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Turkey's 'secular survey' stirs doubts about its faith

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News | 1/4/2011 12:00:00 AM | İZGİ GÜNGÖR

A planned government survey on the public’s attitude toward religious issues is prompting concern that secularism in Turkey could be eroded.

A planned government survey on the public’s attitude toward religious issues is prompting concern that secularism in Turkey could be eroded as experts debate the appropriateness of conducting such a poll.

“The state doesn’t carry out surveys. They are done by research institutions. It has not been a common instrument in Turkey,” former Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Türk told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Tuesday.

“The definition of secularism, for instance, is already clear. There is no need to conduct a survey about already-known concepts. It seems the government expects a result that is in line with their views and will make it a base for drafting the new Constitution,” he said.  

The country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, which has been undergoing internal restructuring, has given the go-ahead for the survey, which is slated to begin in March. Tens of thousands of citizens will be asked their opinion on public institutions, the headscarf issue, religious classes in schools, Alevi demands, the relationship between the government and religion and the directorate’s areas of service.

The results of the survey will be examined after the general elections set to be held in June and are expected to shape the new constitution if the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is re-elected.

Speaking to daily Radikal, State Minister Faruk Çelik, who is in charge of religious affairs, said it was the government’s job to address society’s problems, listing Turkey’s “chronic problems” as its southeastern region, the Kurdish issue and its disadvantaged groups, including women, people with disabilities and young adults.

The survey, which will consist of hundreds of questions, is also expected to define the concept of a “public institution” so as to help bring some resolution to the headscarf issue. Women are not permitted to wear headscarves while working or studying at state-run institutions, including public schools.

The Daily News was unable to reach Çelik for further comment.

[HH] Secular concerns  

The debate on removing the ban on headscarves in state-run schools and government offices as well as on the definition of public institutions were renewed in October ahead of the Republic Day reception held by President Abdullah Gül at the Çankaya Palace – which is considered a public institution – when the main opposition party and military boycotted the event because of the president’s wife’s headscarf.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç likewise said during his tenure as speaker of Parliament that it was possible to redefine secularism.

Secularism, while an unalterable article of the Constitution, will always remain in the Turkish charter, yet it can be redefined in line with the changing conditions and requirements of society, Arınç said.

For many in conservative circles, “secularism” remains loosely defined. As practiced in Turkey, secularism has often mirrored the French understanding of laicism, a largely anti-clerical discourse that subordinates religion to the state, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon notion of secularism as the separation of religion and state.

Secular quarters in the country have long expressed concern that the government plans to change the secular nature of the Turkish Republic and that headscarves could soon become a fixture of primary and high schools, as well as government offices, if secularism is redefined. As such, many secularists are concerned the survey could become part of the larger plan articulated by Türk.  

“What types of questions will be asked? I can’t understand its purpose. Will the meaning and scope of secularism be determined in line with the survey results?” Türk asked in questioning the aim of the survey.

“The Constitutional Court annulled the wearing of headscarves in state-run universities. Maybe they will use the survey results to bring it back onto the agenda while drafting the new Constitution,” he said.  

[HH] Survey acceptable instrument

For Ekrem Ali Akartürk, a professor of constitutional law at Yeditepe University, surveys are an appropriate instrument to measure the public’s sentiment on various topics, but it is important to harmonize the public sentiment with legal principles and adhere to the limits when conducting such polls.

“The state may take the pulse of the public via surveys on the mentioned issues if it seeks an answer to the question of how people can live together. It is important to understand their inclination,” Akartürk said.

“But it is even more important to formulate this public sentiment within the legal rules. How will it be formulated within the laws if the public leans toward headscarves in universities? The legal limits and formulation of the results should be drawn clearly.”

There are some concerns about the government’s move, but it is wrong to approach every step of the government with prejudice, Akartürk said, advocating compromise.

“However, the survey should be accompanied by consultation with opposition and legal experts who specialize in this field. And all these processes should be transparent. Surveys can prove successful only if an integrated approach is embraced,” he said. 

Professor Özer Sencar, head of the Ankara-based MetroPOLL survey company, which is affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said surveys were an instrument to obtain information about the public sentiment and that there was nothing wrong in political parties applying the method to learn about the public’s view on their potential actions.

“Political parties can survey the public to see whether they will receive sufficient support from the public … on their future projects. Only human rights issues cannot and should not be the subject of surveys,” Sencar said.

“Otherwise, political parties can ask the public questions on every project they plan to carry out … to strengthen their future actions before media and public,” Sencar said.

Instead of reacting to the survey method, the opposition parties should likewise use similar surveys against the ruling party by asking the public questions on relevant topics, he said.

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