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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 23   16 - 30 April 2017


Professor A. R. MOMIN

Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (A. K. P.) submitted an 18-point package of proposed constitutional amendments to the Grand National Assembly (Turkish Parliament) for approval last year. The proposal was approved by the Parliament in December 2016, following which the proposed amendments were put up for a national referendum scheduled on April 16. In the referendum, voters were asked to say Yes or No to the proposed amendments. A total of 47.5 million people (85% of the electorate) cast their votes. The Yes campaign won the referendum with 51.4% of the vote while the No campaign received 48.59%. It was indeed a narrow win for Mr Erdogan and the A. K. P. The Yes campaign received an overwhelmingly favourable response in Anatolia, A. K. P.’s main support base, as well as in the Turkish diaspora in Germany, the Netherlands, France and other European countries. On the other hand, more than 50% of voters in Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – voted against the proposal.

While the supporters of Mr Erdogan celebrated the victory on the streets, the opponents banged pots and pans at home and on the streets in a symbolic gesture of protest and resentment. Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has questioned the legitimacy of the referendum’s outcome, alleging irregularities in the voting process and urging Turkey’s High Electoral Board (YSK) to annul the result of the referendum. The allegation has been rejected by the Board.

The main features of the proposed constitutional amendments are the following.

  1. Turkey’s current constitution, which was drafted by the military generals in the wake of the 1980 coup, espouses a parliamentary system of government with the prime minister at the helm of administration and a president with a largely ceremonial role. Under the proposed amendments, this system will be replaced by a presidential system of government, like that of France and the United States, with the transfer of executive power from the office of the prime minister to that of the president. The post of prime minister will be abolished and a new post of vice president will be created. The new system will come into force from November 3, 2019, when the presidential and parliamentary elections will be simultaneously held.

  2. The president can be a member of a political party.

  3. The office of the president will be vested with wide-ranging powers, including the authority to appoint judges, the chief of the armed forces and the head of intelligence agencies, ministers and public officials. The president will have the authority to declare an emergency in the event of a grave external or internal threat to the unity and integrity of the country.

  4. All future Turkish presidents will have to face the electorate every five years and the tenure of the presidency will not exceed two terms.

  5. The basic personal, civic and political rights and duties of citizens that are guaranteed in the constitution cannot be regulated or curtailed by presidential decree. In the case of a conflict between a presidential decree and constitutional provisions, the latter shall prevail.

  6. The 1982 constitution gives the military a disproportionately large role in political, legal and civilian affairs. For example, the military has seats in the Supreme Court. No other NATO country has this anomalous situation. This will be done away with. The proposed amendments seek to re-examine and restructure the relations between the military and the civilian government and to eliminate the undemocratic and anomalous features of military regulations. The jurisdiction of military courts will be transferred to civil courts and the decisions of the Supreme Military Council will be subject to judicial review. Under the existing laws, the State Supervisory Board has the authority to audit all public institutions except the army. Now the armed forces will be audited by the State Supervisory Board.

  7. The structure and composition of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors will be revised. Now the Council will be composed of 13 regular members, of which seven will be appointed by the Parliament and four by the president.

Political and Social Context and Rationale of the Referendum

In order to adequately understand the intent, import and consequences of the referendum, one needs to examine its political and social context well as its rationale.

The 1982 Constitution

The existing constitution was drafted by Turkish army generals, who were staunch defenders of Kemal Ataturk’s secular credo, in the wake of a coup in 1980. Following the coup, led by General Kenam Evren, the civilian government was dislodged, over half a million people were arrested, imprisoned and tortured and 51 of them executed. The 1982 constitution gives extraordinary powers to the Turkish armed forces in political and civilian matters.

The provisions of the existing constitution have given rise to an anomalous situation in which both the Parliament and the president are directly elected by popular vote. Any major conflict between the prime minister, who is leader of the Parliament, and the president is likely to trigger a political crisis. Under the existing constitution, the Turkish president has a largely ceremonial role in state affairs while real executive power rests in the hands of the prime minister. There are several instances of conflict between the president and the prime minister in Turkey’s recent political history. In 1992, for example, there was a conflict between President Turgut Ozal and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel. On February 19, 2001, during a National Security Council meeting, then Turkish President Ahmed Necedet Sezer threw a copy of the constitution at the face of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in a symbolic gesture to remind him of his authority as enshrined in the Turkish constitution. The Prime Minister, in turn, reminded him that he owed his presidency to the Parliament. The conflict triggered a serious economic crisis. In fact the history of the unease between the two constitutional posts go back to the early years of the Turkish Republic when Ismet Inonu, one of the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic and then prime minister, resigned in 1937 over differences with President Kemal Ataturk.

