Time to stop engineering religion

Democrats and reformists from all camps in this country may have been united in expecting a fully democratic constitution for Turkey, but each and every one has his/her own focal point and red line about it.
While legitimate concerns are constantly being raised on the issue of whether Turkey will be ruled by a fully empowered president (with or without a prime minister), it does not rank among my top questions. A majority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s critics, mostly from the political opposition, may pump the idea that it is “to be or not to be” for him, but I am not at all sure.Given that the new draft enhances the presidential powers a little more and his successor for the role of prime minister and chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will promise not to let him down — like Mesut Yılmaz and Tansu Çiller promised Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel in the bad old days — Erdoğan may have calculated discreetly that he may very well rule the country with more authority than he has had so far. The stakes in the current Constitution are already quite open enough for extensive use and abuse of power.

I am therefore not surprised to hear Bekir Bozdağ, the deputy prime minister, say that “we will not let our proposal for a presidential system block a new constitution.”

The new presidential model is Erdoğan’s bargaining chip for all the four parties to reach a consensus. His sudden visit to Cemil Çiçek, parliament speaker and chairman of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, gives some hints on how he sees the tight timetable. He reportedly told Çiçek that the “pace must be forced,” and extending the deadline for the commission until the end of April should be “fine” as long as all the four parties present their rough drafts by the end of the current deadline, namely the end of March.

Erdoğan wants to see the contents of the oppositions’ drafts. He may also use the drafts as elements of his propaganda to the crowds, to “complain” about their unwillingness and failure. Meanwhile, he hopes that any progress on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) negotiation process will keep the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) close to the AKP for passing a vote to take a draft to a referendum.

It means that Erdoğan will press on the gas pedal from May till the end of June before Parliament adjourns. It all signals a referendum in autumn. If so, the three parties in opposition will have to shake themselves to life in the coming weeks.

According to a poll conducted in 25 provinces by Varyans, the stakes seem ideal for a vote. Approximately 78.3 percent want a new constitution and 75.7 percent want a referendum. Those who do not desire to see references to any ideology and any ethnicity are around 75 percent. Most importantly, those who want the state to maintain an equal distance to religion, sect, language, class, gender, etc. are above 83 percent.

The last finding overlaps with my deepest concern, my red line, in a draft in a positive sense. Mine has to do with how the AKP will deal with the status of the Religious Affairs Directorate, which at the moment is the most powerful — and seemingly untouchable — instrument of republican tutelage, as defined by the pro-state establishment.

It is no wonder that the commission the other day ended up in full dissent on that chapter. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) demanded that the directorate be reformed to include all “religions and sects,” the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) wanted to keep it exactly as it is and the BDP asked for its abolishment altogether, arguing that the “state and religion should not interfere with each another.”

The AKP joined the MHP, saying that the Lausanne Treaty prevents other religions from being represented in the directorate and that Alevis are not a sect at all.

The stalemate is deeply alarming. The sheer existence of an exclusively Sunni directorate is enough to see that Turkey (with imams salaried by the state and state-issued Friday sermons, etc.) has never been secular. The precondition for a new, secular Turkey lies in either a radical reform of the directorate or its annulment. This will be the real criteria in judging if the constitutional order is democratic or not.

I can already declare that a draft constitution which will keep the Religious Affairs Directorate in its current, tutelary and discriminatory form will never get my yes vote.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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