Erdogan goes Ottoman in reforming Turkey’s Byzantine Constitution

Historical soap operas like Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century) are making the "sick man of Europe" popular again across former Ottoman territories -- in Greece,  usually hostile to all things Turkish, episodes of Muhteşem Yüzyıl are aired daily.
Historical soap operas like Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century) are making the “sick man of Europe” popular again across former Ottoman territories — in Greece, usually hostile to all things Turkish, episodes of Muhteşem Yüzyıl are aired daily.

Today Ankara, and the rest of Turkey, nervously anticipates the long-awaited and much disputed AKP democratization package, a series of constitutional reforms addressing longstanding democratic issues with the existing draft.

Created in the wake of Kemal Ataturk’s republican revolution and amended following a military coup in the 1980s, the current constitution is rife with articles restricting freedom of the press, religious freedom, and political plurality. Just how much of that the AKP wants to change is an open question.

Hurriyet Daily News, one of Turkey’s more trustworthy and independent English-language newspapers, has a breakdown of some of the leaked details of the package here. There are some further thoughts on what parliament can expect from this likely-to-be-controverisial session here, and Erdogan’s announcement — containing the most comprehensive account — can be found here.

After a quick reading of the details, I started to get what my professors have been on about when they talk of a “social trend towards neo-Ottomanism” in Turkey. Most of these profs are studying exactly what these reforms cover — the relationship between religious pluralism and politics in the Ottoman Empire (the origins of modern Turkey) — and not one of them got through the class without mentioning this relatively new movement in Turkish thought.

So what are they on about? Apparently, in the past 20 years, there has been a strong intellectual trend that rejects the republic of Ataturk as a somewhat failed institution. Usually from the conservative and rural caste that benefited least from the decades of corruption and oppression under the military-led CHP (Republic People’s Party, the party of Ataturk), these intellectuals choose to idealize the Ottoman Empire that preceded the Republic.

It was a time with no less corruption in high office — the Ottoman Empire was famously called the “sick man of Europe” — but in many ways it was a polar opposite to the reforms of the Republic. It was still a period of strong government ruling with a heavy hand, but instead of enforcing a rigid secularism and single state identity — “Turkishness” — it was a period of relative religious and cultural pluralism.

Many of the reforms suggested in the democratization package represent a possible constitutional turn towards neo-Ottomanism. Under the Ottomans, minority groups received a degree of protection and political representation, even if it was under the auspices of a strong-armed — and decidedly Sunni Muslim — state.

Erdogan’s reforms are a return to this state model. At the same time as it strengthens the display of majority religious symbols and practices (i.e., allowing headscarves on public servants, supporting the construction of new mosques, etc.), it also relaxes sanctions on minority groups that have long struggled with being “Turkish”.

The peace plan with the Kurds, which has opened up private Kurdish-language instruction and political representation for minority parties, is one facet of this. But the AKP has demonstrated this same approach with their funding of Alevi sites of worship, discouraged by majority Sunnis, and the reopening of Greek Orthodox seminaries which were closed and suppressed under previous administrations.

So what does the new plan leave out? Well, importantly, visible manifestations of the law — police, judges, the army, and public prosecutors — must remain visibly secular. No headscarves there.

Famously, the AKP has also resisted including reforms to Turkey’s election threshold law, which restricts representation to those parties that achieve the massive hurdle of 10 per cent of the vote. Erdogan did suggest he was open to discussion, however unlikely it may be that those discussions produce fruit. And other barriers on political representation, including a seven per cent threshold for parties to receive public funds, have been eliminated or reduced.

It also is remarkably quiet on freedom of the press and assembly — although it has allowed protests to continue until midnight, it also tightens restrictions on private data.

Overall, many of these changes will be welcome to the minorities of Turkey’s diverse interior, and they may well be the ones whom Erdogan is counting on to elect him to the presidency in 2014. But whether these reforms are part of a continuing effort to dismantle Ataturk’s Republic, has a much less clear answer.

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