In a national referendum held on September 12, 2010, a substantial majority (58 per cent) of Turkish voters said yes to a package of highly significant amendments in the country’s constitution proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The amendment package was earlier approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly and endorsed by then President Abdullah Gul. The amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party included expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled, the establishment of ombudspersons, collective bargaining for government employees, and curtailing the powers of the judiciary and army. The amendments gave the Parliament and the president greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court.

The proposed amendments seek to reconcile these contradictions and anomalies in the existing constitution by scrapping the post of the prime minister and transferring executive authority to the office of the president.

The existing constitution does not fully recognise and protect the cultural rights the Kurdish people, who constitute about 18% of Turkey’s population. Article 42 of the constitution, for example, prohibits the teaching of any language other than Turkish as the first language in schools. Consequently, Kurdish children are denied the right to receive primary education in their mother tongue.

Turkish Military’s Impervious Might

The Turkish army, the second largest in NATO, consists of more than 500,000 soldiers and officers and has an annual budget of over $20 billion. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the army has wielded enormous powers and influence and has blatantly interfered in matters of state, politics and society. Since 1960 the generals have toppled four democratically elected governments on specious grounds. Following the 1980 military coup, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced to step down on the grounds that he and his Refah Party harboured a secret agenda to promote Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Erbakan was prohibited from all political activities and his party was outlawed. In 2007 Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, then chief of the armed forces, was opposed to the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency on the grounds that his wife wears a headscarf. However, the A. K. P.-led government and the Parliament ignored his intervention and elected Gul as President. In March 2008, the Constitutional Court rejected a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the A. K. P. and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly trying to establish an Islamic state.

In February 2010, several military generals were detained or questioned on charges of conspiracy against the government. More than forty high-ranking army officers, including former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force, four admirals and a general, were arrested and formally charged with hatching a conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected government. The plot involved planting bombs in mosques and having a Turkish Air Force jet shot down, which could then be used as justification for another military takeover. The courts have often connived at the arbitrary actions of the army generals.

The Failed Coup of 2016

As night fell on 15 July 2016, military jets were seen flying menacingly over Ankara and over the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul and gunshots were heard at some places in the two cities. It soon became clear that a small faction of the Turkish army had attempted a military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the A. K. P.-led government. Rebel soldiers seized parts of Ankara and Istanbul, bombed the police and intelligence service headquarters, attacked Parliament and the Presidential Palace in Ankara and fired at policemen and the public. The plotters had at their disposal 35 military planes, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks, aerial refuelling tankers and 3 ships. They held Turkey’s chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar hostage, almost strangling him with a belt, and tried to force him to sign the coup declaration. But a defiant and furious Gen. Akar rebuked the rebel soldiers and refused to sign the declaration. A total of 246 people, mostly civilians, were killed by the rebel soldiers and more than 2000 injured. The dead included young men, women and old men.

President Erdogan, who was holidaying in Marmaris in south-west Turkey, got wind of the coup and managed to leave the presidential palace just an hour before the rebels could capture or kill him. He had the presence of mind to get in touch with CNN Turk, a private television station, on his mobile phone’s video app and gave an interview on FaceTime, in which he urged the Turkish people to come out on the streets to foil the coup. Within minutes hundreds of thousands of people poured out on the streets and squares of Istanbul and Ankara and defied the curfew imposed by the rebel group. Protesters sent out messages on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, which greatly helped in mobilising large numbers of people within a short time. Large crowds surged forward, seething with rage and resentment, and surrounded the rebel soldiers on Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge. Some people lay down in front of the tanks of rebel soldiers to halt their movement. Unnerved and intimidated by the huge crowds, the rebels surrendered themselves to the police. Many of them were thrashed by civilians. In less than 24 hours the coup came to an end, thanks to the swift move of President Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the courageous action of Gen. Hulusi Akar and, most importantly, the spontaneous and courageous reaction of the Turkish people. It was undoubtedly a historic and unprecedented event in the history of modern Turkey.

