As a First Amendment Prof, I was privileged to be in Turkey a couple weeks back when the Constitutional Court rendered its decision in the case against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and the ruling Justice and Development party, or the AKP. I suspect like most political controversies, this one's about a power struggle more than anything else. But its a important one that highlights the colossal differences between the US and Turkey when it comes to the role of religion in government. If you think there's anything left to the wall separating church and state in American, its made of sand compared to what they've built in Turkey.
Lets back up. Earlier in the year prosecutors charged the AKP with undermining the principle of secularism enshrined in the country's constitution. Since the 1970s, the court has banned four political parties on similar grounds.
But Erdogan's problems began long before he became Prime Minister. He was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 as a leading member of the overtly fundamentalist Welfare Party which was subsequently banned from Turkish politics. In 1997, Erdogan himself spent time in jail for inciting religious hatred during a political rally. Four years later, leaders of the defunct Welfare Party regrouped to form the AKP.
As Prime Minister, Erdogan promised to advance Turkey's EU prospects, and to a large extent he has. But what he's done in this regard scares the bejesus out of traditional secular Turks, even those who support relations with the EU. The AKP-led Parliament earlier this year lifted a decades-long ban against head-scarves worn by Muslim women in public universities. The EU was pleased, but the move was viewed by many inside Turkey as evidence of a hidden fundamentalist agenda. It didn't help that Erdogan was simultaneously pushing a law to criminalize adultery.
The headscarf legislation was later ruled unconstitutional, and Erdogan has backed off on adultery. But his reputation as a wolf in sheep's clothing resonated more than ever.
Prosecutors lost their case to ban the AKP by one vote. But the party was censured and forfeited a hunk of public funding. Surprisingly, many of the staunchly secular lawyers, judges and academics I spoke to were satisfied with the outcome. "Iyi haber" they said; good news. Hardly a one has any use for the AKP, and genuinely fear what they describe as the slow and steady creep of religious fundamentalism in Turkish culture and politics. Glance at Turkey's neighbors to the east and you'll see the reason for the anxiety.
But they considered it more important to neutralize the party politically than to run the risk of instability that would have come from a closure decision. My contacts are also very pro-EU, and though opposed to repealing the headscarf ban or otherwise loosening the prohibition on public religious expression as a condition of membership, understood the greater international implications of closure.
There might be one more reason why the decision has not sparked more secularist outrage. While the outcome helped legitimize the AKP, it was also a warning shot against them that in one sense helped boost the political capital of the traditionalists. Bilgi University Prof Soli Ozel explains the tepid reaction in these terms:
There are many democrats in the country who are genuinely, even if exaggeratedly, concerned about the undermining of the secular order. Many of those supported the AKP in its fights against the military and the judiciary and in return expect the party to be more sensitive to their concerns and demonstrate its commitment to liberal democratic principles.
I left Turkey with a similar impression, but whether and how a bargain can be struck between the AKP and more secular minded Turks remains to be seen.