ALPER ALİ RIZAThe reason why religion and politics do not mix is because when they do they sometimes produce elective dictatorships. The best example, well known to the older generation of Turkish politicians, was that of Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus who, whilst head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus, also stood for President, and won every election from 1960 to 1977.
The phrase “elective dictatorship” was coined by an English politician, Lord Hailsham, in a lecture he gave in 1976 about the British Constitution. He was a very eminent constitutional lawyer who had been Lord Chancellor under Prime Minister Thatcher from 1979 to 1987. As Lord Chancellor he occupied a unique position as head of the judiciary, a member of the executive and a member of the upper house of legislature.
In light of the protests across Turkey, the question of whether the republic under Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan is an “elective dictatorship” is ripe for discussion. Erdoğan is a popular politician whose AKP party has been elected three times, each time with an increased majority. He was also a very successful mayor of Istanbul, which may explain his impatience with the protesters, and aspires to be the president of the republic, with enhanced executive powers. Erdoğan is a tough leader who also wears his religion on his sleeve. His religion is Islam. It is a religion that demands submission and obedience to the revealed truth. “God is great because in the infinity of space and time submission to the truth of human insignificance is a moral imperative,” a wise old Turk once told me. It is good for the soul and what is good for the soul makes people better and is therefore good for society.
On the other hand, for Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic of Turkey and abolished the Caliphate, religion is a private matter for the individual. The state and its laws are man-made and secular and not answerable to any higher law. He regarded religion as more concerned with the profound questions of the individual’s spiritual life than a guide to modern living.
Some protesters in Istanbul have been seen waving Turkish flags embossed with huge pictures of Kemal Atatürk. Their values are based on freedom of the individual under the rule of law. Like other Europeans, they believe that political democracy depends not just on getting a majority of votes every five years but also on observance of fundamental freedoms and human rights and an overarching tolerant political culture that encourages plurality, not one that wishes to impose a prohibitive regressive regime.
Turkey is still a secular Republic which means that although most of the people in Turkey are Muslim, the state itself has no religion. Unlike, for example, the Islamic Republic Iran, laws passed in Turkey do not have to pass any test to ensure they are in accordance with Islamic law. Being a secular Republic and a member of the Council of Europe does however mean it is governed by the rule of law and that its laws have to be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
If Erdoğan wishes to be President of Turkey, he will be the head of state of a nation as diverse as the various peoples that became Turkish under Kemal Atatürk when the new Republic of Turkey rose like the phoenix from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He was elected on the false prospectus that the legacy of Atatürk was safe in his hands. It was felt that important domestic reforms and new horizons in foreign policy were a necessary corrective after years of unimaginative government, and went along with many of the changes as an integral part of a new more open society. It seems this is no longer the case and Erdoğan may not win again if he admitted betraying the legacy of Atatürk.
*Alper Riza is a Queen’s Counsel practicing from Goldsmith Law Chambers in London.