Hardly anyone in Turkey thought they would bid farewell to 2020 amid a fresh controversy surrounding the Islamic headscarf.
The response to Ali Babacan, who chairs the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), tearing up while talking about his sister's removal from the university during the infamous Feb. 28 process, fueled the debate anew. At the same time, Fikri Sağlar, a main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) heavyweight and former Cabinet minister, sparked controversy by publicly targeting women who cover their hair.
That Babacan, who cozied up to secularists and liberals for a while, reached out to conservatives with a reference to the headscarf ban unsettled skeptics, who have been urging him to engage in "self-criticism." Some have accused the former Justice and Development Party (AK Party) politician of "exploiting the past suffering of religious people." Others have said Babacan is "a follower of political Islam in the guise of a liberal."
Babacan could not even appease his critics by charging the ruling party for "using political power to oppress other groups." Instead, he was promptly asked to come clean and criticize his own political career.
Ironically, the former finance minister had emerged as a vocal critic of the AK Party government, brushing aside Generation Z's demand for reconciliation and mild language – much like his former colleague, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who currently chairs the Future Party (GP).
The secularist backlash against Babacan's latest attempt to maintain his ties to conservatives speaks volumes about the dilemma facing Turkey's recently established political parties. Their fellow opposition figures do not tolerate the slightest outreach to conservatives Muslims, even if former AK Party politicians jump on the CHP's "dictatorship" bandwagon and agree to the restoration of a parliamentary system. In other words, they are strictly forbidden from paving a third way between the ruling party and the anti-government coalition, dominated by the CHP, the Good Party (IP) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).
To make matters worse for them, the AK Party remains the true representative of conservative voters. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan abolished the headscarf ban that made Babacan weep. They cannot embrace the charge of authoritarianism or other liberal demands – because everything is already taken.
Spokespeople for the DEVA and the GP target the government with the CHP's rhetorical ammunition, but they haven't uttered a single word yet to criticize opposition parties. One thing is clear: They cannot speak a genuine political language under that ultra-secularist oppression. They will end up further alienating conservatives, from among whom they emerged, and failing to make liberals and secularists happy.
I was deeply troubled by Sağlar expressing doubt about a judge, wearing a headscarf, protecting his rights and delivering justice. Those comments may have been dismissed as an act of ultra-secularist militance, not uncommon on the pro-CHP network Halk TV's shows, had the commentator been a leftist with extreme views. Instead, those words came from Sağlar, a prominent Social Democrat, revealing the deeply entrenched anti-headscarf sentiment among CHP's ranks.
It seems that the dream of reinventing the oppression that Turkey's religious citizens endured during the Feb. 28 process is still alive. That sentiment not only revives the outdated headscarf debate – specifically, the arbitrary distinction between the providers and recipients of public services – but also shows that the idea of "the reactionary threat" is very much alive in secularist minds.
To be clear, I do not expect the secularism debate in Turkey to come to an end. It is quite surprising, however, that such primitive interpretations of that principle are still so popular. One would have at least hoped that the crude, French-Jacobinist version was replaced by the Anglosaxon approach.
The fierce opposition to the religious headscarf, which Sağlar reaffirmed, clearly demonstrates that Turkey's Kemalists, leftists and secularists have not undergone the transformation necessary to appeal to voters. That's enough to understand why they cannot win elections.
The obvious question is whether conservatives should be concerned. It is no secret that conservative voters could experience another Feb. 28 process once the AK Party is no longer in power. The CHP leadership manages to conceal its thirst for revenge yet, perhaps, fortunately, pro-CHP networks like Halk TV kindly share the movement's real thoughts with the general public. There is a broad spectrum of CHP figures – from those advocating a coup to those who want the call to prayer to be recited in Turkish and those who want to convert the Blue Mosque into a museum.
In contrast, the state's relationship with religion underwent a serious period of normalization under the AK Party. Muslim demands came to occupy a certain space in the public domain legally, as the secular lifestyle remained widespread. Outside the aggressive realm of politics, a fresh interaction between secularists and religious people became possible in socioeconomic life.
A brand of politics, which respects the religious demands of conservatives, will remain at the heart of Turkish politics. There is no reason to worry, as Erdoğan's brand of struggle (rather than the liberal impostors bullied into self-critique) will be Turkey's strongest political current in the future.
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