Roger writing the LAWmag
Jul 2007

Turkey on the Fence: More Than Just Mini-Skirts versus Headscarves

The word "secular" has no place in the law dictionaries of the world. The word, meaning nonreligious or non-ecclesiastic, has left the legal vocabularies of most free and democratic societies well over a hundred years ago, as it is a virtually assumed feature; taken for granted.

Church and state are not a good mix.

Many people avoid any interest in religion merely because their limited knowledge of history tells them that so many lives have been lost in religious wars. The wanton violence of some Muslim societies is spread out in the news on an almost daily basis.

In most free and democratic societies, religious leaders are not welcome in the boardrooms of state, this notwithstanding the fact that "God" is still a prominent yet decorative feature in constitutional documents.

For example, Canada’s 1982 constitutional statute says that "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God".

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote of a "wall of separation between Church and State". His contemporary James Madison was more direct: "distinction between religion and government is essential to the purity of both".

But separating the two can be as difficult and painful as separating twins conjoined at birth.

In that regard, within European Union wannabe Turkey, the expectation is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by the acronym of their Turkish name, the "AK Party") will form a second consecutive majority government in the July 22nd general election (ed. post script 20070723: in the result, AK Party did get 47% of the vote, enough to form a majority government but not enough to force through its presidential candidate).

In this country of 71 million people, Islam is the religion of 99.8 per cent. The AK Party purports to rule Turkey hand-in-hand with Islam ideology, even though the government structure and powerful military of Turkey is explicitly secular.

2007 Turkey election posterThe modern state of Turkey was created in 1923 by the then head of the military, Mustafa Ataturk, who believed that the population was best served with a strictly secular government, which he promptly implemented, including abolition of Islamic institutions.

But since November 2002, the Islamist-based AK Party has held onto power in Turkey and still has managed to evolve its statutes with those of EU members, such as an abolition of the death penalty, the revision of criminal law and advances on women rights issues (only 79% of Turkish women are literate compared to 95% of men).

On the electoral front, secular parties are having difficulty forming a government. This, in part, because the secular vote is split between several political parties.

At the same time, a gradual reintroduction of church into state matters is scaring off a previously flirtatious European Union, even as Turkey vies for membership, mainly because it is a reflection of what;s happening in the streets of Turkey. There is a subtle but distinct pendulum swing towards adherence to Muslim tenets and a not so subtle use of EU-snubs to promote the Islam cause.

The 2007 image accompanying this article comes with the caption: "The Saadet party are Turkey's strongest (legal) Islamist party, and while much of their support has been lost to the more moderate AK party, their anti-EU stance in gaining them renewed support. Their stance is most clear in this banner, inviting the voter to make a clear choice between Islam and the EU."

This state of affairs is a reflection of modern Turkey, where friends and neighbours, cities and regions divide nicely into two distinct but gut-wrenching lifestyles: Muslim and secular, which the Western press has trivialized as a mini-skirt versus headscarf dichotomy. The European edition of Time, July 23rd, had the story on its cover with a picture of a woman in headscarf and the by-line: "Turkey’s Great Divide: the nation is split over how Islamic it should be".

It is not an easy standoff.

In the wake of AK’s nomination of a pro-Islam presidential candidate in April, 2007, demonstrations broke out and the military took the extraordinary step of warning the AK Party that it would defend the secular constitution.

The incumbent, President Sezer, completing his seventh and final year, is a former Chief Justice.

In contrast, the AK Party Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan boasted a criminal conviction for having merely read an Islamic poem at a political rally, a fact which probably endeared him to voters.

He is a former mayor of Istanbul and his wife wears a hijab, or an Islam headscarf at public events, not as concealing as a burqa but nevertheless a very strong symbol of Islam, offensive to cultural "homogenists" and as a symbol of fundamentalist Islam’s traditional gender discrimination.

The military has been able to contain itself with the prospect of a four-year overtly-Islam government but it is uncertain whether it would tolerate a pro-Islam President.

Powerful allies like George Bush and Tony Blair have backed the AK Party, especially with the hope that such a government might serve as a model for Turkey's immediate neighbours: Iran, Syria and Iraq. Better a democracy with a pinch of Islam than Islam with a pinch of democracy.

Turkey media point out that the Muslim hype is overblown: "English speaking people are prone to think that many people want an Islamic state in Turkey, but even the most religious Muslims do not wish anything resembling such a thing," Dr. Ali Yel, sociology professor at Faith University told the Turkish Daily News.

All eyes will be diverted from the latest Harry Potter book and squarely on Turkey on Sunday because anyone with political experience knows that the Turkey military has a Plan A and a Plan B and if for whatever reason, a military response follows the election results, the powder-keg mixture of church and state will be lit.


  • CIA World Factbook 2007
  • Turkish Daily News, July 20, 2007
  • Image from Flickr, Traces in the Sand (London)

Posted in International Law