Tense Turkey by MOHD. ZEYAUL HAQUE (JUNE 06, 2007)

Last week some newspapers carried an interesting picture that showed half a dozen members of Turkish parliament on each other’s throats. This was reminiscent of a similar scene in Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in early 90s.

The UP episode was one up on the Turkish version because in that incident nearly a dozen legislators were badly hurt, many bleeding profusely, their white clothes soaked red with warm blood. It was a fight between Samajwadi Party MLAs and their BJP counterparts. The BJPwallahs had got the thrashing of their lives soon after their triumph in Ayodhya.

However, the seemingly less violent Turkish episode could be the beginning of more brutal ones in the future. The Turkish parliament fight was between Islam-loving MPs demanding greater freedom of religion on one side and secularist MPs opposing any such freedom as, according to their logic, greater freedom of religion would go against the grain of the Kemalist Constitution of Turkey.

The immediate provocation for the fisticuff was the Islamist drive to amend the Turkish Constitution to allow the people to elect the president directly. The secularists feel threatened by this move and are worried that this would open the floodgates for Islam to rush in. The freedom of religion that is at the centre of the debate here is the freedom to practise Islam, which most people profess in Turkey.

The secularists argue that this would violate the spirit of the Constitution. The Turkish army is the self-proclaimed defender of Kemalism and is quick to commit human rights abuses and breach of civil liberties on the pretext of protecting the secular Kemalist legacy. It has duly been warned by the European Union not to interfere in the country’s political life.

Today’s struggle can be better understood in the perspective of modern Turkey’s history, that is, since the end of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk imposed a secular Constitution after abolishing the caliphate. Under the new dispensation freedom of religion (which largely meant Islam) was severely curbed.

Arabic script was abolished even for religious purposes and there was a ban on Haj pilgrimage. The Islamic Shariah was replaced with the Swiss civil code and people were asked not to wear the fez cap. They were asked to don European headgear in stead. And no hijab, no head scarf for women.

For a few decades all this looked very exciting, very progressive. Muslims (especially the university-educated classes) all over the world appreciated Turkey’s “modern”, “forward-looking” stance. Naturally, in the early decades many Muslims named their children after Mustafa Kemal or his followers. Till about 20 years ago, Mustafa Kemal, Anwar Jamal (sometimes only Anwar or Jamal) and other such names were the hot favourite in the Indian Sub-continent as well.

However, in the70s a counter movement began and a resurgence of religion was noticed all over the world, across all civilisations and denominations, barring possibly Western Europe where people still favoured scientific explanation rather than faith. Turkey did not remain untouched by this new wave, and Islamic resurgence began to gain ground there as well. The secular military outlawed religiously inclined parties and leaders, but the resurgence gathered strength. Frightened by the rising tide of religion, the cornered secularists have become nervous.

That explains last week’s fight in Turkey’s parliament. However, it would be better for the two sides to keep cool and work out some accommodation for people’s religious aspirations within the Constitution even if it means a constitutional amendment.

Mohd. Zeyaul Haque

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