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December 5, 2013 10:40 am

Turkey’s ‘Democratic’ Reforms Are Anything But

avatar by Abigail R. Esman

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum.

Over dinner at the newest hot restaurant in Istanbul, my friend exhales his fury. “This is democracy?” he snaps. “What kind of democracy?”

It has been barely a month since Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed a precedent established 90 years ago by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and lifted a ban on headscarves in government buildings, including the parliament. On October 31, the day the new law went into effect, four female parliamentarians arrived wearing the hijab. This was not so much for religious reasons – they’d never worn them there before­ – but in a gesture, as it were, of conquest: the Islamists had won.

Not that they expressed it this way: rather, they and the ruling Islamist AKP (Freedom and Justice) Party heralded the event as a welcome, democratizing act. What is astonishing is that many in the West did, too. In America, the New York Times chirped, “The lifting of the head scarf ban was part of a package of democratic changes Mr. Erdogan unveiled in September.”

It is this news that I have just informed my friend, which elicited his retort. Only an hour earlier, his wife and I had walked past a university student’s home recently raided by police. The reason: boys and girls were suspected of living there, two sexes under one roof – and this behavior, Erdogan had declared only weeks after his “democratizing” reversal of the headscarf ban, would not be tolerated.

He wasn’t kidding. According to a report in the Turkish Radikal newspaper, six police officers also raided an apartment in Manisa, where three female students lived. Male guests had been seen there, the authorities said, and the women were subsequently fined 100 lira (about $45) each.

But that’s not all, my friend tells me. Just days after passing the law to permit hijabs in parliament, AKP Vice President Hüseyin Çelik publicly condemned a popular TV presenter, Gözde Kansu, for appearing on air in a revealing dress, her cleavage clearly visible through a keyhole neckline. Kansu was fired the next morning, an indication of just how intimidated the media is by their government these days. This is the country the Committee to Protect Journalists has named “the world’s worst jailer of the press,” a nation where, while police bombarded peaceful anti-AKP protesters with water cannons and tear gas last summer, CNN’s local bureau ran a documentary on penguins.

“This,” says my friend, “is why it’s not democracy. It would be, if women could wear hijabs or a miniskirt. But they can’t.”

Yet few in the West have made this simple connection to appreciate just how dangerously close the AKP is to instituting an Islamist state.

Rather, as Turkey’s secular democracy gradually declines before their eyes, Westerners continue to speak of its strength, of Turkey’s success as a model Muslim country operating as a secular, democratic republic – and one with an independent, strong economy to boot. Worse, some even criticize the concerns of the secular intellectual class – those who, like my dinner companions, perceive the new headscarf laws not as a gesture towards freedom but as one of impending Islamist oppression – as “paranoia.”

It isn’t. Because the concern isn’t just about the headscarf, as the raids on student housing showed. Nor is it about the recent prohibition on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., or the call for women to have at least three children, or for the European-born children of Turkish emigrés to refuse assimilation into European culture – the very culture that is their birthright. The worry isn’t even the imprisonment of peaceful demonstrators opposing the regime during last summer’s Gezi riots, or of generals accused and imprisoned – largely without evidence – of plotting military coups.

Common misperceptions among Westerners are somewhat understandable: Erdogan and his minions have mastered the political art of packaging. The hijab perhaps presents the perfect metaphor for the veiled actions of a leadership working to de-secularize almost every aspect of Turkish life, covering its Islamist intentions with pretty little homilies elegantly woven with oppression and deceit.

Hence the anti-government protestors are “terrorists” and “radicals” seeking to destroy the economy and peace. Journalists who criticize the prime minister are “terrorists” and “radicals” seeking to overthrow the government, or to promulgate a society of hate. Alcohol sales after 10 p.m. promote alcoholism. Even ending the long tradition of public school uniforms last year was presented as ” a victory for freedom.” But look more closely and the real purpose appears in sharper definition: to permit hijabs in public schools – schools that Ataturk decreed were to be kept secular. And this change leads – as do the hijabs in parliament – to the very antithesis of what democracy and freedom stand for: the separation, at all levels, of church and state.

What this really is about is what happens when you put all of these societal and legislative stones together and see the road they build. It is about women’s rights and the incursion of a society that incorporates Islamist visions and sharia. As Kemal Kilicdaoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party recently observed, “Women in Saudi Arabia are struggling to be granted the right to drive. If you come across such a ban [in Turkey] tomorrow, don’t be surprised.”

That position is quite a distance from Ataturk’s spirit. “He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap,” Ataturk wisely observed. It was precisely by opposing this theocratic ideal that he built the modern Turkey, founded on the vow that “it is just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight.”

Nonetheless, my friend’s anger gives me hope because I know that he is not alone: the force of Turkey’s intellectual elite remains strong. “Occupy Gezi” bore witness last summer to its members’ dedication and endurance, but it did something more: it was a retrieval of the power of democracy, a small but significant battle won in that continuing fight, begun nearly a century ago, for a democratic Turkey, secular, independent, and free.

Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.

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