Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 171

Members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have completed a three-day retreat to discuss a draft of the country’s new constitution, but they have left the decision on the final text to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On September 12, AKP Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, the head of the committee overseeing the preparation of the new constitution, had attempted to distance the party from the draft. Even though the AKP had only consulted with a small number of party members and handpicked academics, Firat angrily declared: “Those who regard the draft as being prepared by the AKP either don’t know Turkish or their brains have atrophied,” he said (see EDM, September 13).

However, at the end of the AKP retreat in the lakeside resort of Sapanca, 80 miles east of Istanbul, Firat was finally prepared to admit ownership.

“It is now the AKP’s draft constitution,” he said (Milliyet, September 17).

When he first announced that the draft had been completed, Firat described it as “a “civilian constitution prepared by the people” (see EDM, September 4). However, Firat has now announced that Erdogan, who had chosen to take a five-day vacation rather than attend the retreat, would decide on the final text (NTV, September 16).

Press reports suggest that the participants in the AKP retreat agreed to amend the current constitutional requirement that all children receive compulsory religious education. In practice, despite Turkey priding itself on being a secular state, this has meant the inculcation of Sunni Islam, even though the heterodox Alevi community accounts for an estimated 15% of the country’s total population. The new draft constitution allows parents to exempt their children from religious education lessons, but makes no provision for them to receive instruction in any other belief except Sunni Islam.

However, the participants failed to reach a consensus on the more contentious issues of allowing education in languages other than Turkish – which in practice would mainly mean Kurdish – and the current ban on headscarfed female students entering university. Both decisions will now be left to Erdogan (Yeni Safak, September 17).

Opinion polls suggest that around 65% of adult Turkish females wear some form of head covering. They are currently barred from working in the civil service or studying at university on the grounds that the headscarf is a symbol of political Islam and allowing headscarfed women to become members of state institutions would be a violation of the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution.

When he founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) not only modeled the country’s laws on those in contemporary Europe, but he tried to make the population look like Europeans as well. He vigorously discouraged women from covering their heads, arguing that it was a product of an obscurantist interpretation of Islam. Turkey’s current constitution contains an explicit commitment to upholding Ataturk’s ideological legacy, which is known as Kemalism.

Many Kemalists fear that, if the headscarf ban is lifted, peer pressure will result in all female students feeling that they have to cover their heads.

Mustafa Bumin, a former head of the Turkish Constitutional Court, dismissed suggestions that the headscarf ban was merely a question of freedom of expression.

“Those who say that don’t understand the reality of Turkey,” he commented. “This is a country where people get beaten up in the street for not observing the fast during Ramadan. If the constitution allows people to dress however they want, then the headscarfed students will prevent anybody with an uncovered head from entering university” (Hurriyet, September 17)

However, not only do the majority of the wives and daughters of the AKP male MPs cover their heads, but the party is under pressure from its grassroots support to lift the headscarf ban. Many party supporters were infuriated that the AKP did not attempt to lift the ban after it first came to power in November 2002. Erdogan was able to circumvent the ban by paying for his two daughters to be educated in the United States. Very few of the AKP’s supporters can afford to follow suit.

In the run-up to its landslide election victory on July 22, AKP leaders repeatedly dismissed suggestions that it was a religious party. But surveys of AKP supporters leave little doubt that many would like to see Turkish society reshaped along Islamic lines. In a survey conducted by Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University after the July 22 election, 53% said that it was impossible for Turkey to be secular. A further 53% argued that all restaurants should be closed during daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan. Finally, 83% percent said that it was a sin for a woman to wear a swimsuit on a beach (Milliyet, August 18).