Turkey needs a new Ataturk

Staunch secularists in Turkey are dismayed by voters' strong approval of constitutional amendments that, secularists believe, remove the checks and balances on Islam in government. But all is not lost.

ZUMA Press/Newscom
A woman casts her vote at a poll station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 12. Turks voted in favor of amendments to the Turkish Constitution. Secularists say the changes weaken the separation between mosque and state in the mostly Muslim country.

Secularists in mostly Muslim Turkey are disheartened. The judiciary and military – two pillars that have strongly supported the separation of mosque and state in this strategically important country – are toppling.

That's a worry to those who treasure Turkish secularism, a principle of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

While their concern is understandable, their view is skewed.

The problem is not that these two institutions are radically changing, but that secularists have hid behind them for way too long. Now is the time for this group to develop the political muscles to do its own heavy lifting.

The judiciary and military needed to change. Turkey is in negotiations to join the European Union, but it's not democratic for the Turkish judiciary to vet its own judges – the current practice. The EU rightly applauded voters who on Sunday strongly backed a constitutional reform that allows elected officials – Turkey's president and parliament – more say in appointing high-court judges.

Neither can Turkey tolerate a military with a legacy of coups, torture, and imprisonment of opponents. The military is now largely defanged. Sunday's referendum moved that process further by, for instance, no longer allowing military courts to try civilians.

What concerns secularists is that the present government, run by the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party, or AKP, is suspected of having a secret agenda to Islamicize the country. Since it was elected in 2002, the AKP has tried (and failed) to criminalize adultery. It has tried (and failed) to lift the ban on head scarves in public universities. It has tried (and succeeded) in shifting the foreign policy of Turkey – a NATO member – eastward, toward Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

The AKP professes allegiance to secularism. But the way to keep it true to that principle is not by defending flawed institutions. It's by developing a strong political opposition and making sure that checks on the government – such as a free media – are allowed to do their work.

The main party for the secularists, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has been weak for years. Now it has a new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who ran for mayor of Istanbul in 2009. He is known as Turkey’s “Gandhi” for his slight frame, large spectacles, and mild manner.

Like the AKP's leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has a populist appeal. He's also a minority Kurd. This "Gandhi" has the opportunity to build the CHP into a far more inclusive party that champions religious freeodom and other freedoms for all – including observant Muslims.

A strong opposition is needed as Mr. Erdogan's government now gets on with the business of writing a new constitution, not merely amending it. One area that needs attention is free speech. Under the AKP, much of the media have been pressured into taking the government's position. A more muscular CHP could see to it that a constitutional overhaul is not just the work of the party in power, but of the nation as a whole.

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