The coup was a desperate attempt by a section of the Turkish army to pre-empt a wave of detentions and demotions of hundreds of army personnel who were suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to topple the elected government that was planned in early August that year.

Immediately after the abortive coup attempt, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim took a series of swift and strong actions against people who were suspected of being complicit in the July 15 putsch. Nearly 1,700 defence personnel, including 149 generals and admirals, more than a third of the total, were detained and 283 members of the palatial guards were suspended. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavsoglu said that more than 300 persons in his ministry had links to Fethullah Gulen, who is widely believed to have masterminded the coup. Of these, 88 were dismissed.

On 20 July 2016 President Erdogan declared an emergency for 3 months. Since then more than 160,000 soldiers, policemen, judges and public prosecutors and civil servants have been detained or suspended or have been placed under investigation. As many as 1043 private schools, 1229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions and 35 medical institutions, which are suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, have been closed down. The government has also ordered the closure of 3 news agencies, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, 29 publishing houses and 16 television channels. The chief executive of Petkim, Turkey’s largest petrochemicals company, has resigned and has subsequently been detained in connection with the conspiracy to topple the government.

All political parties in the country, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), unequivocally condemned the coup and have expressed support and solidarity with the government in dealing with this unprecedented crisis.

On 28 July, Turkey’s Supreme Military Council, chaired by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, approved a proposal that Turkey’s armed forces and the national intelligence agency would be brought under the control of the presidency. He added that this would require a constitutional amendment, for which the ruling A. K. party would have to seek the support of the major political parties in Parliament.

Fethullah Gulen

Fathullah Gulen was born in 1941 in the village of Korucuk, near Erzurum, in Anatolia. He received his early education from his father Ramiz Gulen, who was an imam at a local mosque. He later studied at a madrasa in Erzurum. At the age of 20 he left his village to teach in a mosque at Edirne, and later joined the Kestanepazari Quran School at Izmir as a teacher, where he drew a fairly large number of students, teachers, professionals and businessmen to his fold. He travelled to various parts of Anatolia to give lectures and discourses in mosques and public meeting places. After the 1971 military coup, Gulen was arrested for clandestinely promoting religious activities, deemed illegal by the authorities, and was imprisoned for seven months. In 1999 Gulen migrated to the United States for medical treatment. While he was in the US, he was charged with plotting to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. The trial, in absentia, dragged on for many years, but he was finally acquitted of all charges in 2008. Since 1999 Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in a highly secured sprawling estate in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

The Gulen movement, known as Hizmet (service) has hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey and in the Turkish diaspora in various parts of the world. His followers include wealthy and influential people who have founded newspapers, hospitals, insurance companies, schools and universities in more than 100 countries around the world. The Gulen movement controls the widely-read Zaman newspaper (closed down by the government), the private Bank Asya, Samanyolu TV and many media and business organisations, including the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON). In 1999 Gulen urged his followers to infiltrate public institutions, including the military, judiciary, civil services, charities and universities.

The Gulen movement closely resembles a cult. Said Alpsoy, a researcher and long-time follower of Gulen, has narrated an interesting incident, which throws light on the deep, almost blind, reverence in which Gulen is held by his followers. “When Gulen was eating an orange, he threw the peel on the ground. I watched as one of his doctors grabbed the peel and ate it. I realised from the body language that this was a routine practice. The soles of his old shoes would even be boiled and eaten by his followers.”

Gulen’s followers have often been involved in political intrigue and fabrication of evidence. President Erdogan has accused Gulen of building a deep state within the Turkish state, a “parallel structure” in the judiciary, military, education system and media. Some of the soldiers who participated in the 15 July 2016 coup were deceived into believing that they were taking part in a military exercise. Many of the officers who have been detained are connected to the Gulen movement. Nearly two-thirds of Turks believe that the failed coup was masterminded by Gulen.

Growing Tentacles of Terrorism

In the past few years, terrorist attacks, launched by Kurdish militants and IS fighters, have undermined Turkey’s social fabric, political stability and the economy. There were at least 30 terrorist attacks in the past two years, in which more than 500 people, mostly civilians, were killed and thousands of others injured. The following provides a brief sketch of the range of terrorist attacks across the country in 2015-17.


