Within the next few weeks the Turkish Supreme Court would examine what might be the most curious demand it has faced in recent years. The demand, coming from the country’s Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahmlan Yalcinkaya, is simple: he wants the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country’s governing party, banned and 70 of its leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan barred from politics for 10 years.
Translated into plain terms, Yalcinkaya hopes to use the Supreme Court to carry out a political coup d’etat. He claims that AKP is trying to sabotage the nation’s republican and secular constitution by slowly imposing an Islamic system.
This is not the first time that a Turkish political party has been accused of harbouring an Islamist hidden agenda. The charge was first made against the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes in 1960s. Menderes was removed from power and executed after a mock trial conducted in a kangaroo court. In 1981, it was the turn of Edalat (Justice) Party of Prime Minister Suleiman Demirel to be accused of having a secret agenda and thus dissolved. Next came the banning of Rifah (Welfare) and Fazilat (Virtue) parties, both led by Prime Minister Necemettin Erbacan in the 1990s. Demirel and Erbacan were not executed, a sign of Turkish political maturing since 1960. But both had to spend more than a decade in the political wilderness.
On all those occasions the army, that is to say the military high command, intervened to impose regime change.
Today, the very idea of another military coup is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Turks, especially those dedicated to their secular constitution. That, however, does not mean that a legal coup d’etat could or should be tolerated.
What the Chief Prosecutor is doing is a trial of intentions. He is accusing Erdogan and other AKP leaders of “wishing” to do things that might harm the constitution. But the trial of intentions is speciality of Islamist radicals known as takfiris. It is they who accuse their critics and political adversaries of being non-believers in secret. If Yalcinkaya is a true democrat, as he claims to be, he should not employ the same dirty tactics as the Islamist takfiris.
The legal dispute raises two important questions.
The first is: who could be labelled Islamist?
No one could claim that all believing Muslims are Islamists in political terms. In fact, a majority of Muslims are intelligent enough to make a distinction between religion as a matter of personal faith and politics as the art of organising the public space. In that sense all those who participate in the government of a Muslim majority country are Muslims. Some may even be very pious Muslims. Still others may even try to use their Islamic piety as a means of gaining popularity pretty much as some American politicians, notably President George W Bush, advertise their Christian belief. But this does not mean that all those who have deep religious convictions are Islamists or Christian fundamentalists.
In any case, in any proper democracy people should have the right and the freedom to propagate their ideas, including religious beliefs. Being a good and pious Muslim who wishes to share his convictions with others cannot be a crime anywhere, least of all in Turkey where 98 per cent of the population are Muslims.
Using religion for political purposes becomes a crime only when it violates the basic freedoms of others. It is not religion as such that is the problem but its use as an instrument of intimidation and terror. If you force people to behave, dress and move in accordance with religious rules as interpreted by yourself then you are committing a crime by violating the rights of others. But if you merely do those things yourself you will be exercising your own rights, even if by doing so you hope that others will imitate you.
The definition “Islamist” should be used only in the case of parties that openly call for an imposition of the shariah as the sole law of the land and declare that non-believers cannot have public office. The AKP makes no such demand. In fact, its leaders shy away from anything smacking of Islamism. As for shariah, they have made it clear that they do not regard it as a substitute for the Turkish judicial system.
The second issue that the current legal dispute raises is about the definition of secularism. Secularism is not the same thing as atheism. In atheism the powers of the state are mobilised to destroy all sorts of religions, except the official ideology. In secularism, the state is neutral on matters of religion. It does not sue its resources to promote any particular religion. But nor does it use its power to destroy religion. When different religions are in dispute among themselves, the secular state intervenes to prevent the strong from destroying the weak. The secular state must have no religion so that its citizens can have whatever religion they choose.
Prosecutor Yalcinkaya, however, interprets secularism almost as atheism. He thinks that the state must move against any attempt at promoting religious freedom for citizens.
Whatever one might say about the AKP, one thing is clear: this party has learned the lessons of its predecessors and knows that a hidden Islamist agenda has no future in Turkey. In the last election the AKP win a second mandate with 46 per cent of the votes. This means that 54 per cent, or a majority, of the Turks are not prepared top trust it. Thus, I doubt that Erdogan, one of the most intelligent political leaders I have met in recent years, would be foolish enough to even dream of creating an Islamist state in modern Turkey. The Supreme Court should remind Erdogan of the limits of his power but let him do his job.