Religious battles in Turkey

randazzo03271.jpgTurkish Christians are close to losing an unconventional but important ally. The Constitutional Court in Ankara is threatening to close the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the name of secularism. Many consider the party Islamist, but the party leaders claim to advocate for religious liberty, offering political protection to minority groups such as Christians, Armenians, and Syriac Orthodox Church.

The AK Party, which gained power in 2002 on a progressive, pro-market, pro-EU platform, is accused of violating Turkey’s longstanding tradition of separating the secular state from Islamic policy. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, whose wife covers her head as a sign of Muslim piety, has been indicted along with other AK Party officials. They could be banned from politics if the Constitutional Court rules against them and shuts the party down.

Secularist leaders in the government and Constitutional Court, mostly appointed by a previous secularist President, are concerned about the AK Party leading an Islamic Revolution similar to Iran’s in 1979. Boğaziçi University politics student Uğurcan Aksoy told WoW, “They are not working for the whole people anymore.” He believes the AK Party has a hidden agenda and is corrupt: “They have managed to suppress the army (with their Parliamentary majority), which is a very effective institution in Turkey.”

Aksoy is not alone in his beliefs. But the AK Party argues that it is trying to lift restrictions on religious practice and give people freedom to follow Islam, not subtly force conversion. They said the recent headscarf debate at Turkish universities was about allowing Muslim women to practice personal piety, not forcing them to wear headscarves.

On legal grounds, Gazi University Professor Mümtaz’er Türköne said Wednesday, “the indictment completely destroys the system of checks and balances between legislation, enforcement and the judiciary.” The AK Party will seek a constitutional amendment in Parliament to make it more difficult to close a political party. This amendment is the AK Party’s best chance to stay in power.

Religious liberty and secularism are at tension in Turkey, but many argue Turkey’s secularist worldview is a safety net. The Turkish state is safe from rising Islamism because the country has a vibrant new middle class that benefits from capitalism, democracy and globalization.