Diyarbakir: 4 dead, 400 injured
Suruc: 33 dead, 104 injured
Ankara: 103 dead, 400 injured


Ankara: 29 killed, 60 injured
Ankara: 37 killed, 125 injured
Durumlu: 16 killed, 23 injured
Istanbul: 45 killed, 230 injured
Gaziantep: 57 killed, 66 injured
Semdinli: 18 killed, 27 injured
Istanbul: 46 killed, 166 injured


Istanbul: 39 killed, 70 injured

Turkey’s participation in the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State and the military campaign against Kurdish separatists has involved a huge financial burden on the state.

Syrian Refugees

Three million Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2012. This has put an enormous strain on Turkey’s resources.

Political Instability

During the past 95 years, since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, there have been 65 governments. In normal circumstances, there should have been about 20. Political instability produces, and feeds on, unstable coalition governments, which paves the way for military interventions. Following the 2015 elections, the A. K. Party was short of 20 seats for a majority, which led to extreme disagreements between Turkey’s major political parties.

A Fractured Mandate

The campaign surrounding the referendum was undoubtedly fraught with contestation and controversy. It cannot be denied that Mr Erdogan won the referendum by an extremely narrow margin. The result points to a polarised and divided electorate, which betrays a growing sense of disillusionment with the current state of affairs. A critical, balanced and nuanced analysis of the result of the referendum will probably take some time to emerge. Meanwhile, one can tentatively pinpoint certain intervening factors that could offer some explanation for the fractured mandate.

The outcome of the referendum makes it abundantly clear that there is a deep divide and fragmentation in Turkish society. As far as ideological and political affiliations are concerned, Turkish society seems to be divided into three distinct segments: supporters of Ataurk’s project of ultra-secular modernity; followers of Gulen, who dream of turning Turkey into an Islamic state; moderates, represented and led by Erdogan and other leaders of the A. K. P., who eschew the extremism of both Kemalism and Gulenism, seek the transformation of Turkish state and society through the democratic process and respect the cultural and religious sensibilities and aspirations of the Turkish people. A large chunk of the No vote came from the first two segments.

Since 2009, terrorist attacks by Kurdish and IS militants have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity across the country and have had adverse consequences for the economy. The Turkish lira has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar since the mid-2016. Tourism accounts for about 10% of Turkey’s revenues. In 2014 Turkey was the world’s sixth most-visited country, with 42 million tourists. The number dropped to 2.5 million in 2016. Many Western tourists stayed away due to security fears. In Istanbul’s iconic Grand Bazaar as well as in other shopping centres and malls around the country, sales have dropped and profits have fallen. Unemployment is now as high as 12%.

The massive purges carried out by the government in the wake of the failed coup of July 2016 have engendered an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension. More than 160,000 people, including police and army officers, judges and prosecutors, pilots, teachers and businessmen, who are suspected of being affiliated to the Gulen movement, have been detained, dismissed or suspended. A quarter of all judges and prosecutors have been sacked or arrested. More than 2,500 of them are in jail. Understandably, the families of all those who bore the brunt of the purges voted against the amendments.

Erdogan’s Unfolding Legacy

Mr Erdogan has dominated Turkey’s political and societal landscape for a decade and a half and has played a central role in ushering in some highly significant political, constitutional and social changes. It is therefore appropriate to have a brief look at his achievements.

Economic Growth and Development

Mr Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party have played a central role in the economic transformation of Turkey during the past decade. According to data from the World Bank, the average person’s income has risen from $3,800 in 2003 to around $10,000 today. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and the percentage of people living below the poverty line fell from 23% in 2003 to less than 2% in 2017. Economic growth soared to over 10% in 2011 and Turkey became known as the New Tiger, the fastest-growing economy in the G20 group of nations. Reuters has commented that since 2003, when Erdogan took over as Prime Minister, Turkey has emerged as one of the fastest-growing industrial powers in both Europe and the Middle East. It is now one of the world’s top ten economies.

The focus of Mr Erdogan’s development strategy has been on improvements in infrastructure and services. Thousands of schools, public hospitals and daycare centres have been built across the country. There has been a marked expansion of roads, highways, bridges and public transport systems. The number of airports has doubled during the past decade. Credit has been made more accessible to the middle class, which helped in raising living standards. Most middle class families now live in apartment houses, often bought with a mortgage, own a car and can afford to take a flight.


