Last Sunday, 12 September, was a decisive and historic moment for Turkey, when over 58 percent of the Turkish people voted for a package of constitutional amendments proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Thirty years earlier, the army had toppled the government to end the conflict between the right and left in Turkish politics, but instead it left the country in the grips of a cold war between western and eastern camps. With public approval, the army took control of politics and reinstated the 1982 constitution, which defined Turkey as a “secular” and “democratic” country, invoking the spirit of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Since then, the army and the resulting secular judicial authority has essentially driven Turkish politics until the approval of last Sunday’s amendments. Despite the fact that the new amendment is the eleventh in a series of constitutional amendments, it is the most significant, and perhaps it will be the most effective in Turkish history, as it opens the door for the AKP, which has Islamic roots, to propose a new constitution in the future. An important question arises: Will the secular Turkey that we know so well embark on a process of change?
In his noteworthy book, What went wrong? (2003), Bernard Lewis argues that the Middle East has been suffering from an identity crisis since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. For more than 100 years, the peoples of the region have been confounded by questions relating to their regression in politics, culture and economics even though they possess a long history of invaluable achievement and contribution to the world’s civilizations. Two reasons have been given for this regression: either a loss of freedom—freedom to govern, to think and to be independent; or, a turning away from tradition, religious or otherwise. Turkey fits nicely into the first category in the form of Kemal Atatürk, and Iran represents the second category in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Lewis claims that the Middle East has been divided between these two poles, and all of the countries in the region will choose between a democratic secular government and the government of clerics.
Lewis, who specializes in the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, tends to prefer the Turkish option. He points out the possibility that countries in the region, including Iran, must first experience religious government before they will move to the second phase of secular democratic government. However, those who follow the developments in Turkey and Iran can almost see the opposite; rather, there seems to be an exchange of positions. In Turkey, the rise of the AKP has shifted Turkey’s orientation to the Islamic side, while in Iran, the reformists are trying to limit the power of the Supreme Leader, which would reduce the authority of religion over politics in this Islamic state.
Under the headline, “What do the constitutional amendments mean for Turkey?” the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet mentions that the victory of the AKP in the referendum indicates that Turkey has already changed; it is no longer the western secular country that Atatürk envisioned. However, the party will not push for the application of Shariaa as the “Kemalists” warn, but rather it will lead its people a third way between the secular and the Islamic. Along this path, it will face both obstacles and compromises with both sides.
The issue of authority has long posed a problem in Turkey. The first Middle Eastern country to adopt the concept of independence, Turkey has oscillated between the principles of freedom and order; in other words, between the people and their governing authority. As Steven Kinzer puts it in Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, since independence, the Turkish Republic has been stuck in a whirlwind of dualities: the West and the East, Islam and secularism, the army and democracy, freedom and order, and people and government. The AKP seems to have led Turkey towards the East, which could pit Islamic values against the western civil morals. Nevertheless, Turkey is still preserving its western democratic secular face.
The AKP has succeeded in escaping the guardianship of the army by means of these amendments, which grant the president and the parliament the right to appoint judges, and give the civil courts the right to put military personnel on trial. The recent amendments have also approved the right of elected members of parliament to retain their seats, even if their respective parties were dissolved. The military can no longer prevent Islamic parties or members from exercising their political rights—a clear victory for Islamists. However, the amendments are not only meant to enhance the power of the ruling Islamic party, but they also provide additional rights to minorities, women and children, as well as grant individuals significant rights that had not been given before.
The AKP may have increased its power, but it is worth remembering that the constitution still defines Turkey as a secular state—the opening sentence of the 1982 constitution. Even the Imam Hatip schools, which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Sufi Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen graduated from, keep a photo of Atatürk in their classrooms and teach his principles in addition to the religious curricula. Indeed, Erdoğan and his party could defeat the Kemalist camp at the current stage, but Turkey has reached unprecedented political and social divisions where 40 percent of Turks oppose the AKP.
It misses the point to consider the AKP victory as the mere win of an Islamic trend over a secular trend; the socio-political side of this victory is more important. The westernized Kemalist elite that has grown inside Turkey’s judicial and military institutions, and has governed the country for about 40 years, is facing a coup by the Anatolian middle class. Hence, we can understand the ferocity of the current confrontation, where no day passes without protests or clashes between both sides.
In Wolfgang Becker’s film, “Goodbye Lenin,” a boy tries to convince his socialist mother, who went into a coma months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and woke up months after it, that socialist East Germany was in good condition so as not to shock her. Months later, the mother, who sincerely believed in the values of the socialist state, discovers the truth. I believe that the AKP can convince the Turkish people that Atatürk still exists, even though his dream disappeared long ago.