With the Grand National Assembly (parliament) returning next week from its summer recess, the firing shot will be sounded for an exciting, and dangerous, moment in Turkey’s quest for redefining its identity under Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan
Erdogan is likely to enter history as one of his country’s greatest political leaders since the establishment of the republic in October 1923. Slated to be at the centre of an adulatory exercise during the current congress of his Justice and Deelopment Party (AKP), Erdogan could justly murmur to himself: so far, so good!
During his stewardship of the government, Turkey has broken out of the vicious circle of poverty and inflation, to start building a modern economy.
Erdogan’s political record is no less impressive.
He has brought the Islamist fringe into the mainstream by developing the theme of “an Islamic society with a secular state”. Abroad, he has gained a new voice for Turkey in its geopolitical habitat, especially the Middle East.
Thus, it is no surprise that Erdogan is seeking to celebrate his record by leaving behind two monuments.
The first would be a mosque in Istanbul, already described as “the biggest in the world”, to dwarf the one constructed under Suleiman the Magnificent. The second is a new Constitution to create a presidential system in the hope that Erdogan would be the first president in a post-Kemalist Turkey.
How the planned mosque will turn out and whether or not it would rival the architectural beauty of numerous Ottoman edifices in Istanbul is anybody’s guess.
Nor does that really matter in the bigger scheme of things.
The same cannot be said about a new constitution.
Most people agree that the current constitution, enacted under the military in 1982 and amended twice, would benefit from substantial re-writing.
The question is: what kind of re-writing?
Concocting a new constitution simply to allow Erdogan to rule as president, rather than as prime minister, is not a convincing argument for reform.
One could even argue that a parliamentary system in which executive power is exercised by a prime minister and his cabinet would better suit Turkey’s needs. Such a system provides for greater political participation and flexibility in adjusting policies through parliamentary give-and-take. It also reduces the risk of conflict between a parliamentary majority and a president from a rival camp.
However, the problems that Erdogan and, ultimately, would-be authors of a new constitution face are not limited to such concerns. Perhaps, the most daunting problem they face concerns the question of identity.
The modern Turkey that emerged from the debris of the Ottoman Empire adopted an identity in line with the 19th century European Zeitgeist in which the world was divided into nations. Suddenly, the rump of a multinational, multi-faith empire was declared to be a European-style nation-state. Turkey was defined as a “nation” although it was composed of peoples with many different national backgrounds. The successive constitutions of the Kemalist republic are full of references to the nation, nationalism, national interests, national culture, and “the absolute supremacy of the will of the nation”.
Nevertheless, all successive texts contain key contradictions. Chief among these is the definition of the state as a republic and the system of the government as democracy. And yet, concepts such as republic and democracy are best suited to a system in which citizenship and popular will are emphasized.
A democracy could be multi-national, as is the case in the United Kingdom or Turkey’s own neighbor Iraq. A republic belongs to its citizens, regardless of ethnic and/or national backgrounds, as is the case with the United States where double-barrel self-definitions transcend national identities.
Limiting Turkey’s identity to its ethnic-linguistic Turkish component means denying the Kurdish self-definition of at least 20 per cent of the citizens. Whether anyone likes it or not many loyal and law-abiding Kurdish citizens of the Turkish Republic do not feel they are part of a Turkish nation or that their aspirations are reflected in Turkish nationalism.
How to deal with that conundrum?
One way is to deny its existence, as do some pan-Turk nationalists. Any attempt at defining Turkey as a bi-national republic could produce a political backlash and, perhaps, even a return to military rule.
Another is to preach Kurdish secession as does the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which, its denials notwithstanding, dreams of a separate nationalist, this time Kurdish, state in eastern Anatolia. A third and, perhaps, more sober way, is to define Turkey as a democratic republic in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and responsibilities regardless of their diverse national self-identifications.
Logically, Erdogan should be sympathetic to this last view. The reason is that, at least in private, Erdogan defines himself as a practicing Muslim. As such he would know that Islam has never felt comfortable with the modern concept of nationalism, shaped in 19th century Europe. At the same time, Erdogan knows that few even in his own party would agree to define Turkey as part of an Islamic ummah. The best way out is not to imprison Turkey either into an outdated nationalistic identity or the even more illusory one of ummah.
Common sense suggests a constitution based on Turkey’s existential reality as a society that enjoys a rich diversity of ethnic backgrounds, languages, cultures and degrees of belief and un-belief- a society bound together by the concept of citizenship based on the rule of law in a democratic republic.
An exciting moment awaits Turkey. What the leadership elite do with it remains to be seen.