To reach the point where Turkey is now, many heads rolled down and many prices have been paid. The Kemalists’ thinly-concealed dream of the unmaking of all the progress in terms of the expanded share of political power (with broader segments of society) runs counter against the spirits of time. It is also a nonstarter for a comprehensive overhaul of a party that suffers a state of stasis that perpetually limits its political appeal among the masses.
The truth is that there is a long, undeniable history of Kemalist persecution of the hijabi women.
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“Let’s start with the fact, to over-simplify, that Mustafa Kemal’s revolution and establishment of the Turkish Republic took place in a Muslim country in which religion and the state were fused together, resulting in the dismantling of the head of Islam as a political power,” Virginia-based writer Richard Peres told me in an interview for this piece.
Peres reminds us that the hijabi women immensely suffered long before President Erdogan’s ascent in politics. During his sojourn in Turkey, the American writer personally observed the secular crackdown on headscarfed women. The famous case of Merve Kavakci, a lawmaker from the conservative Felicity (Fazilet) Party who was banished from Parliament during the oath ceremony in 1999, still haunts the memory of generations of pious women.
And that day became the central focus of Peres’ book, The Day Turkey Stood Still (Ithaca) which documents the tragedy of Merve Kavakci and offers a glimpse into the predicament of Turkey’s democratic politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Even a jailed Erdogan in the ’90s was not supportive of Merve in 1999 entering the parliament, which illustrates the volatility of this issue to the secular bloc and Kemalists. Despite the gradual liberation of headscarfed women under AKP rule under Erdogan, obviously these hardcore Kemalist views remain in Turkey. Discrimination, bias and persecution of covered women is of course anti-democratic and therefore Merve won her case in the International Court of Human Rights. (Richard Peres)
The Kavakci’s unceremonious banishment from the parliament in front of the entire nation on TV set the stage for the perpetuation of the headscarf issue as the driving theme of political conflict surrounding secularism. When Constitutional Court ruled to shut down Felicity Party for posing an existential threat against Turkey’s secular system, it cited Kavakci’s attempt to enter and take her oath in Parliament while wearing a headscarf as one of the key determinant factors for its verdict. The Kavakci episode was the continuation of the Feb. 28 regime, which came to define the late 1990s after, in the words of then-General Cevik Bir, a post-modern military intervention that ousted Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s government without a direct military takeover of the country’s administration. The biggest victim of military interference was the pious segments of society, and especially hijabi girls whose access to higher education (and public service) had been severely inhibited. It took more than two decades for the entire removal of the last vestiges of the ban for working in the public service.
What motivated Peres to write the book, he told me in an emailed statement, was the fact that “in Turkey, Islam is not just a minority issue but one affecting a majority.” He gives credit to Erdogan, no matter what his recent dismal record, for correcting a historical wrong by restoring the rights of covered women.
Yet, as Saglar’s remarks indicate, the Kemalist view of the headscarf issue appears barely changed.
Of course, Turkey is a big country and hardcore Kemalists take a different position, but that position flies in the face of human rights and democracy. Saglar should be admonished. He has a problem with a covered judge the way racist Americans in the past might have had a problem with a black judge or the way Trump disparaged a judge regarding Trump University stating that the judge was anti-Trump because he was Hispanic.
But the bigotry, he notes after offering a sobering analogy between Turkey and the U.S., is bound to remain in place. As more than 70 million U.S. voters paid no heed to Trump’s abiding bigotry when they rooted for his re-election, “Turkey will not similarly eradicate Saglar’s views.”
When Erdogan excoriated the CHP on Friday, he painted a party that resembles the days of the 1940s and 1950s when modern Turkey’s first political party had poor fidelity to democratic norms and liberties. That image of the CHP remains fixed in the collective imagination of pious quarters of the social spectrum as the embodiment of anti-religious persecution. As IYI Party lawmaker and countless other observers of Turkish politics attest, Saglar’s ill-conceived foray into a sensitive subject only serves to doom CHP’s outreach to conservatives and reinforce the faltering fortunes of the ruling AKP over its incompetent handling of the economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Headscarf and Turkey’s Real Democracy Issues
The latest bout of political bickering over the place of the headscarf in politics, in this respect, serves as a distraction from the public’s urgent needs as ordinary citizens began to feel the pinch of a teetering economy. But the economic peril is only one piece of Turkey’s larger conundrum.
Peres thinks that the latest debate does no good for Turkey as more pressing matters of democracy are slipped out of the public grasp and attention.
“It is not a “point of departure for a healthy and reasoned debate about the current state of Turkey’s democracy,” in my opinion, because it is clearly anti-democratic and the more relevant issues of democracy in Turkey today have nothing to do with wearing the hijab.”
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The government’s throttling of free speech, the mass imprisonment of political opponents, the ravaging cost of post-2016 purge, the arbitrary confiscation of property of people who appear on the receiving end of the government’s persecution, the ever-shrinking free space of opposition media, the repressive crackdown on women and children are among the major deficits that characterize Turkey’s recent socio-political context. Against this backdrop, the resurgence of a topic that has no bearing on the immediate problems of the country appall many people.
When the last week’s headscarf dispute erupted, former Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay displaced Saglar’s exclusive concentration on headscarf while evaluating the credentials of a judge.
“It is not about a matter whether a judge or a public official covered her head or not,” he retorted.
The matter is, the former minister mused, whether someone espouses a state of a free mind, openness, have a conscience free of any subjugation or ideological conviction, universal sense of compassion, and more important of all a clear understanding of justice. According to him, such credentials define an ideal judge who is entrusted with delivering make-or-break decisions that would forever upend someone’s life.
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