Good news: The CHP now gets religion

Good news: The CHP now gets religion

The other day, a symposium was held by Istanbul’s Kartal Municipality, held by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), along with Istanbul University and the “Turkish Hearths,” a moderate nationalist organization. The title was “Problems of the Contemporary Islamic World and Solutions.” And the keynote speaker was none other than Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, the citadel of Turkish secularism.

The Hürriyet Daily News ran a nice news story yesterday about this event, summarizing its gist with the title, “Democracy should prevail in Muslim world.” Accordingly, Kılıçdaroğlu had addressed not only the burning problems in the Islamic world, but also the virtues within Islam itself that could be revitalized to offer solutions.

For example, Kılıçdaroğlu addressed the problem of violence in the name of Islam, as perpetrated viciously by terror groups such as ISIL. He also emphasized that the Muslim world terribly lacks justice, rule of law, welfare and reason. Yet he did not blame the essence of Islam for these problems, as a hardcore secularist (whether he be Turkish or French) would typically do. He rather praised the founding moment of Islam, as lead by the Prophet Muhammad, saying: “In my opinion, our prophet was one of the biggest revolutionaries in our world. He abolished slavery, accomplished gender equality and paved the way for many transformations and changes.”

Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized the lack of justice in the current Muslim world as well. “To what extent does the Islamic world give importance to justice? How just, how right are the rulers in the Islamic world?” he asked. But then he only emphasized how much importance Islam attaches to justice. 

For sure, one could doubt the specificities in these arguments. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, did not exactly abolish slavery, but he improved the slaves’ position immensely, and encouraged freeing them. (Had historical Muslims been smarter, they could have extracted a goal for universal emancipation from those precepts, but they did not.) 

Yet Kılıçdaroğlu is not a historian or jurist; he is a politician. So, what he says about Islam is politically significant. It is especially significant in Turkey, where Islamic sensibilities have always been pushed away by the CHP, only to be captured en masse by the religious right, whose latest version is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This is the reason why the CHP can never win the votes of Turkey’s conservative masses, keeping it trapped in the “25 percent,” its usual share in the ballots.

Cleary, since becoming the leader of the CHP in 2010, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has recognized this problem and has taken significant steps forward. First he got rid of the CHP’s decades-old headscarf obsession, welcoming conservative women’s enrollment in universities and employment in public jobs. He also began making positive allusions to Islamic values, such as defending human rights with references to “our beloved Prophet.”
I am sure some old-school CHP folks must be unsure about this “new CHP,” if not even uneasy. But they should face the facts. Do they want their party to remain in its cultural ghetto forever, or have a chance for power by winning new hearts and minds? It is winning even mine, I must say, as a former arch-enemy. So it really must have some real potential.