Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 108

The Turkish military has been quick to endorse the June 5 ruling of the country’s Constitutional Court annulling the attempts by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create a legal framework for lifting the ban that currently prevents women wearing headscarves from attending the university.

On June 5 the Constitutional Court ruled that two constitutional amendments introduced by the AKP were invalid as they violated the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution as one of the unchangeable characteristics of the Turkish Republic. On February 9 the AKP had changed Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees equality before the law irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sect, to include a commitment ensuring all citizens equal access to all public services. The government also amended Article 42 on the right to education to include a phrase preventing anyone from being denied access to education except for a reason openly stated in law (see EDM, February 11).

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) promptly applied to the Constitutional Court for the amendments to be annulled on the grounds that they were an attempt to lift the headscarf ban. This was undoubtedly the AKP’s ultimate goal, although the headscarf ban was not mentioned in the text of the constitutional amendments. Moreover, the Constitutional Court had already issued a number of other rulings, most notably in March 1989, that described the wearing of the Islamic headscarf as a violation of the constitution and thus illegal. As a result, the amendment to Article 42 in particular appeared to reinforce rather than remove the headscarf ban, as the March 1989 Constitutional Court ruling had “openly stated” that wearing an Islamic headscarf did provide the legal grounds for the denial of access to a university education (see EDM, February 11).

Consequently, the June 5 decision of the Constitutional Court that the constitutional amendments were in violation of the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution appears to have been based on the AKP’s ultimate intentions rather than the amendments themselves. Perhaps most worryingly for the AKP, which is currently facing closure on charges that it has become a focus for anti-secular activities (see EDM, March 17), the 11-member court voted 9-2 in favor of annulling the constitutional amendments.

Logic is often an unreliable guide to the workings of the Turkish judicial system, but it is now difficult to see how the Constitutional Court can acquit the AKP of being a focus of anti-secular activities when it has ruled that the one major policy initiative introduced by the party since its landslide election victory in July 2007 is itself an attempted violation of secularism.

Interestingly, the court’s decision coincided with the adoption of a more assertive public stance by the other bastion of the country’s secular establishment, the Turkish General Staff (TGS). In what was probably an accident of timing, the Constitutional Court’s ruling was announced late in the afternoon of the same day on which the TGS was hosting an international conference in Istanbul on the problems facing the Middle East. Since the AKP’s victory in the July 2007 elections, Chief of Staff General Mehmet Yasar Buyukanit, chastened by the Turkish electorate’s refusal to heed his warnings about the threat posed by the party to secularism, had adopted a relatively low public profile. But, in his opening address to the June 5 conference in Istanbul, which was carried live on Turkish national television, Buyukanit delivered a blunt warning both to those inside who sought to erode secularism and to foreigners who described it as a “moderate Islamic” country.

“The Turkish Republic is the only country in the Islamic world with a secular structure,” declared Buyukanit. “There are those who want to destroy Turkey’s secular structure or attach epithets to the country’s name. The judicial bodies will never allow this to happen. There is no power strong enough to overthrow the republic and its fundamental principles” (NTV, cnnturk, haberturk, June 5).

After the Constitutional Court had announced its decision annulling the constitutional amendments, a battery of high-ranking military officials lined up to endorse the ruling.

“We must all respect the decisions of the judiciary,” said Buyukanit. “Turkey is a secular, democratic, social state ruled by law. It is impossible to change these characteristics. This is not a comment; it is a statement of the obvious” (Radikal, Milliyet, NTV, Hurriyet, Vatan, Zaman, June 6).

“The Constitutional Court has made its decision and I respect it,” declared General Ilker Basbug, the current commander of the Turkish Land Forces, who is expected to take over as chief of the TGS when Buyukanit retires at the end of August this year (Vatan, Zaman, Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, NTV, June 6).

“They stated the obvious,” added General Aydogan Babaoglu, the commander of the Turkish Air Force. “It would have been abnormal if they had done anything else” (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, June 6).

But it is also true that abnormality is likely to remain the norm in Turkey over the months ahead. There is no precedent in Turkish history for the current political crisis and still no indication of how it can be resolved.