Under the 1982 constitution, the chief of the general staff is not subordinate to the minister of defence and the defence budget is not subject to civilian oversight. The A. K. party has argued that the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law should be enforced without any exception and that in a democratic polity the military should be subordinate to the civilian government and its powers as well as the defence budget should be subject to civilian oversight. The party introduced a set of constitutional amendments in 2010 that allowed the generals to be tried in civilian courts. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of voters in a national referendum.

Mr Erdogan and the ruling A. K. party have repeatedly declared that they are firmly committed to the principle of democratic governance. The prerequisites of the principle of democratic governance include the rule of law and equality before the law regardless of status or rank, basic freedoms and civil liberties, democratic accountability for all institutions of state, inclusive citizenship, participation of all sections of society in the process of democratic governance, and equal opportunity for all citizens. The A. K. party is wedded to the belief that the state must protect the democratic freedoms and rights of all of its citizens, including the religious and ethnic minorities, that this should be enshrined in the constitution and that the state must ensure that all institutions – Parliament, government, military, courts, bureaucracy – comply with the constitutional mandate. The state has no business to foster a homogeneous national culture or to impose it on citizens or to interfere in their religious beliefs and traditions.

In 2009 Mr Erdogan announced the launch of the National Unity Project (Milli Birlik ve Kardeslik Projesi). The broad objectives of the project include the deepening of democratic freedoms and human rights, strengthening grassroots participation, decentralization of the state, the creation of an anti-discrimination committee to look into the grievances of ethnic minorities, allowing the teaching of the Kurdish language in universities and renaming of villages and residential areas in accordance with the demands of local residents. A specific objective of the project is to address the Kurdish problem in a framework of negotiations.

It is significant to note that the Yes vote made inroads in the Kurdish southeast, which has borne the brunt of fierce confrontations between Kurdish militants and the Turkish armed forces.

Recognition and Protection of Cultural Rights

The Kemalist elite believed that the prerequisite for the establishment of a modern, forward-looking Turkey was the creation of a homogeneous society and a national culture. The project of construction of a homogeneous Turkish society was carried out through the denial of the ethnic identities of non-Turkish groups, forced assimilation of non-Turkish communities into mainstream Turkish society, discrimination and persecution of non-Turkish groups and their forced migration and deportation. Between 1925 and 1938 more than one million Kurds were forcibly relocated.

The Kemalist ruling elite introduced wide-ranging and sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The education system was overhauled and modern subjects replaced the traditional Islamic subjects. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and it was decreed that calling the faithful to prayer (azan) should be in Turkish, not in Arabic. People were prohibited from going on pilgrimage to Makkah. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were made state employees under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and an attempt was made to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals.

The forcible assimilation of non-Turkish groups (Turkification) was carried out through planned population transfers, prohibition of non-Turkish names and surnames, replacement of non-Turkish names of villages and towns with Turkish names, and the new education system. The Turkish state forcibly transferred non-Turkish ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs and Circassians, to Turkish-speaking areas with a view to weaken their ethnic cohesion and solidarity and to expose them to Turkish cultural and linguistic influences. In 1934 the Turkish National Assembly passed the Ordinance on Surnames that prohibited the use of foreign (non-Turkish) surnames and required all Turkish citizens to adopt Turkish surnames. In 1924 the Turkish National Assembly passed a decree that prohibited the use of the Kurdish language in public and the wearing of the traditional Kurdish dress in the main administrative cities. In 1980, the names of 2842 villages were changed from Kurdish to Turkish. In 1994, Leyla Zana, a newly elected Kurdish member of Parliament, was put on trial and imprisoned for ten years for saying a few words in the Kurdish language during the oath-taking ceremony.

During the heyday of the Kemalist elite, Turkish people living in Anatolia were marginalised, treated as second-class citizens and pejoratively described as “black Turks,” in contrast with the city-based “White” Turkish elite.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, who was inspired by the French model of secularism, considered headscarves an obstacle to progress and enlightenment. In 1981 the Turkish cabinet issued a regulation to the effect that female students and faculty members would not be permitted to wear headscarves on university campuses. Following the regulation, female students and teachers who refused to remove their headscarves were expelled from universities. The ban covered schools, universities, courts, government offices, state hospitals and parliament.

