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The Kemalists' Veil of Tolerance - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) MP Nurcan Dalbudak (C) is greeted wearing a headscarf as she attends a general assembly at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on October 31, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) MP Nurcan Dalbudak (C) is greeted wearing a headscarf as she attends a general assembly at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on October 31, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN

There’s a Turkish joke about a man who is taken on a tour of hell. It’s a dark plain filled with huge vats of boiling liquid in which the damned are slowly deep-frying. Devils stand around the vats, and whenever a sinner pokes his head up out of the liquid, they push him down again with their pitchforks. But there is one vat which doesn’t seem to have any devils around it. The man asks his guide why. “That’s the Turkish vat,” the guide replies. “No need to keep an eye on them: they pull each other down.”

Turkish politics has always been a bit like that. A breath of fresh air for you? I’d rather we both burned! Politician after politician has risen to the top vaguely promising greater liberties for all. Once in power, they have reverted to the old game of winner takes all. Right-wingers have trampled over left-wingers and then the tables have turned and left-wingers have trampled over right-wingers. Ditto for secularists and Islamists. Everybody—left, right, secular, Islamist—has trampled over the Kurds, who don’t have enough votes to trample over anybody else. Nobody seems to have had the foresight to realize that, while rights for others might be of no use while they themselves are in power, they would come in pretty handy when they are not.

Today, many commentators seem hopeful that things are changing. They point to what happened in parliament on October 31, when four female deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) walked in wearing headscarves.

There’s a history to this. In 1999, a deputy from an Islamist party did the same and brought the house down. The secularist prime minister of the time thundered that parliament was “not the place to challenge the state” and invited deputies to “remind [the deputy] of her place.” There were cat-calls and booing. Some deputies banged their shoes on their desks to express contempt. A court later stripped Merve Kavakçı of her Turkish nationality.

This time, nothing happened. An MP from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) stood up and said nice things. No real surprise there: the BDP is the latest incarnation of a small Kurdish nationalist party that has learned the value of tolerance from having suffered intolerance from the state for so long.

Then an MP from the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, stood up and said nice things, too. That wasn’t much of a surprise either. A party whose sole raison d’être is Turkish nationalism, a fact that condemns it to at most 15 percent of the vote, the MHP fishes in similar waters to the AKP and cannot afford to alienate the estimated 70 percent of female Turkish voters who cover their heads.

Then it was the turn of the Republican People’s Party, or the CHP. This is where things could have got nasty. The party of Atatürk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey, the CHP has in its time come reasonably close to transforming itself into a social democrat party along European lines. But it began to radicalize in the late 1980s, in part because its support base—made up largely of middle-class urbanites and members of the country’s Alevi minority—saw the growth of political Islam as a threat to its way of life, not entirely unreasonably. Under its former head, the party seemed at times little more than a spokesman for the military, openly supporting the closure of Merve Kavakçı’s party in 2001 and implicitly supporting efforts in 2008 to close the AKP too.

So when four MPs appeared in headscarves on October 31, it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising to hear the CHP benches erupt in a barrage of the old secularist favorites: “Turkey is secular and will stay secular,” “Mullahs to Iran,” and so on. They didn’t. One MP wore a T-shirt with a picture of Atatürk on it, but that was all. The CHP deputies who spoke were a picture of moderation.

One of them, Şafak Pavey made a particular impression. She declared her belief in the right of “the actual women who have brought the AKP to power to take their seats in parliament.” Turkey should drop its futile wars over symbols, she said, and concentrate on real issues. She went on to demand full rights for Alevis, Kurds and Christians, as well as the LGBT community.

Turkey’s demoralized, Western-minded commentators loved it. “Turkey has found social democracy,” Koray Çalışkan wrote in Radikal. “Long may it live!” A liberal (and former AKP supporter) who writes for the conservative daily Zaman, İhsan Dağı urged the CHP to build on Pavey’s stance. Opinion polls showed that 76 percent of Turks and 42 percent of CHP supporters approved of an end to bans on public officials wearing headscarves, he said. “Without reconsidering its radical, authoritarian conception of secularism, without accepting the idea of pluralism . . . the CHP has little hope of becoming credible.”

Can the CHP, which is the only remotely realistic alternative to the AKP as a party of government in Turkey, turn the corner? It is not easy to be optimistic.

There are undoubtedly many CHP deputies who would not be out of place in a Western social democrat party. Pushed by its more liberal wing, the party has proposed packages of reforms both for the Kurds and for the Alevis that far outstrip anything the AKP seems willing to legislate. (It also backed a proposal put forward a few months ago by other opposition parties—and ignored by the AKP—to change parliamentary dress code regulations to permit headscarf-wearing women to attend.) The conspicuous silence of the party’s powerful radical secularist wing on October 31 is a big victory, too, for CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a rather uncharismatic man whose leadership skills are endlessly being called into question.

The question remains, though, whether the CHP’s current moderation is the result of principle or of calculation. Turkey’s recent political history is full of examples of politicians who were perfect democrats as long as they were in opposition. Take the AKP, for instance.

This article was originally published in The Majalla.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat.

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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