Speaking at a public event in Istanbul on Monday, Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman argued that there should be no reference to secularism in the new constitution. Although he announced the following day that his personal views do not reflect the position of the Justice and Development Party, (AK Party), opposition leaders were already up in arms. Main opposition Republican People's Party Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu charged Kahraman with undermining social peace. International media jumped to the conclusion that his statement reflected "profound changes underway in Turkey." When asked what he thought about Kahraman's take on secularism, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he had addressed the issue at an event in post-revolutionary Egypt in 2011 when he angered part of the Muslim Brotherhood base by recommending the country be a secular state. But it would appear that the battle for Turkey's new constitution has just begun.
When the country's Kemalist elite adopted the principle of secular state, their main goal was to keep a lid on religious communities, which they considered a source of political activism. For decades, a large chunk of Turkish women were denied access to education, government jobs and basic rights because they wore religious headscarves. In the 1990s, the authorities ran illegal background checks and spied on public officials, including military officers, to identify and fire practicing Muslims. In the grand scheme of things, Turkish secularism, designed after the French laicité, was an instrument for the Kemalist elite to protect their class interests and sustain minority rule in Turkey.
Secularism was a hot topic during the initial years of AK Party rule. When the government moved to abolish the controversial headscarf ban on college campuses, Kılıçdaroğlu's predecessors were quick to spell the death of secularism in Turkey. The same thing happened time and again at luxury shopping malls and car dealerships, as female members of a growing conservative middle class entered the labor market and violated the temples of elite identity. As a matter of fact, the issue of secularism had not come up since the government banned the retail sale of alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. a few years ago.
To be clear, the period of painful reconciliation proved quite challenging for the AK Party base. Victimized by the Kemalist regime's iron fist, many conservatives considered secularism to be the mother of all evil. Slowly, Erdoğan, then as prime minister, transformed the way his supporters thought about the issue, pointing out that it was wrong to oppose the principle because it had been abused by practitioners of law and politics. In 2011, hardly anyone, save hardcore secularists who are still disturbed by Muslim women going to college, was surprised when Erdoğan came out in support of secular government, which he presented as the state keeping equal distance from all religious groups instead of cracking down on religion.
Regarding secularism, Turkey has reached a point of no return. Just hours after Kahraman's statement hit the wires, the AK Party leadership announced that it had included the principle of a secular government in its draft constitution and had no intention of changing its position. Many people dismissed the Kahraman's views as controversial and outlandish.
Turkey's new constitution should make it clear that the country has a secular government. But politicians need to keep in mind that we cannot go back to kicking girls out of school for what they consider part of their faith. Over the past decade, the Turkish people found a middle ground where politicians and political parties are allowed to host iftar (fast-breaking) dinners during Ramadan, make statements about Easter and organize Hanukkah ceremonies. It is OK for the government to use taxpayer money to restore mosques, churches and synagogues.
Moving forward, politicians have one job: To put in place constitutional provisions necessary to prevent the state from restricting the free practice of religion and to ensure the equal treatment of Muslims, Christians, Jews and followers of other faiths by the authorities. The people will figure out the rest.