Toward a post-Kemalist CHP?

Toward a post-Kemalist CHP?

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) gave an interesting dinner the other day. It was an “iftar,” or a fast-breaking feast, and the guests were some of the most prominent Islamic theologians and intellectuals. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader who hosted the event, which is apparently a first in the history of his party, emphasized his respect for religion. He praised believers as “those who have love for humanity in their hearts,” and noted that his party is against banning headscarves on university campuses.

It is fair enough to say that these were big steps for the CHP, because for decades the party has been the citadel of hardcore secularism, which despised any religious theme in the public square. Until only a few years ago, for example, the CHP was a staunch defender of the headscarf ban in universities. Similarly, an iftar dinner by a political party would be criticized, if not ridiculed, by the CHP elite as “exploitation of religion” – a peculiar Turkish political term, invented to appear respectful of religion while actively persecuting it. 

The contrast between that traditional CHP and the “new” one in the making was stressed best by Ali Bulaç, a prominent Islamist writer and one of the guests that night. “This iftar looks like the one Erbakan gave at the Prime Ministry 15 years ago,” Bulaç jokingly said, referring to one of the controversies that led to Turkey’s “post-modern coup” against the Islamist-leaning government of the late Necmettin Erbakan. The CHP, at the time, was enraged by that an “iftar was held for the bearded;” now it was doing the same thing.

This, of course, should be regarded as good news, for two separate reasons.

First, it shows that Turkey’s anti-religious obsession and the paranoia that has characterized Turkey’s self-styled secularism is on the decline. The secular elite has realized that not all covered women or bearded men yearn for an “Islamic Republic of Turkey,” and nothing would change in the universities without the headscarf ban. The wiser among them even realize that the softening of secularism is likely to make this principle stronger, for secularism that is respectful to religious freedom is more likely to be accepted by the religious people who constitute a big part of Turkish society.

Secondly, moving away from its ideological trenches is likely to make the CHP a more popular party that can appeal to mainstream society. And that would be very good, for some of our current problems come from the fact that the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) is too popular and thus too self-confident. A stronger rival might make the AKP more modest and sober.

Such a transition in the CHP, which has been going on since Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu became its leader two years ago, will certainly amount to an ideological shift from its traditional ideology, i.e., Kemalism. The party, of course, would never become a hotbed of anti-Kemalists, but it can well turn into a post-Kemalist party by staying respectful to the Atatürk Revolution, but also understanding that the world has changed and thus old party line has to change as well. 

In fact, the CHP was able to have such a post-Kemalist phase in the ‘70s, under the leadership of the late Bülent Ecevit. No wonder it was the only time in its 90-year-long history that “Atatürk’s party” came to power through a democratic vote. If Kılıçdaroğlu can do that again, he will be putting a stamp on history. And he would find me, among many, as a sympathizer.