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New Turkey’s Agenda 2023: The End of the Republic and the Return of Sharia Law


Dr. Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Though the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) and his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) have been ruling Turkey in the 21st century, the memories of Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] (1881-1938), his so-called Kemalist ideology and his followers (the proverbial Kemalists) still manage to linger on.

In this connection, some time ago, a very momentous anniversary took place in Turkey – on 28 February, to be precise. Back in 1997, a so-called ‘post-modern’ coup took place on that date, known as the ’28 February process’ (a final futile attempt to revive the Kemalist ideology) that has left deep and long-lasting marks in the fabric of Turkish society: “After the meeting of the National Security Council, the Turkish army forced a government that came to power legally and democratically to resign because of its pro-Islamist and anti-democratic” tendencies. Basically, the Turkish Army, as the self-proclaimed ‘Guardian of Turkish Secularism’ put a stop to the political life of Necmetttin Erbakan (1926-2011) and his latest vehicle, the Refah Partisi (somewhat erroneously translated as the Welfare Party). And, at the time, a popular saying was doing the rounds about this ’28 February process,’ indicating that “[i]t effects will last for a thousand years, if need be,” which was based on a statement made by General Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu.

As the “Islamist-rooted AKP, in power since 2002, emerged from the Welfare Party,” worded by the BBC, this anniversary seems particularly poignant and even significant today . . . at the threshold of the centenary of the Turkish Republic’s foundation in two years’ time.

The political scientist Dr Özgür Gökmen has even termed the ’28 February process’ an attempted “restoration of Westernization,” as the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) tried to revive Kemalist principles as the political lifeblood of the land, liberally wielding the term ‘irtica‘ in the process. This originally Arabic term used to denote religious reaction or simply Islamic fundamentalism in a Turkish context, but nearly a quarter century later the word has all but disappeared from the Turkish vocabulary. A circumstance that can only be explained by the fact that the country has been led by the blatantly Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) and his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) into an openly post-Kemalist era where Islam has once again entered the political process and Turkish society as a whole has been slowly but surely weaned off supposedly secularist or merely lenient habits and attitudes – for as I argued as long ago as 2011, in a Turkish context, ‘Secularism’ basically meant unhampered access to “beer and bikinis,” as a shorthand for a permissive interpretation of Islamic strictures and prohibitions regulating society and social life as a whole.

Agenda 2023: A New Constitution for a New Turkey

I have been arguing for nearly a decade now that the AKP “government’s long-term goal (as arguably expressed in the AKP’s policy statement Hedef 2023) is to transform the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate” and a possible imposition of Sharia Law. For in the Republic of Turkey (established in 1923 following the signature of the Treaty of Lausanne), the nation’s founding father Mustafa Kemal and the Ankara government abolished Sharia law in 1926, to replace the Islamic legal codex regulating human actions and social relations with the so-called Kanun-ı Medini, itself a copy of the Swiss Code civil.

Nearly a decade ago, Tayyip Erdoğan’s “[then-]oft-repeated reference point [wa]s the first assembly of what was to become Turkey’s parliament on 23 April, 1920 [, predating the foundation of the Republic] . . . The first assembly consisted of representatives of Anatolia’s Muslim population, the then-Kemalist constituency, who had pledged allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph, Mehmed VI.” Last month then, Erdoğan  talked about the need for a new constitution, a new constitution that takes the pre-republican 1921 constitution (Teşkilat-ı Esasiye Kanunu) as its “reference point.” As voiced by the independent news outlet Ahval, “Turkey’s governing party is planning to hold referendums on a revamp of the constitution.” A constitutional referedum that could very well become a Turkish version of the Pakistani referendum held on 19 December 1984, and that presented the population of Pakistan with the following question: “Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).” Arguably, the wording of Turkey’s upcoming referendum won’t be this open-and-shut, but there is little doubt that a new Turkish Constitution would usher in an era of revived Islamic awareness that would culminate in a possible renewed implementation of Sharia Law, as seems vividly illustrated in many public displays clamouring for a revived Caliphate and reinstituted Sharia during last year’s restoration of the Aya Sofya Mosque in İstanbul. A few months later, on 9 December 2020 to be precise, the AKP lawmaker Cengiz Aydoğdu, while addressing deputies on the budget of the Council of State, made this telling statement:

The regulation of a person’s basic rights and freedoms was never left to the hands of the state in our history. Instead, society did it itself. Sharia is above everything, which means that the law is above everything. We are afraid of the word ‘sharia,’ but it shouldn’t be the case. Sharia is our law, our general law and customary law is included in that.

This shows that some, if not all, AKP politicians appear ready to embrace the return Sharia Law in the New Turkey. In fact, already in December 2019, the constitutional law professor Kemal Gözler has written that there are “[t]hose who think that it is necessary for the modern legal system in Turkey to be replaced by Islamic law.” Gözler’s article “The Value of Islamic Law” (‘İSLÂM HUKUKUNUN DEĞERİ’) gives some salient numbers: enrollment of students at faculties of theology has increased fivefold in the period from 2010 to 2019, going from 6,252 to 33,202. While the overall number of theology faculties has also risen from 24 to 92 while the number of faculty members rose from 1,120 to 4,121 in the same nine-year period. Gözler states that at the moment a grand total of 407 individual Turkish   academics are working at Islamic law and Fiqh (Fıkıh or Islamic jurisprudence)  departments in nationwide theology faculties. Dr Kemal Gözler has thus written a clear warning that dangeous groundwork is now being carried out behind the scenes far removed from the glare of public scrutiny.

