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  • November 2008: Recognition of Alevism

Since the beginning of September 2008, one of the main issues which has been troubling Turkish society is whether or not to recognise Alevism as a religion in the country. Alevis complain that Turkish secularity is coercive and only takes into account the Sunni aspect, as much in obligatory classes on religion as in the context of the Administration of Religious Affairs. On 11th November 2008, more than 10 000 protesters marched through the streets of Ankara to demand the abolition of religion classes or of the Administration of Religious Affairs. However, Alevis are also divided between those seeking to be integrated into the system of existing religions and those who purely and simply demand the abolition of this system. The AKP government is showing signs of openness towards integrating Alevism into this system, in particular by proposing to make Alevi religious dignitaries state officials.

  • July 2008: Trial of AKP

On 14th March 2008, State Prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, filed a lawsuit against AKP accusing it of being "a hotbed of anti-secular activities" and "seeking to transform the country into an Islamic state". He asked for the party to be banned and for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and 70 of his main colleagues, including President Abdullah Gül, to be excluded from politics for five years.
The Prosecutor stated that the AKP is the successor of the previous Turkish Islamic parties, which, according to him, direct their political struggle against "republican values" and more particularly against secularity. "The AKP is founded by a group that has learned its lessons from the previous ban of Islamic parties and is using democracy to achieve its goal of establishing Sharia law in Turkey", said the indictment.
The indictment of 162 pages cites several incidents to prove the Islamic motives of the AKP. He also criticised the new director of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), a body that supervises Turkish universities, for having supported the constitutional amendments proposed by the government to limit the ban on students wearing the Islamic veil at university.
The decision was made on 30th July 2008. It is clearly a decision respecting a fragile political balance as much as legal considerations, since the Constitutional Court did not ban the AKP, but gave it a serious warning by imposing a financial penalty (loss of half of its public funding). As a result, Conservatives may consider themselves "winners", as the AKP continues to govern without provoking early elections and leading the country into a political crisis, but the laity also believes that this compromise decision confirms their fears about the anti-secular character of power.

  • February 2008: The Islamic headscarf in universities

On Saturday 2nd February in Ankara, tens of thousands of protesters denounced a government proposal to lift the ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. The issue of secularity and the meaning and application of this concept have always been a major concern in Turkish political life, especially since the rise of political Islam in the mid-1960s with the Millî Görüs movement. The AKP political group (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, Party of Justice and Development), arose from this movement and came to power in 2002; the offices of the President of the Republic and of executives of public administration are occupied by people close to this movement. Since then, the issue of the secular future of the country has become red hot and is crystallising around two key issues affecting young people: that of Islamic headscarves in universities and that of the status of schools for imams and preachers.
The AKP and the MHP (Party for the Nationalist Movement) have agreed to some constitutional changes that open the doors of universities to girls wearing the Islamic headscarf, banned up until now (or tolerated in some universities). The secular opposition sees this as a way to undermine the secular, modern, Western foundations of Turkish society on the pretext of "human rights and freedom of belief." Opposition groups, largely from the urban, neo-kemalist ’left’ do not fear nearly as much the presence of "turban-wearers" on university benches as the moment when this generation will integrate political, social and public life, extending their conservative, religious vision and their own particular understanding of "modernity" to the entire public sphere. Tens of thousands of people marched on 2nd February 2008 to the mausoleum of Atatürk, the father of secular, coercive Turkey, led by the CHP (the Republican People’s Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal himself), which intends to take the matter to the Constitutional Court. They hope that the latter will oppose it, considering it an attack on the principle of secularity etched in stone, like the articles of the Constitution, "immutable and to which it is forbidden to propose changes".
However, since 2002 (and especially since July 2007), senior legal and administrative figures increasingly include either people close to the AKP or liberals who believe that the Kemalist dogma must change (which is the case for the President of the Constitutional Court or the President of the Institution of Higher Education - YÖK), even if state officials and legal staff remain loyal to the Kemalist dogma. The legal (Constitutional Court) or administrative (YÖK) opposition could then be insufficient to stem the intrusion of religion into the public arena.
Despite opposition protests, the Turkish Parliament in fact adopted this amendment to the Constitution on Thursday, 7th February with 404 votes in favour to 92 against, which was far more than the two thirds of votes required (367).

D 9 December 2008    ASamim Akgönül

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