Dismantling Kemalism: One more step

Dismantling Kemalism: One more step

Bekir Bozdağ, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, announced a new legal reform the other day: Four of the eight “revolutionary laws” that Atatürk, Turkey’s founder, imposed in the early 1920s will be abandoned. These are:

- The “hat law” which makes it illegal for any Turk to wear the fez, the traditional Ottoman headgear, and which makes it compulsory for all public servants to wear a Western-style brimmed hat.

- The law that bans “tekkes, türbes and zaviyes,” the traditional shrines and centers of the Sufi orders, which have been technically illegal since 1924.

 - The law that bans the usage of honorific titles such as “efendi, bey, paşa, ağa, hacı, hafız, hoca, molla, beyefendi, hanım, hanımefendi and hazretleri.” These were terms used in Ottoman culture to denote a feudal, religious or bureaucratic status.

- And finally, the law that bans “certain dress codes,” especially religious garments worn by Islamic, Christian or Jewish clerics (that is why imams in Turkey can wear their turban and tunic only in mosques and not on the streets).

Hüseyin Çelik, the deputy president of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), also spoke on this issue. “No law lasts forever,” he told daily Radikal, “the ones that do not fit the zeitgeist can be abandoned.”

I, of course, agree with Bozdağ and Çelik and welcome this new step by the AKP government to dismantle yet another authoritarian decree of Kemalism, Turkey’s longtime official ideology. I even hope the rest of the “revolutionary laws” will go into the dustbin of history as well.

The reason is simple: all these “revolutionary” laws are both anti-democratic and illiberal. In other words, they were imposed without any popular support and they curbed individual freedom.

The Kemalists, as expected, have always claimed that these laws in fact served freedom, for they were aimed at “freeing society from a tradition of dogma.” But it was only they who, in a very authoritarian way, decided that this “emancipation” was necessary. This was hardly any different than the communist regimes of the past century that oppressed their societies in order to save them from “false consciousness.”

To be sure, Kemalist Turkey has been softer in its authoritarianism than most communist regimes. That is why some of the “revolutionary laws” in question have become practically void. Hence very few people still wear the brimmed hat, which was a very serious matter in 1925 when it was first imposed (several critics of that “hat revolution” were executed by the Kemalist regime). Titles such as “bey,” “hanım” or “paşa” have never disappeared from the common language, whereas their artificial counterparts (“bay,” “bayan,” or “general”) have never gained equal popularity.

Yet it is still important to abandon these laws in order to de-sanctify Kemalism and redefine it as just one of the many valid political ideas, as it should be in any free and democratic country. Moreover, as some hardcore Kemalist groups still come up very often demanding, “revolutionary laws must be imposed,” it is important to get rid of these threats to liberty, even if they remain on paper.

Finally, what should replace Kemalism for Turkey is of course not another authoritarian official ideology, such as Islamism. Kemalists often claim that this is their only alternative and hence their hegemony must be kept intact. Rather, what we will have, I guess, is a more pluralist Turkey in which more colors exist and none are suppressed by law.