Cuius Regio, Eius Religio

Monthly Review, March 3, 2016

Turkish Islamists used to dismiss the European Union as a “Christian club.”  Their claim has acquired greater plausibility now that EU leaders have appointed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Europe’s refugee gatekeeper, bolstering his Islamist government in order to keep Muslims out of Europe.  Such was the import of the agreement the two sides reached last November, in which EU governments promised to pay Turkey three billion euros over two years to cover the costs of detaining and accommodating asylum seekers.

The days preceding the agreement saw the assassination of one of the country’s most important lawyers and the arrest of two of its most prominent journalists.  These were related events, whose import stretches beyond Turkey’s domestic politics.

Tahir Elçi was President of the Diyarbakır Bar Association and the country’s foremost legal advocate for Kurdish resistance to Turkish state violence.  He had successfully brought a number of cases against Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), most famously winning the court’s condemnation of the military destruction of a village in the 1990s.  Shot in the back of the head shortly after giving a speech in defense of an historic minaret recently damaged in a shoot-out between militants and security forces, his murder galvanized lawyers nationwide in defense of their profession.

No less significant for the Turkish opposition is the case of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, arrested on November 26 in Istanbul on account of accusations of espionage that could carry life sentences.  Dündar and Gül’s offense was to investigate claims that the intelligence services (MİT) had shipped weapons to jihadist forces fighting in Syria in January 2014.  A seasoned journalist with a long career of examining Turkey’s “deep state,” Dündar is the general editor of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest and most prestigious newspapers and the journal of record for the secularist opposition.  During his brief tenure at Cumhuriyet Dündar has become known for turning the paper away from its hard-line Kemalist stance and adopting a more sympathetic posture toward the Kurdish movement.  Dündar and Gül, imprisoned for 92 days till February 26, will face trial on March 25.

Europe in Turkey

Both Elçi and Dündar represent forces indispensible to a Turkey that might claim to embody “European values” if these are to mean anything at all besides the injunctions of the capitalist market.  By giving priority to border security over solidarity with dissidents defending their democratic rights, EU leaders betray the legacy of their involvement in the country, which has had positive repercussions for liberal democratic norms in Turkey.

However forcefully one must criticize the politics of EU expansion in the context of the labor movement and social security, in the domain of individual liberty much of the legacy of the EU’s fitful courtship of Turkey has been beneficial.  During Erdoğan’s first term as Prime Minister, the death penalty was abolished and rape in marriage criminalized because of EU pressure.  Though the full enforcement of this latter measure by the AKP’s police and prosecutors is questionable to say the least, still such legislation sets a cultural precedent for what rights citizens can expect to see defended in the context of a liberal democracy.

While Turkish law automatically assigns women their husbands’ family names upon marriage, women are gradually winning the right to retain their pre-marriage last names due to a series of rulings by the ECHR.  Though the EU cannot force Turkey to implement that court’s decisions, recorded violations enter the public record and contribute negatively to the country’s standing as an applicant for membership.  In recent years Turkey’s high court (Yargıtay) has been quietly reversing a history of rejecting such “maiden name” petitions offhand, perhaps saving space on the list of ECHR infractions for more urgent cases.

One such case appeared last fall, when the ECHR decided in favor of Alevi plaintiffs objecting to the mandatory Sunni religion classes first instituted in public schools by the coup regime of the early 1980s.  In its push for a new constitution to replace the one drafted by the generals and approved by a non-transparent public vote in 1982, the AKP government has presented itself as a democratic front fighting to erase the legacy of military dictatorship.  Yet in the case of the mandatory religion classes — as in that of the 10% barrier for party representation in parliament — the AKP has defended the junta’s heritage tooth and nail and shown itself willing to risk tension with its EU counterparts.

Political Theology

The conflict over these religion classes, which the current Education Ministry has worked to expand, cuts to the heart of the AKP’s ideological project.  Though the ruling party’s international legitimacy relies on its claim to advance civilian rule in the face of a presumably secular-nationalist “deep state,” internally it has long been evident what the AKP has in mind for Turkey: the transformation of the constitutional republic into an authoritarian democracy whose principal point of reference is Sunni Islam.

An education reform law passed in 2012 enabling pupils to substitute “distance learning” for school attendance after the fourth grade has verifiably led to significantly declining enrollments for girls, in line with conservative parental preference for sex segregation and early marriage.  This is not surprising, as an association of Imams that advised the parliamentary commission drafting the law explicitly called for sex segregation after the age of puberty “in line with religious principles.”  The reform has emboldened some AKP loyalists in the Education Ministry to call for an end to coeducation altogether.

Erdoğan’s Turkey is a country with separate blood banks for observant Muslims and others; whose government has registered pupils from secular and even non-Muslim families in Sunni religious schools without their consent; where the mayor of the capital city has called on female rape victims to commit suicide, while a member of the Constitutional Court has counseled them to marry their rapists; where the Education Ministry declined to discipline a female educator after she told her students that girls who do not wear headscarves deserved to be raped and murdered.

Under Erdoğan the symbolic language of Turkish politics has changed.  Young men now crowd to the front of AKP rallies wearing shrouds to express their willingness to die (and kill?) for their leader.  The change has brought with it a normalization of support for fundamentalist groups including the Islamic State (IS).  At Istanbul University, the police have protected pro-IS student demonstrators while cracking down on their pro-Kurdish rivals on campus.  It is no longer surprising to read about local IS members threatening to eliminate the Alevi community of the city of Gaziantep, or about an office in the same city staffed by the “caliphate’s” sympathizers caught on videotape selling Yezidi women as slaves.

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