Last month, the prominent AKP member Cahit Özkan supported his leader in calling for a new constitution, saying that “our intention with this renewed foundational constitution is a demand for the preparation of a new constitution with a broad participation, [a new constitution] that is endowed with a progressive spirit taking account of the knowledge of the past and that would renew our material and spiritual values that  holding us together.” In response, the investigative journalist Mehmet Faraç recently argued that the “real target” of this constitutional enterprise would seem to be the principle of secularism (or as he put it, “laiklik” or laicism), which he sees as the glue “holding 83 milllion together.” Faraç’s piece is significantly headlined as ‘Will First Laicism and then the Republic be Destroyed?’

Identity Politics and Islam: A Policy of Sunnification

The “material and spiritual values” alluded to by Cahit Özkan are but a not-so veiled way of saying Islam and Muslim beliefs and habits. Looking back at early 20th-century Anatolia, the population was indeed made up of a great variety of ethnic groups whose main common traits had been their Sunni Muslim identity, as I explained in 2008:

[T]he [current] makeup Turkey’s population is the result of Ottoman government policies carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These policies were aimed at transforming Anatolia (the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic’s geo-body) into a Muslim homeland where refugees from the Russian Empire and the Balkans were settled. In the early 20th century, Anatolia was thus home to ethnically heterogeneous Muslim groups: in addition to a large majority of Turkish Muslims, there were Kurds, Arabs, Lazes, Muslim Georgians, Greek-speaking Muslims, Albanians, Macedonian Muslims, Pomaks, Serbian Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Tatars, Circassians, Abkhazians and Dagestanis among others [and these] diverse ethnic groups in Anatolia were united by their common identity as Muslims and their allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate.

The subsequent successful War-of-Independence (1919-22) and formation of the Republic of Turkey (1923) by Mustafa Kemal and his followers led to a form of social engineering (knows as Turkification) that transformed the Anatolian Muslims into Anatolian Turks –  “the idea of the Anatolian population as a Turkish entity was first proposed as early as 1922, the year prior to the official proclamation of the republic. And in 1924, the first Turkish constitution proclaimed that the ‘name Turk, as a political term, shall be understood to include all citizens of the Turkish Republic, without distinction of, or reference to, race or religion’,” as I have argued in 2013. In fact, the Kemalist stress on “Anatolia as the homeland of the Turks,” led the Kemalist intelligentsia and educational establishment to present the “pre-Islamic ancient civilisations of Anatolia . . . as the primordial Turks,” as summarized by Marc Sinan Winrow. As a result, liberal as well as Islamist critics of Atatürk’s reforms had long been arguing that Kemalism suppresses ethnic diversity, turning the multi-ethnic mosaic that is Anatolia into a supposedly mono-ethnic Turkish state and homeland.

In the late 20th century, an awareness of the Turkish population’s ethnic diversity became current again as a result of the originally American concept of identity politics. In the early 21st century, “the concept of identity politics is ubiquitous.” These days, “everything is about race,” or ethnic identity. In Turkey, an Islamist politician like Tayyip Erdoğan has craftily exploited this sudden blooming of ethnic awareness in the land. As long ago as 2005, when he was Turkey’s Prime Minister, Erdoğan first launched his verbal assault on the Kemalist policy of Turkification. Addressing a crowd in the eastern city of Şemdinli, he said that “[a] Turk will say I am a Turk, a Kurd, I am a Kurd, a Laz, I am a Laz, a Bosnian, I am a Bosnian. But the upper identity that unites us all is [our] citizenship of the Republic of Turkey.” At the time, the then-leader of the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party, founded on 9 September 1923 by Mustafa Kemal himself) Deniz Baykal vehemently objected, saying that the expression the “Turkish people” cannot be replaced by the phrase “citizen of the Turkish Republic.” Alas, Tayyip Erdoğan’s words had released the genie out of the bottle and there could be no turning back now. Eleven years later, the American journalist Sabrina Tavernise wrote in the New York Times that Erdoğan was then  busy “sculpting” a “new Turkish identity.” His words had given rise to a new concept, to the idea that a Turkish citizen possessed a lower (ethnic) identity and an upper (civic) identity as a Turkish citizen or Turk. The unspoken message was that the religion of Sunni Islam provided the common ground uniting various Anatolian ethnic groups under the banner of Turkey, which has now become the banner of the New Turkey founded by the new Atatürk that is none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The New Turkey: Anatolian Federation of Muslim Ethnicities

