About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
GUEST POST: Turkey's Choice, An Islamic Trojan Horse?
On September 12, with an impressive 73% turnout hailed by President Obama as democratic "vibrancy," more than 38 million Turkish citizens voted in a referendum on important constitutional amendments. The 58% "Yes" outcome was unexpectedly higher than predicted by recent polls.
From one point of view, the results can be interpreted as highly positive for improving the country's democratic record. The proposed set of amendments modify the 1982 constitution, a byproduct of modern Turkey's most recent interruption of democratic continuity — the 1980 military coup d'état. The referendum, symbolically scheduled on the coup's 30th anniversary, introduces key constitutional amendments improving the rights of the individual, strengthening gender equality, eliminating discrimination against children, elderly, the disabled and veteran, and enhancing rights to privacy. These changes are considered universally noncontroversial, and are supported both by the secular opposition (traditionally left-leaning), and the sponsoring political party in power, the controversially Islamic-leaning AKP, with its increasingly powerful leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The amendments were also required to support Turkey's accession to the European Union.
According to another point of view, bitterly voiced by the opposing secular establishment — including the military, the proposed modifications actually represent an Islamic Trojan Horse: the democratic amendments were used to camouflage other clauses that radically alter the way the judicial and military entities function, permanently disrupting a delicate balance between these traditionally separated powers, and putting them under increasing control of the ruling party. These include clauses that empower civilian courts to try military personnel, leading the way to prosecution of past and future coup organizers, members of the so called "deep state." On the judicial front, included are increases to the number of justices on the Constitutional Court, and to the number of members on the Judges and Prosecutors Higher Board, some of which would be appointed by the parliament. The changes can be expected to bring a composition shift to the traditionally secular judicial branch. The secular opposition claims Erdoğan plans to use this to fill the courts with Islamists, pushing the country to the edge of a quiet Islamic coup. AKP maintains that its political stance is no different than European Christian democratic parties, in a Muslim flavor.
For some, this marks the end of Kemalism, further weakening the political power of the country's military, already eroded by the AKP administration's recent investigations. The military was traditionally seen as the protector of the secular state, along with the judicial branch. Turkey has been a secular democracy since the 1920s, and represents one of the most successful attempts to implement a working modern democracy with an overwhelmingly Muslim constituency. This unusual accomplishment has not been easy: The democratic history has been interrupted by military coups d'état in 1960,1971, and 1980, and a couple of more recent soft coups — military memoranda, in 1997 and 2007. Most of these political turning points included some justification to keep religiously motivated political movements under control and preserve the strongly secular quality of the state. They have introduced periods of democratic regression, which have become obstacles on the country's path to become the modern European state Mustafa Kemal intended.
It has become increasingly inappropriate and implausible for secular Turkey to fall back to such totalitarian methods in the 21st century, particularly as the prospect of European Union membership intensifies. Recent developments, leading to this referendum, actually make another military coup or memorandum highly unlikely to ever happen again. If the Trojan Horse claim is true, the regime in Turkey will find itself under increasing religious influence. However, the constitution remains staunchly secular, and the democracy increasingly vibrant. With this referendum, Turkey may have made of itself the perfect laboratory to test whether Islam today has reached the potential of behaving as Christianity has in Western democracies. Turkey's current choice appears to give that explosive mixture a full chance, and challenges non-repressed Islam to prove it can do well under secular rule.
If Turkey fails this test, that is, if the Islamic penetration of the other branches of the government reaches a turning point that leads to an Islamic constitution and law, one can expect the political landscape of the Middle East to change significantly in the next few decades. For the worse, needless to say. Such a transformation could lead to an extremely unstable Middle East, not unlikely to facilitate the next World War. If it wins, that is, if Turkey maintains its secular definition of state, while allowing a diverse, fair and uninterrupted Western style democracy to thrive, we will have reason to be optimistic about the future of the rest of the Muslim world. Sam Harris' thesis that there is a certain "je ne sais quoi" about Islam that makes such cohabitation impossible would be proven wrong. We should actually all hope and root for that.
Now, I don't mean, of course, root for Islam. What I mean is, to change the way we deal with it. Like its older Abrahamic siblings, Islam has proved that it is not easily going away. It is not exactly giving us a choice. In Turkey, of all places, after 90 years of attempts to repress, neutralize and regulate Islam using all kinds of methods, including violent ones, it is back in full power. The approach to it now needs to be different. We should look for ways to better understand it, to make it work with modern western democracies, civilized ways of cohabiting with it as has been possible with the older Abrahamic religions in the "West." Certainly, due to its relatively young age, this religion is still going through its violent adolescence, unlike its more mature and established Abrahamic relatives. Places like Turkey, which have experienced a relatively accelerated path to modernity, may represent the best setting we can hope for in bringing a non-violent coexistence with reason.
Tunç Iyriboz is a medical doctor, a radiologist. He is associate member, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and associate professor, Cornell Medical College. His interests include linguistics, philosophy of science, medical ethics, philosophy of mind and language.