Questions as Turkish Leaders Discuss New Constitution

BY CHRIS SZABLA

“We need to change the soul of the Turkish constitution,” claims Turkish leader Dengir Firat, “not just perform aesthetic surgery.” In the last few years, Firat’s country has emerged as a crucial fulcrum between the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. At the same time, its politics have been changing slowly, but dramatically. As the country strives toward EU membership, and as developments in the rest of the Islamic world have called into question the compatibility of democracy and Islam, Turkey has become an international focal point.

Against this backdrop, Firat, speaking through a translator, joined fellow party member and parliamentarian Cuneyt Yuksel and Professor Noah Feldman for a discussion of the country’s new draft constitution last Wednesday night. The session began with some sanguine remarks on the need for a new constitution, with Feldman largely supporting the effort. Audience members, however, posed tough questions about the details of the new constitution, and about its drafters’ real motives.

Firat is one of the founding members of the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AKP), which is known for its support of free speech and free enterprise, but also for its close association with tradition – and Islam. He began with some observations on the history of the Turkish constitution, noting that there had been at least four main constitutions in the country’s history. Why, he asked, had there been so many? Something, he claimed, had been missing from each one – trust in the public, and in individuals in particular. The latest constitution, adopted after a 1980 military coup, imposed numerous qualifiers on everything that was “liberal or modern.” Among the other major flaws of the current constitution, he asserted, were that it assumed that the state should be protected from the individual, and not the other way around. He went on to note that this mistrust of the individual was one of the reasons there was public mistrust, in turn, in governmental institutions.

Young parliamentarian Cuneyt Yuksel continued in the vein of Firat’s comments. Yuksel, LL.M. ’94, was fluent and comfortable in English, and, when asked, stressed that he had joined the AKP because of the number of opportunities it offered young people to get in on the ground floor. Yuksel’s pragmatism is typical of many who support the AKP, which has brought the country economic success. “Turkey is riding high on political and economic stability,” he noted. In order to continue this, he said, Turkey needed both the broadest possible political mandate from its people, and a degree of political dynamism, in order to keep up with “international and universal principles of law.”

The new constitution would be the first drafted for Turkey without being preceded by a military intervention, and the first effort at liberal political reform that wasn’t a specific accession to an EU requirement. Under the 1982 constitution, Yuksel said, the “state is the march of God in the world,” whereas his party’s reforms would be supported by the principles of human and individuals rights, both as “the means and the ends of the democratization process”. He added that a new goal of the state would be the safeguarding of human dignity, which would bring the constitution in line with its French and German counterparts.

Yuksel also addressed another major AKP reform, the repeal of the prohibition against headscarves in Turkish educational institutions. The party’s religious tone has made its motives for issuing the repeal suspect. Clarifying, Yuksel said that there was no formal rule the government could legislate against, only a de facto agreement that headscarves were inappropriate. He did, however, say that articles in the new Turkish constitution would ensure “equality and the right to higher education,” protecting those who choose to wear headscarves in universities and other institutions.

Professor Feldman offered largely laudatory remarks on the new constitution. He observed that constitutions have both an inward effect, relating to the way they work inside countries, and an outward effect, communicating information about a state’s people and values. With regard to the inward components, Feldman said that Turkey’s current state-centered constitution could guarantee rights, but it was easier to achieve justice without state-centrality. He also noted that Turkey’s post-coup constitutions did not legitimately represent the Turkish people; “winners’ constitutions,” Feldman said of such imposed laws, are “failed constitutions.”

Feldman then turned to the outward components of the constitution. Turkey’s movement toward constitutional liberalism, he said, fit very well with the direction in which Europe itself was headed, and it would demonstrate that Muslim populations living in the West were compatible with liberal societies. Feldman compared their situation to that of Catholics in the United States, whose religion was once thought incompatible with democracy. It took the adoption of liberal constitutions in primarily Catholic countries, he observed, for this perception to dissipate.

The question and answer period that followed was less forgiving to the new constitution’s architects. The retention of three of the current constitution’s articles, and their protection from amendment, were among the features that sparked controversy among the largely skeptical crowd. Firat asserted these had been allowed to remain because any attempt to modify them would lead to the AKP’s closure. This elicited a roll of the eyes from his translator and widespread disbelief from the crowd. “I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the freedom to smile and snicker at this,” Firat said in response.

Other questioners expressed concern that peeling back restrictions on headscarves would create an atmosphere of intimidation for those who choose not to wear head coverings. Firat dismissed such claims as fear-mongering, and said that such worries were “not grounds for legal action” but for “psychology and therapy.”

Responding to a question about whether the constitution would liberalize gay marriage, the Turkish politicians noted that the people of their country were “not ready” for such a development.

Some important questions, however, remain. Both the “liberalizing” AKP and their more vehemently secularist opponents claim some mantle of the West, whether freedom of expression in the former case and state neutrality in the other.

Yet, as one questioner pointed out, none of the panel members represented those in the political opposition, or those opposed to the new constitution. This event appeared stacked entirely in favor of the AKP and free expression – at neutrality’s expense. So, too, appear to be the efforts of the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey and Jonathan Zittrain to reform Turkey’s Internet censorship laws. A deeper look needs to be taken at the HLS faculty’s overall position on, and influence in, Turkey’s domestic politics.

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