New constitution will protect secular values, says Turkish PM

New constitution will protect secular values, says Turkish PM
3 min read
28 April, 2016
Prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed that Turkey's new constitution will guarantee democratic and secular values after earlier comments by the parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman triggered fears over a religious constitution.
Turkey's draft for a new constitution will guarantee secularism, vowed prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu after controversy erupted in the country following calls by a Justice and Development Party [AKP] official for a religious constitution in the predominantly Muslim state.

The country's democratic and secular character was "not up for debate" under the rule of the AKP, declared Davutoglu.

"Secularism will feature in the new constitution we draft as a principle that guarantees citizens' freedom of religion and faith and that ensures the state is at an equal distance from all faith groups," Davutoglu said in a televised speech.

On Monday, parliamentary speaker and AKP official Ismail Kahraman said that Turkey "must have a religious constitution," triggering fears from Turkish opposition that the AKP government was seeking to bring religion back into politics in a state that has been avowedly secular for over 80 years.

The secular system has been a central principle since the foundation of the Turkish republic as envisioned by the republic's first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk's militant secularism and the legal and political reforms he instituted across Turkey to promote it where long upheld by Turkish political elites after his demise in 1938.

Turkish military forces, since the 1940s, had especially cast themselves as "guardians" of Ataturk's secularist legacy.

Attempts by Turkish Islamic parties to enter into politics over the following decades were strongly opposed by the Turkish military, who regularly intervened and over turned an array of different civilian governments, whether leftist or Islamist, well into the 1990's.

In 1997 the government of Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party, an ideological precursor to the current Turkish ruling AKP, was removed in a "soft-coup" by the military because of Erbakan's open Islamic identity.

Since coming into power in 2002, the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have upheld the secularist identity of the Turkish republic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party lifted a long-standing ban on women and girls wearing headscarfs in schools and the civil service [Anadolu]

But while in their early years they may have feared a heavy-response from the Turkish military if they crossed the "red-line," the AKP has come to dominate both security services and the military in recent years following the gradual removal of generals from the "old-guard."

Mainstream Turkish political parties opposing the AKP have long-claimed the party is trying to overturn Ataturk's legacy despite denials by party officials.

But Kahraman's speech on Monday once again ignited the debate in the country.

The call led to protests on Tuesday in major cities, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators in Ankara and Istanbul.

Kahraman's comments also drew fire from opposition parties, prompting the speaker to release a statement saying he had been expressing his own opinion, not that of the AKP of which he is a member.

Cigdem Toker, columnist for the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, suggested that the parliamentary speaker's appeal was a "declaration of intention" regardless of the government's attempts to distance itself from his comments.

"It is a new threshold in the process of regulating all basic rights and freedoms from the education system to working life on the basis of religion," she wrote.

Selin Sayek Boke, spokesman for the main opposition pro-secular CHP party, slammed Kahraman's "defiant" comments, urging him to quit.

"To us secularism is a red line and a cause that we'll defend until one single CHP member remains alive," she said.

Over the past few years, the AKP government lifted a long-standing ban on women and girls wearing headscarfs in schools and the civil service as part of a democratic reform package.

It has also limited alcohol sales and made efforts to ban mixed-sex dorms at state universities.

Agencies contributed to this report.