Time to stop engineering religion

Democrats and reformists from all camps in this country may have been united in expecting a fully democratic constitution for Turkey, but each and every one has his/her own focal point and red line about it.
While legitimate concerns are constantly being raised on the issue of whether Turkey will be ruled by a fully empowered president (with or without a prime minister), it does not rank among my top questions. A majority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s critics, mostly from the political opposition, may pump the idea that it is “to be or not to be” for him, but I am not at all sure.Given that the new draft enhances the presidential powers a little more and his successor for the role of prime minister and chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will promise not to let him down — like Mesut Yılmaz and Tansu Çiller promised Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel in the bad old days — Erdoğan may have calculated discreetly that he may very well rule the country with more authority than he has had so far. The stakes in the current Constitution are already quite open enough for extensive use and abuse of power.

I am therefore not surprised to hear Bekir Bozdağ, the deputy prime minister, say that “we will not let our proposal for a presidential system block a new constitution.”

The new presidential model is Erdoğan’s bargaining chip for all the four parties to reach a consensus. His sudden visit to Cemil Çiçek, parliament speaker and chairman of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, gives some hints on how he sees the tight timetable. He reportedly told Çiçek that the “pace must be forced,” and extending the deadline for the commission until the end of April should be “fine” as long as all the four parties present their rough drafts by the end of the current deadline, namely the end of March.

Erdoğan wants to see the contents of the oppositions’ drafts. He may also use the drafts as elements of his propaganda to the crowds, to “complain” about their unwillingness and failure. Meanwhile, he hopes that any progress on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) negotiation process will keep the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) close to the AKP for passing a vote to take a draft to a referendum.

It means that Erdoğan will press on the gas pedal from May till the end of June before Parliament adjourns. It all signals a referendum in autumn. If so, the three parties in opposition will have to shake themselves to life in the coming weeks.

According to a poll conducted in 25 provinces by Varyans, the stakes seem ideal for a vote. Approximately 78.3 percent want a new constitution and 75.7 percent want a referendum. Those who do not desire to see references to any ideology and any ethnicity are around 75 percent. Most importantly, those who want the state to maintain an equal distance to religion, sect, language, class, gender, etc. are above 83 percent.

The last finding overlaps with my deepest concern, my red line, in a draft in a positive sense. Mine has to do with how the AKP will deal with the status of the Religious Affairs Directorate, which at the moment is the most powerful — and seemingly untouchable — instrument of republican tutelage, as defined by the pro-state establishment.

It is no wonder that the commission the other day ended up in full dissent on that chapter. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) demanded that the directorate be reformed to include all “religions and sects,” the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) wanted to keep it exactly as it is and the BDP asked for its abolishment altogether, arguing that the “state and religion should not interfere with each another.”

The AKP joined the MHP, saying that the Lausanne Treaty prevents other religions from being represented in the directorate and that Alevis are not a sect at all.

The stalemate is deeply alarming. The sheer existence of an exclusively Sunni directorate is enough to see that Turkey (with imams salaried by the state and state-issued Friday sermons, etc.) has never been secular. The precondition for a new, secular Turkey lies in either a radical reform of the directorate or its annulment. This will be the real criteria in judging if the constitutional order is democratic or not.

I can already declare that a draft constitution which will keep the Religious Affairs Directorate in its current, tutelary and discriminatory form will never get my yes vote.