In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a Harvard-educated computer scientist, was elected a member of the Turkish parliament. She was prevented from taking oath because she wore a headscarf. The then prime minster, Bulent Ecevit, accused her of violating the tenet of secularism and the Turkish president Suleyman Demirel called her an agent provocateur. She was stripped of her Turkish citizenship and her seat in Parliament. In 2007 Kavakci won the legal case when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that her expulsion from Parliament constituted a violation of human rights. In 2008 Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife was not allowed to visit a friend in a military hospital because she was wearing the headscarf.

In 2010 Turkey’s governing A. K. party successfully moved an amendment to the constitution to lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities. The ban on the wearing of headscarves in state offices and for civil servants and lawmakers was revoked on October 8, 2013. Following the lifting of the ban, four female MPs of the A. K. party attended parliament in headscarves. The ban on headscarves in state schools was lifted in September 2014. The A. K. party’s move to lift the ban on headscarves in schools, universities and state offices has been supported by a large majority of people.

The Kemalist ideology drove a wedge between the Westernised elite, including the educated middle class, the army and the courts, and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights. The monolithic, centralized state suppressed the multiple identities of the Turkish people. However, these identities refused to go away. Despite the Kemalist elite’s relentless pursuit of secularism and Western-style modernity, a large majority of Turks continued to cherish Islamic values and traditions and Islam remained a core component of their personal and collective identities. Notwithstanding the Kemalist regime’s tirade against the wearing of the headscarf, more than three-fourths of Turkish women cover their heads, and the number of headscarved women is growing even in the metropolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Erdogan’s working class background and his childhood in Istanbul’s poor neighbourhood gave him a first-hand and intimate knowledge and understanding of ordinary people’s lives and their religious and cultural sensibilities.


Following the establishment of Turkey as a secular, republican state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first president of the Turkish Republic, sought to make a radical break with the Islamic and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire by launching a sweeping project which came to be known as Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism rested on six core principles, which constituted the official creed of the Turkish state and were written into the constitution: Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. Ataturk abolished the caliphate and declared Turkey a secular republic. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state, at the expense of local governments, NGOs, people’s rights and religious and ethnic minorities. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology.

The influence of the Kemalist ideology, which sought to impose a top-down model of Western modernity and secularization on the Turkish people, remained confined to the urban elite. The ideology had a calamitous and insidious effect on Turkish polity, economy, society and religious and cultural ethos. Under its influence, the state acquired absolute and tyrannical powers. Laicism or secularism became an official instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised ruling elite, including the army and the courts, and the masses.

The Kemalist model of secularism, which was essentially derived from the French idea of laicite, was used as an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion by the state and the removal of religious symbols from the public domain. This elitist and totalitarian model of secularism caused a great deal of resentment and anger among a large majority of Turks. Mr Erdogan and the ruling A. K. party have sought to redefine and adapt the principle of secularism in the context of changing circumstances and the traditions and aspirations of the Turkish people. According to Erdogan, who is a practicing Muslim, there is no inherent or necessary contradiction between secularism as a matter of state policy and religion, which is matter of democratic freedom and which is protected by the constitution and the state. He has said, “Only states can be secular, not individuals.” During his visit to Egypt in September 2011, Erdogan described himself as a Muslim prime minister of a secular state. He called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, emphasizing that secularism did not mean renouncing religion. Drawing a distinction between secularism as a personal ideology and as state policy, he added, “As Recep Tayyip Erdogan I am a Muslim, not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular state. Turkey defines secularism as the principle that the state is equidistant from all religions. Secularism is not atheism.”

Erdogan’s reconceptualisation of the principle of secularism in the context of Turkey provides a much-needed corrective to the contested discourse on secularism, which mirrors two extreme views: an omnibus, totalitarian model (represented by the French laicite and the Turkish laiklik), and a flexible, accommodative perspective (as reflected in the views of Erdogan and Rachid Ghannouchi). There need not be a universal, omnibus model of secularism. Rather, there can be “multiple secularisms,” which reflect the political, social and cultural contexts and specificities of different nations. In other words, the metanarrative of a universal model of secularism needs to be replaced by a context-specific and pluralistic vision of secularism.


A salient feature of the referendum that envisaged a transition from the existing parliamentary system to a presidential system is that it was carried out through a democratic process. The proposal for constitutional amendments was placed by the A. K. P.-led government before the Parliament for discussion and ratification. Following the Parliament’s approval, the proposal was put up for referendum, which was conducted in a free, fair and peaceful manner and in which an overwhelming majority of people (85%), representing all sections of society, participated.

