Finally, freedom for headscarves!

Finally, freedom for headscarves!

Thank God, four MPs in headscarves entered Parliament without causing tension as happened 14 years ago when Merve Kavakçı did the same and faced an uproar, ultimately leading to her being stripped of her Turkish citizenship. It is something to celebrate and it has personal significance for me, since I have advocated the removal of the headscarf ban for more than 20 years.

This is a “historic change” as far as the rigid understanding of secularism seems to have been altered on behalf of republicans. It is true that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) refrained from objecting rather reluctantly and mostly as a result of political calculations, since any objection would have played into the hands of the ruling party. Besides, I am sure the ruling party would be much happier if the CHP had expressed criticism and tension. Still, it sounds a note of hope for so-called “normalization” and democratization in Turkey. Otherwise, if we scrutinize the genuineness of the politics of both republicans and conservatives in Turkey, we may end up being less hopeful concerning their democratic credentials.

These two political traditions have their own authoritarian backgrounds deeply rooted in their understanding of modernization to start with. Republicans come from the “Westernist-modernist” tradition which defines modernization in terms of total Westernization with an emphasis on secularism.
As such, they are inclined to curb freedoms in the name of secularism. As for the others, they come from the “conservative-modernist” tradition which defines modernism solely in terms of adopting Western technology and the capitalist economy. As such, they have always been resentful of secularism and liberal culture and inclined to curb freedoms in the name of religion and culture. That is why we have ended up with two types of authoritarian political traditions in Turkey, and this is the main problem in Turkey’s democracy deficit that we are still suffering from despite a dramatic change in political power in the last decade.

In the aforementioned historical parliamentary session, CHP MPs rightly criticized the conservative government for being hypocritical concerning rights and freedoms in that they expect everybody to be respectful of religious freedoms but do not express the same attitude concerning others’ rights and freedoms. It is true that the politics of the conservative government in the last 10 years clearly revealed their authoritarian understanding of politics. Nevertheless, it is doubtful if republicans would be that tolerant of headscarved MPs if they lost their political power. Besides, republicans are no more if not less democratic than the conservative government concerning Kurdish rights and freedoms.

In fact, neither of the two distinct political traditions which emerged along with the modernization process of Turkey starting from the last Ottoman century needed to focus on the liberal and democratic values that modern polities promoted. In the beginning, modernization was thought to be a tool for saving the dissolving empire, then it was a matter of survival after the empire collapsed. The two projects of modernization have been each other’s rival, first of all in terms of having better recipes to save the country, meaning there was not much time for debates on political values like freedom.

Moreover, there has always been immense skepticism on the idea of “freedom” since it could pose a danger for a country that first lost a war, then an empire. Afterwards, the Turkish nation-state was built on the ashes of the empire and was overwhelmed by a feeling of insecurity, bitterness and resentment.

In sum, there are many reasons for the weakness of democratic politics in Turkey, but they should no longer be excuses. We need more democracy and republican and conservative political traditions need an urgent revision to reach that end.