Turkey’s Constitutional Zigzags

Turkey’s Constitutional Zigzags

Turkey is unique among contemporary Muslim societies. Modern Turkey emerged as a nation-state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 and has been a republic since 1923. Discarding the theological trappings of the Ottoman state, where the sultan was also the caliph, Turkey opted for the privatization of the Muslim faith, along the lines of liberalism and republican secularism (laiklik). The revolutionary ideology of the founders of the modern Turkish republic, Kemalism, was also a dirigiste ideology, granting the state a great deal of control over religious affairs and, for that matter, over the economy and civil society. Religion became a matter of private faith, and the state removed the theological vocabulary from its own proceedings, all the while acknowledging that Islam was the official religion of this society. The Turkish model of laïcité is unique in that the state continues to direct religious affairs: the thousands of Muslim clerics who serve in mosques are educated in state-sponsored institutions of higher learning. In the last three decades, however, this peculiar Turkish model has become destabilized, and the sociological firewalls that the Turkish republic tried to erect between state and religion have turned out not to be as thick as the Kemalist revolutionaries imagined.

The ensuing difficulties are nicely suggested by a question recently posed by Jürgen Habermas: “How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that in firmly entrenched nation states, social relations remain civil despite the growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views?” Habermas asks this question with an eye to the conflict between European societies and their Muslim residents and citizens. In Turkey, where the majority of the population is Muslim but where a modern constitutional understanding of citizenship and civil rights is institutionalized, the question requires a nuanced response. I will try to respond by reexamining the “headscarf ban” and the legislative struggles surrounding it.

In February of 2008, the ruling Turkish party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), decided to reform the law that banned the wearing of headscarves and turbans in institutions of higher learning in Turkey. In June of 2008, the Turkish Constitutional Court overturned the new legislation, arguing that it was subversive of the secular nature of the Turkish state.As sociologist Faruk Birtek points out, the parliamentary vote to reverse the ban on the wearing of the headscarf, strictu sensu, contradicts the Supplement 17 to the Legislation known as YOK Kanunu, that is, the Law of the Council of Higher Education. It is this clause that must be rescinded in order for the wearing of the headscarf to become fully legal, and this was never the case. So from a lega...