Since 2002, when Mr Erdogan took over as prime minister, the ruling A. K. party has continuously retained its hold on government through the democratic process: regular, unrigged elections, compliance with parliamentary procedures and referendums. During the past 15 years, the A. K. P.-led government has successfully introduced, in a democratic framework, wide-ranging and fundamental changes and reforms, including amendments to the constitution, restructuring of military-civilian relations and protection of the cultural rights of the Turkish people. This marks a highly significant departure from the conduct of previous ruling dispensations. Unfortunately, this crucial point about the referendum has been overlooked by Western commentators.

All over the world, there is a universal disdain for autocratic regimes, military dictatorships and unrepresentative and repressive monarchies. In Turkey, the 1982 constitution placed the military in an extraordinarily privileged position and made it impervious to civilian oversight. This constitutional loophole made democratically elected governments vulnerable to military intervention and takeover on the flimsiest of pretexts. The military, supported by the judiciary, thus became a stumbling block in the democratization process. During the past 15 years Mr Erdogan’s government has sought to rectify this anomaly by bringing the armed forces under civilian oversight and control.

The proposed amendments, which have been ratified in the April 16 referendum, will strengthen the democratization process and substantially reduce, if not altogether eliminate, the prospects of military intervention in political and civilian affairs.

The existing constitution proclaims Turkey as a secular democratic republic. The basic structure of the Turkish constitution is set out in terms of a set of foundational principles, including the republican form of government, secularism, social equality, equality before the law, fundamental rights and duties, and an independent judiciary. These foundational principles have been untouched in the proposed amendments.

With its unwavering dedication to democracy, its forward-looking economic policies and its commitment to the protection of the Turkish people’s cultural and religious identities, rights and sensibilities, Turkey has emerged as a beacon of light and hope for Muslim nations around the world.

While the response of most Western governments to the outcome of the referendum has at best been guarded and lukewarm, the reaction of Western media has been altogether negative and one-sided. Unfortunately, Western media have focussed, before and after the referendum, on the personality of Mr Erdogan and have harboured the assumption that the referendum will further strengthen his position as an authoritarian figure with vast powers but without any checks and balances. No one seems to have bothered to read the text of the proposed amendments carefully or to seriously examine the political and social context and rationale of the referendum.

Most Western commentators have expressed the fear that the proposed amendments will give Mr Erdogan total control over the judiciary. This fear is absolutely baseless. According to the new constitution, the president will have the authority to appoint only four members (out of 13) to the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, Turkey’s highest legal body. The rest of the members will be appointed by the Parliament. The critics overlook the fact that the same provision exists in the 1982 constitution. It is true that executive power will now be transferred from the office of the prime minister to that of the president and that the latter has been vested with wide-ranging powers. However, what is particularly note-worthy is that the real political, executive and legislative power will now rest with the Parliament and the Constitutional Court. It is true that the president will now have the authority to issue laws by decree. But presidential decrees will be subject to oversight by the Parliament and the Constitutional Court. In the event of a conflict between a presidential decree and existing laws, the Parliament will have the authority to enact a law on the same subject, which will render the presidential decree null and void.

Under the existing constitution, no appeal can be made to any judicial authority, including the Constitutional Court, against the decisions and orders signed by the president on his own initiative. The amendments stipulate that the Parliament will have the power to initiate an investigation if the president is found to be prima facie guilty of an offence or irregularity or constitutional impropriety. The Parliament can then decide to refer the matter to the Constitutional Court for prosecution of the president, provided the motion is approved by at least two-thirds of MPs.

In the Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, Kenneth Roth wrote that Western governments could not credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they rejected electoral results when an Islamic party does well. The report called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect human rights. “So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their religious or political complexion,” the report said.

The contestation surrounding the referendum and its fractured outcome and the extremely narrow margin of victory for Mr Erdogan point to deep divisions in Turkish society. Now that a historic decision about the future of the Turkish republic has been taken, Mr Erdogan and his senior colleagues need to pay serious attention to the fragmentation of Turkish society and think of ways and means to heal the fracture. This requires a spirit of magnanimity, large-heartedness, compassion and humility as well as reconciliation and dialogue with all the stake holders.

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