of the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen or just average citizens who dare to "insult" the president.
Turks who now speak out for secularism apparently don't see that it is exactly this Turkish form of 'secularism' that put their country in this situation in the first place.
The interesting fact is that the AKP didn't have to alter the foundations of the state to shape Turkey to its current form. In fact, the AKP has not touched the secular basis of the republic in any way. Instead, it used existing structures to give religion a greater role in society.
One of the key institutions that is at the AKP's disposal is Diyanet, the directorate for religious affairs. It was once installed by Ataturk to control the influence of religion. If you define secularism as the separation of state and religion, which is the most common definition, Turkey isn't secular at all. From the early years of the republic, state and mosque have been closely intertwined. All mosques are state-owned, all imams are state-employed and for decades, the Friday sermons were centrally written and distributed.
The religious curriculum at primary and secondary schools is obligatory and defined by the state. It focuses solely on the state's preferred version of Sunni Islam, thus getting children of parents of another faith or atheist parents in trouble. Houses of worship of other religions or of other sects of Islam, like churches or cemevis (the prayer houses of Alevis), don't benefit from state support like Diyanet mosques do and are thus discriminated against. The European Court of Human Rights has spoken out against these practices on numerous occasions, including last week, but Turkey refuses to transform its "secularism" to serve all citizens.
Turkey's non-secular secularism will continue to be used by anybody in power to suppress other groups in society.
By using state institutions to give Sunni Islam a greater role in society, the AKP has also served the interest of its voter base and thus actually broadened the rights of pious Turks. For example, the discrimination against headscarved women has ended, enabling pious Islamic women to attend universities and to have seats in Parliament. This expansion of religious freedom has, however, infringed on the rights of secular Turks. For example, it has become harder to find a school for their children that matches their ideology, they are faced with more restrictions on the purchase and use of alcohol and they risk prosecution for criticizing the president.
Turks who now speak out for secularism apparently don't see that it is exactly this Turkish form of "secularism" that put their country in this situation in the first place. Without Turkey's non-secular secularism, there would be no way to impose the conservative Islamic values of the AKP on school children. Without Turkey's non-secular secularism, imams wouldn't be on Erdogan's side. Without Turkey's non-secular secularism, no mosques would be built with state funds in villages mainly inhabited by Alevis.
Turkey does need a new constitution. It needs a constitution that finally gets rid off Turkey's non-secular secularism, which will continue to be used by anybody in power to suppress other groups in society. Of course, the non-secular secularism shouldn't be replaced by an even more religious constitution as Kahraman suggested, but by a pluralist legal system that enables freedom and equality for all who live in Turkey and that gives every Turkish citizen the right to be who he or she wants.