Turkey’s disintegrating democracy

Recently The Times published two very interesting articles, one by Soner Cagaptay, citing solid references, discussing the ruling Islamist party’s impact on Turkey, and another by a member of that party, Egemen Bagis.

In his piece, “My party is good for Turkey,” Bagis claimed that Cagaptay’s allegations were distorted. He further stated that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliament’s recent revision of the law to allow Muslim-style head scarves at universities is “nothing but securing basic individual freedoms for female students.” But this claim is absurd -- secular Turkey has always encouraged women’s higher education. My twin aunts graduated from a Turkish medical school in the 1940s, 20 years after the republic was born from a shattered caliphate Ottoman Empire that had very high rates of illiteracy. They practiced medicine for decades.

One does not need statistics or surveys to know that the AKP is bad for freedom and women’s rights. Its origins are deeply Islamist, starting with Prime Minister and AKP member Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In 1994, Erdogan was quoted as saying, “Thank God almighty, I am a servant of Sharia.” Years ago, he was reported to have argued that women shouldn’t hold elected office, and he used to refrain from shaking hands with women because he considered it a sin.

As mayor of a major Turkish city, he described himself as “the imam of Istanbul” and once compared democracy to a tram: “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” And as prime minister, he tried to make adultery a crime, has appointed Islamists to key positions and has favored Islamic schools. In his keynote speech several weeks ago to mark International Women’s Day, Erdogan advised that all women should give birth to three children. Thus, Erdogan’s savvy use of human rights rhetoric to insist on allowing head scarves in public universities is a flash point for secularists’ fears of insidious subjugation.

Bagis quotes a couple of European Union officials’ supportive comments of the AKP. However, he conveniently omits that in 2005, the European Court of Human Rights found the head scarf ban to be justified under the European Convention on Human Rights. The head scarf isn’t stopping women from attending university -- it’s the stringent entrance exam. This suggests the need to improve high schools, but instead, there are far more religious schools in Turkey than a decade ago, and more mosques than schools. The Department of Religious Affairs has one of the largest budgets compared with other government wings.

In a disturbing trend, secular Turkish women feel growing pressure to cover up, even facing intimidation or discrimination if they don’t. In one case, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who has the authority to appoint university rectors, bypassed highly recommended female professor of medicine Gaye Usluer for a man, who was recommended second to her and received far fewer votes from their colleagues at Eskisehir Osmangazi University. Sadly, women still make up less than 10% of the Turkish parliament, and only one of 25 Cabinet ministers is a woman.

Turkish newspapers report many examples of emboldening Islamism that impact peoples’ daily and private lives. Whether coincidental or influenced by the AKP, it is this in-your-face religion that scares secularists. The AKP came into power, and was able to reach its goals, as a result of the recent incompetence of secular parties. Erdogan is a street-smart, charismatic politician who knows how best to influence his strongly religious constituents. During elections in 2002 and 2007, the AKP received 34% and 47% of the votes, respectively. Bagis claims that if another election were to be held, his party would receive at least 62% of the votes. It is interesting that he can make such precise predictions and even more interesting that these numbers may directly correlate with the Islamization of a secular Middle Eastern democracy.

In recent years, some U.S. officials have described Turkey as a country of “moderate Islam.” Unfortunately the U.S. -- with its compelling need to see a successful democracy in a Muslim nation -- has been supporting Erdogan and the AKP, and is unwittingly watching one of the few successful secular democracies in the Middle East slowly disintegrate.

Cüneyt M. Serdar is a Turkish American scientist who lives in San Diego.