The intolerance of the ballot box

The intolerance of the ballot box

The New York Times carried an article a few days ago with the title “Bigotry on the Ballot.” The subject was the attempt by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to ban same-sex marriage by means of the ballot box. North Carolina’s ultraconservatives are apparently trying to enshrine this ban in the state constitution by means of the electorate.

Those who are behind this are clearly confident of their position because they would not have moved in the direction that they have otherwise. Put another way the ballot box is most likely going to be the source of furthering bigotry in North Carolina. This however flies in the face of the dictum that democracy is measured not by imposing the will of the majority, but by protecting the rights of the minority.

Turkey is also increasingly emerging as a case in point proving that the ballot box can be used to promote bigotry and intolerance. Overly confident after having received one out of every two votes cast in the general elections held in June 2011, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government is using its mandate to gradually move the country in a conservative direction based on the Islamic outlook.

When the debate about education prior to the recent “reform” in this area was raging, Erdoğan came out openly and had no qualms in asserting that their intention as a party was to raise a religious generation. The so-called education reform, on the other hand, was a barely shrouded initiative aimed at opening the way to Islamic education.

Today the life of the Prophet Mohammed is an optional subject in classes. The fact that it is optional appears to sit the whole thing on a democratic basis. But it is clear that in towns and villages, and close-knit neighborhoods in big cities, people who do not want their children to take this subject will still have to send their kids to these classes to avoid being labeled anti-Islamic.

There is every reason therefore to doubt the government’s sincerity as far as this “reform” is concerned. The latest debate concerns the state of artistic freedoms and in particular in relation to state-funded theaters. The government, with strong backing from Erdoğan, is moving to dissolve the City Theaters in Istanbul on the grounds that they are disseminating obscenities.

The mechanism by which this is to be done is to privatize these theaters and turn them into economic entities. The hope is that this will make it hard for these theaters to remain standing. In addition to this the government also wants to interfere in the repertoires of the State Theaters which have a history that goes back to the founding of the republic.

All of this is being done in the name of morality and under arguments about democracy and the will of the people. The assumption is that plays deemed obscene are spreading immorality among the masses. This, however, contains a contradiction since the “masses” have never been theater-goers in Turkey.

Theaters have generally been the domain of educated people who have attained a level of awareness enabling them to determine what is an obscenity and what is art. The move against state-funded theaters cannot therefore be seen as anything but a further sign of trying to spread Islamic conservatism through the state apparatus by getting rid of all things deemed contrary to this.

In a similar way the government is trying to restrict private network TV serials deemed immoral. While there is some logic to regulation in this area, as can be seen in Europe too, this should not be done according to the ideological whims of the government, but by an independent board that is not subject to government pressure. That certainly is not the case with the radio and television regulatory board in Turkey known as “RTÜK.”

To return to the beginning, then, all of this is being done on the basis of the strong vote the government got in the last elections, and hence “the intolerance of the ballot box.”