[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
A popular line in the Turkish media these days is that the incumbent AKP (Justice and Development Party) unveiled its “real face” by trying to set the veil free in universities. “We knew that these guys were Islamists,” some commentators say, “and lo, they are trying to put the headscarf into the campus!”
But why in the world the AKP shouldn’t try to set the headscarf free? Were they supposed to make reforms that would benefit everybody but the conservative Muslims?
Let’s just put things in context. The AKP came to power in 2002, and since then, they have done impressive reforms on various issues. They allowed the Kurds to open language courses or TV stations, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dared to say “the state made mistakes on the Kurdish question,” and “the Kurdish identity needs to be respected.” That explains why the AKP won 55 percent of the votes in the Kurdish-populated southeast last July.
Freedom for all?
Erdoğan’s party took bold steps in women’s rights, too. European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, stressed the positive role of the AKP in its extensive report about Turkish women titled “Sex And Power In Turkey: Feminism, Islam And The Maturing Of Turkish Democracy.” According to the report, “the current AKP government proved willing to work constructively with civil society,” and, thanks to the legal reforms they have accomplished, “for the first time in its history, Turkey has the legal framework of a post-patriarchal society.”
Similarly the AKP government took steps to bring broader freedoms to the Christian minorities or the Alevis. Their commitment to economic freedom is impeccable.
Have they done enough? No. Should they do more? You bet. There are many other chains on Turkey – such as the infamous Article 301 – that they seriously need to deal with. But at the end of the day, they are the most reformist government Turkey has seen for decades. That’s why there is the famous “conservative-liberal coalition” in Turkey: Secular liberals, who had been dreaming about the reforms that the AKP has done but never had the mandate to implement them, have sympathized with the party and defended it against the bureaucratic oligarchy in Ankara.
Now, having made reforms on many “secular” issues, it would be not only unfair but also politically unwise for the AKP to ignore the aspirations of its conservative base. The ban on the headscarves not just hurts thousands of girls and women in that circle, but also makes most pious Muslims in this country feel like second-class citizens.
Thus the AKP’s move to set the headscarf free in the campus is absolutely justified. It proves not any “hidden Islamist agenda” but the party’s overt program of broadening civil liberties.
Moreover, had the AKP kept postponing the headscarf issue, that would create the risk of disillusionment among religious conservatives toward the whole democratization process. Why would they continue to support a “liberalization” that systematically excludes their rights?
Having said all that, let me note that the AKP deserves criticism in the details. The prime minister could have used a more reconciliatory rhetoric toward the media. He and his team could have done a better job of calming down the fears of the secularist camp. But the lack of such precisions point not to the “Islamism” of the AKP, but its “Turkishness.” The political culture in Turkey is very emotional and confrontational. Actually, the AKP folks are doing relatively better in such a poisonous milieu. Most secularists, such as the CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) leader Deniz Baykal, are much more inflammatory and provocative.
If there is a real mistake that the AKP is doing these days, it is not the effort to set the headscarf free, but the urge to limit alcohol consumption. If I were an advisor to the prime minister, I would suggest he reconsiders that.
Mehmet Ali Birand wrote about this in his TDN column last Tuesday, and asked why the AKP prohibits alcohol in sports clubs and their social premises, or “venues and tourist spots controlled by AKP municipalities.” He also asked why the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) decided to censure alcohol-drinking scenes on TV.
These are good questions. But I think their answer is not related to “the hidden agenda” of the AKP, as some readily claim, but it is moral conservatism. For most AKP members, alcohol is harmful to the individual and to the society. That’s why they see no problem in taking steps to discourage its use. In their eyes, it is like discouraging smoking and taking cigarettes out of the lips of Lucky Luke.
But the harmfulness of tobacco is almost a universally (and scientifically) established fact, while the stance against alcohol is a bit more of a value-based approach. That’s why instead of taking its values as fact, the AKP government should try to reach a consensus with people with different values.
The secularists, as usual, are unfair about all this, because they depict moral conservatism as political Islamism. The former, unlike the latter, has a justified place in a democratic system. Let’s not forget that the United States, a secular republic all along, even went to the extreme of criminalizing all alcohol sales and consumption from 1920 to 1933.
In short, the “real face” of the AKP is what it has been claming to be: A party which cherishes liberal democracy with a morally conservative attitude. You might not like it – and you don’t have to. But it is not Taliban in sheep’s clothing, as some of my colleagues would have you believe.