Two dramatic announcements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent shivers down the spines of many of the country’s secularists in September. Erdogan annulled a decades-long ban on wearing headscarves in public institutions and ended the daily reciting of the pledge of allegiance in primary schools. Both decisions took effect last week.
The changes are part of a larger campaign by Turkey’s Islamist government to implement a “democratization package” meant to address European requirements on minority rights and civil freedoms needed for the country’s bid for EU membership to be considered.
“Turkey is progressing irreversibly toward democracy. This package is a fundamental and historic phase of this progress,” Erdogan told journalists in Ankara on September 30, as he introduced the reforms. He added that it was but one step in a longer democratization process which began with the first victory of his Justice and Development party in 2002.
Erdogan’s reforms also include lowering the national electoral threshold from ten percent to five percent; allowing Kurds to campaign politically in their own language; and returning property expropriated by the state to the Assyrian Church.
Israeli experts on Turkey, however, questioned the significance of Erdogan’s overtures towards the country’s minorities, viewing his actions as assertions of his own Islamist tendencies and his antipathy toward the harsh republican model instated by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
“These moves could be viewed as part of Erdogan’s ongoing efforts to undo the Kemalist state,” said Dror Zeevi, who teaches modern Turkish history at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.
Erdogan is genuinely interested in mitigating Turkey’s harsh secularism and nationalism, but is doing so selectively, Zeevi said.
“[Erdogan] justifiably believes that secularism has something anti-democratic about it,” Zeevi noted. “The problem is that his democracy goes only so far. When people demonstrate against him at Gezi park, he goes wild. I don’t believe he’s entirely democratically inclined.”
If Erdogan were a true democrat, Zeevi continued, he would have agreed to discuss the demands of the large Greek Orthodox minority to recover property confiscated by the state in the 1920s and 1940s. Armenian grievances might also be addressed.
“He didn’t do all of this. Instead, he took very symbolic steps. Under the guise of openness towards minorities, Erdogan is advancing his own agenda.”
An op-ed published in the New York Times last week by Turkish researcher Halil M. Karaveli, claimed that far from helping Turkey’s minority, Erdogan was increasingly playing with sectarian fire.
“Erdogan is turning Turkey into a powder keg in an attempt to shore up his own political base,” Karaveli wrote. “He is intentionally activating the longstanding fault lines separating religious and secular Turks — and most dangerously the divide between the country’s Sunni majority and its Alevi minority. If he continues to do so, Turkish democracy itself could become a casualty of his confrontational policies.”
Many of Turkey’s Kurds belong to the heterodox Alevi sect, comprising between 15 and 25 percent of the country’s population.
Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a Turkey researcher at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, said Erdogan was trying to push a worldview which is much more “religious and conservative” than “nationalistic.” She added, however, that it was still too early to judge whether his program will succeed.
“There are two opposing trends here,” Lapidot-Firilla said, referring to the simultaneous freedoms granted to the Kurdish (non-Sunni) minority and Erdogan’s emphasis on Turkey’s Sunni Islamist character. “It’s like a puzzle that doesn’t really come together.”
Whatever Erdogan’s intentions, it is doubtful whether the European Union will embrace Turkey in the near future, she added. Europe enjoys using Turkey’s membership bid as a means of pressuring it into implementing civil rights reforms, all the while depriving the huge Muslim country of membership in the predominantly Christian EU.
“Everyone is very happy with Turkey remaining in the EU’s waiting room, neither entering nor exiting,” she said.