In May 2015, the now-Prez went to “the south-eastern city of Şanlıurfa, a place with a mixed population consisting primarily of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. Addressing his audience directly, Erdoğan expressed the wish that ‘[o]ur Lord would make our unity, our togetherness last forever.’ This sentence appears very significant indeed. [In early 2016], while addressing a meeting of municipal headman (known as muhtar, in Turkish) in the capital Ankara, he elaborated on the phrase, ‘[m]ay our Lord make our unity, our togetherness last forever. What are we saying then? We will be one, [we] will be strong, we will be brothers, all together we will be Turkey’.” In the space of ten years, the AKP leadership had succeeded in re-defining the concept of Turkish unity (or Turkish citizenship, if you will) as a God-given quality, as a state of unity and togetherness that is grounded in a common faith, grounded in Sunni Islam. For, as verbalized by the well-respected Atatürk biographer Andrew Mango (1926-2014) in 1999, Islamist and other critics of Mustafa Kemal’s experiment have always thought that the Kemalist “policy of secularism divided Turkish society and severed the link between the rulers and the ruled.“ That a secularist (and arguably irreligious) elite ruled a pious people beholden to the tenets of the Prophet and adhering to the strictures of Sunni Islam. Now, in the 21st century, the Prez and his AKP henchmen have initiated a process stressing that the political class in Ankara is not different from the regular citizenry living in each and every corner of Turkey, that the rulers and the ruled of Turkey are equally united in their pious dedication to Sunni Islam. Arguably, this process will come to completion with a new constitution, a legal document that will once and for all banish the memories of Atatürk’s legacy and Turkish Secularism to the dustbin of history.

A few days ago, Erdoğan has publicly said that “[f]or years, the CHP [denoting not just the opposition party but really encompassing each and every politician and/or individual in the mould of Atatürk] has abused some of our citizens by using principles such as Atatürkism and modernity,” indicating that the Kemalist consensus of old has all but turned Turkey’s pious masses into second-class citizens. Talking directly about the Kemalist elite of yesteryear, the Prez then said: “They have no place in Turkey’s future.”

In this way, a proposed new Turkish constitution would predicate the New Turkey’s future on Anatolia’s pre-Republican past, undoing the effects of the past policies of Turkification and replacing the latter with a strict policy of Sunnification. The CHP parliamentarian and member of the national assembly’s judicial committee, Rafet Zeybek ominously, yet arguably, quite correctly said that the “aim of the government is not a democratic Turkey, but a theocratic republic based on the principles of religion.”

Back to the Caliphate: Mind over Matter

Will the New Turkey now inexorably move towards becoming an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate and ruled by Sharia Law?!?? Late in 2011, the godfather of Oriental studies Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), who had a special interest in Turkey and who had never hidden his personal admiration for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, made the following bleak pronouncement:

[I]f Turkey is leading the Middle East back to an Ottoman caliphate then I do not think that is a very bright future . . . We are living now in a different world. The Middle East is becoming less and less important. In time, it will become totally unimportant. Let me explain why. The Arab world has absolutely no products other than fossil fuels, I mean, the entire exports of the Arab world other than oil and gas amount less than those of Finland, which has about 5.5 million people. Sooner or later, oil and gas will either be exhausted or superseded. And, when that happens, the Middle East will sink into insignificance.

Dr. Lewis painted a dire picture, but the shift away from the Middle East has been noticeable ever since President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” at the outset of the previous decade, which all but underlined that the 21st century is going to a Chinese century to the detriment of the hydrocarbon-rich Middle East and its American protector. And it seems, a number of Middle Eastern governments have also seen the writing on the wall. As pointed out by Dr Aisha Al-Sarihi, saying that “Gulf countries have begun to shift their attention toward renewables . . . [s]ince the 2014 drop in oil prices;” Adding that “[b]etween 2014 and 2018, the total renewable electricity installed capacity in the Gulf Arab states increased by almost 313 percent” – listing such countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In contrast, the AKP-led New Turkey steadfastly keeps pursuing its hydrocarbon dreams of old, trying to become a regional and even global energy hub. Successive AKP governments have long been paying lip service to renewables but the reality is that Turkish government policy seems solely geared towards fossil fuels and their possible lucrative profits.

At the moment, though, the economic situation in the New Turkey is quite dire, the Global Source Partners‘ country analyst for Turkey, Atilla Yeşilada quite openly speaks about the blatant  economic mismanagement of the country by the AKP government and he does not shy away from laying the blame directly at the feet of none other than the Prez himself. Though his country’s economic woes do trouble Tayyip Erdoğan, and his personal avarice seems quite plain to see, as a pious believer he just wants to inundate “the Lausanne Treaty-agreed upon territories forming the successor nation state to the multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet staunchly Islamic Ottoman State with ‘Pure Water for Thirsty Muslims,’ to use the words of the Ottoman poet and bureaucrat Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali Efendi (1541-1600).” And the upcoming centenary in 2023 seems like an ideal moment and opportunity to do just that, to go ‘back to the future’ . . . and I would like to end here by once again quoting the eminent Dr Lewis’s quite prescient 2011 words: “Turkey has not decided yet. Basically their choice is to go back in the past or go into the future. The Turks themselves will have to decide on that.”

And that’s what the projected referendum will decide . . . eventually.

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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