This isn’t just about lipstick – if Turkey can’t reconcile secularism, Islam and democracy, there will be global repercussions

Şafak Pavey  – The Guardian, Monday 10 June 2013

Secularism: what does it mean to the people of Turkey? Is it simply a question of whether we can buy alcohol when we please, or whether the cabin crew of Turkish airlines are allowed to wear red lipstick? It cannot simply be these eye-catching issues, beloved of the media, that have brought people out on to the streets in their tens of thousands. Let me draw a different picture of the current challenges to secularism in Turkey, as protesters continue to express their frustration with a government that seems to be defined by inflexible religiosity.

Education, for one thing, is in peril. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party has given the lion’s share of the budget to mosques and religious schools, cutting schools that provide secular education adrift. There are 67,000 schools and 85,000 mosques. Over the past few months, in Istanbul alone, 98 primary schools have been converted into state-run religious Imam Hatip schools. A woman complained to me in my capacity as an opposition MP that her daughter’s school of 1,200 students was turned into an Imam Hatip school with a capacity of only 320. Soon, only children of the well-to-do will be able to receive a secular education. “What are we, the poor, supposed to do?” she asked me.

Freedom of speech is also threatened. It is well known that Turkey has more imprisoned journalists than any other country, but as a result of the chilling effect of these prosecutions on the press, many stories never make the news. The government is quick to clamp down on dissent.

The government has embarked on a process of reshaping Turkey. In our country today, politics – and many other aspects of social and economic life – are increasingly differentiated on the basis of how pious people are. It takes great courage to eat in public during the month of Ramadan fasting. Religion classes in schools teach the protocols of worship instead of religious philosophy. Those, such as the Alevis, who do not embrace the Sunni tradition, are considered adversaries by the government. While the impeccable legal status that was previously accorded to women has not been challenged, profound transformations in women’s social status have taken place, and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, urges them to stay at home and have more children.

Corruption is rampant. The government now employs public sector workers according to their religious knowledge, rather than their scores in the civil service examinations. By securing privileged positions for their adherents in education and the bureaucracy, the government has dealt a serious blow to the already fragile democratic tradition in our country. We shook off the leaden hand of the military only to find that pious politicians who claimed to be working for equality have placed an equally heavy burden of autocracy and intolerance on us.

The same Turkey that today finds itself in this position was considered a beacon after its establishment in 1923, an important laboratory where a modern and secular government was reconciled with a Muslim society, however delicate that synthesis might have been. It was widely believed that Turkey’s transformation set a model for the rest of the Islamic world. The hope was that the reforms of the new republic would be carried over to future generations.

I certainly do not support excluding faith from public life. But political Islam in our country does not content itself with the role of moral guide. Rather it aspires to mould everyone to the same imagined pious Sunni national character by wrapping society in restrictive rules, ostensibly for the public’s own welfare, and then policing citizens and punishing those who disagree.

What is worse is that our rising apprehension about the direction our government is taking finds no audience among those in the west who would never tolerate such politics and restrictions in their own countries. The discourse of the west and the attitudes of its leaders are important because they influence public debate in Turkey. However, the west, understandably obsessed by its own security concerns and strategies, looks the other way at the Turkish government’s abuses. As a member of the opposition, what I want is not for the west to intervene in our internal affairs, but for it to stop shielding a government with such little regard for the values of freedom.

Who else will be able to reconcile Islam, secularism and democracy once Turkey fails? What are the global consequences of this failure?

I urge those in the west who believe that Turkey and the globe benefit from a democracy whose fabric is interwoven with religion to look again at what that fabric looks like today – our society’s rights shredded in the name of yet another intolerant majority.

Bear in mind how valuable a secular Turkey is for the world. Do not forfeit the last secularists in the Middle East to the purge that is taking place in the name of democracy, as if a lower level of rights is somehow “good enough” for our region, when you would never accept such restrictions in yours – just as France used to stamp the university diplomas earned by its Arab colonial subjects “Bon pour l’orient” (good enough for the Orient).