Turkey needs a new constitution to save its democracy
By Fethullah Gulen
Financial Times – March 10, 2014
A small group in the executive is holding the country to ransom, says Fethullah Gulen
Trust and stability are fundamental to a nation’s development and to how the world perceives it. There is inherent trust in a democratic and accountable government that respects the rule of law. Turkey painstakingly built this trust over the past decade. Until recently it was seen as an example of a country that prospered while maintaining a democratic government run by observant Muslim leaders.
No longer. A small group within the government’s executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country’s progress. The support of a broad segment of the Turkish public is now being squandered, along with the opportunity to join the EU.
Several recent actions of the Turkish government have drawn strong criticism from the EU and other western countries – among them, a law that gives the justice minister powers to appoint and discipline judges and prosecutors; a bill to curb internet freedoms; and a draft law that would give Turkey’s intelligence agency powers akin to those claimed by dictatorial regimes.
After decades of coups and political dysfunction, the ruling AK party’s attempt to end military interference in domestic politics was necessary. Democratic reforms towards that end were praised by the EU and supported by a majority of Turks, as evidenced in the 2010 constitutional referendum.
But the dominance in politics that was once enjoyed by the military now appears to have been replaced by a hegemony of the executive. A dark shadow has been cast over achievements of the past decade – the result of insidious profiling of certain groups of Turkish citizens for their views, constant shuffling of civil servants for political convenience, and an unprecedented subjugation of the media, the judiciary and civil society.
The only way for the Turkish government to restore trust at home and regain respect abroad is by renewing its commitment to universal human rights, the rule of law and accountable governance.
This commitment must include a new, democratic constitution, drafted by civilians. Democracy does not conflict with Islamic principles of governance. Indeed, the ethical goals of Islam, such as protection of life and religious freedom, are best served in a democracy where citizens participate in government.
We also need to embrace certain values that form the fabric of a thriving nation. One such value is respect for diversity of all kinds – religious, cultural, social and political. This does not mean compromising on our beliefs. On the contrary, accepting every person – regardless of colour or creed – as a dignified creature of God demonstrates respect for the free will God has given all human beings.
The reductionist view of seeking political power in the name of a religion contradicts the spirit of Islam
Freedom of thought and expression are indispensable ingredients of democracy. Turkey’s poor showing in rankings of transparency and media freedom is disappointing. Mature people welcome criticism – which, if true, helps us improve. But we should criticise misguided ideas and actions, rather than individuals, to avoid creating unnecessary tensions.
The reductionist view of seeking political power in the name of a religion contradicts the spirit of Islam. When religion and politics are mixed, both suffer – religion most of all. Every segment of Turkish society has a right to be represented in government. But the Turkish state has long discriminated against citizens and public servants on the basis of their views. Democratic inclusion will encourage people to disclose personal beliefs without fear of persecution.
Since the 1970s, participants in the Hizmet movement, who come from all walks of life, have worked to provide equal opportunity for all, through educational institutions, relief organisations and other civil society projects. Their primary motivations are intrinsic, as they seek to find happiness in the happiness of others.
Hizmet participants – and I consider myself one of them – are not political players and have no interest in the privileges of power. This is evident from their personal and financial commitment to humanitarian aid, education and dialogue, as well as their purposeful absence from political office.
Apart from encouraging citizens to vote, I have never endorsed or opposed a political party or candidate, and will refrain from doing so in future. I trust the wisdom of Turkish people and believe they will preserve democracy and hold the interests of the nation above partisan political concerns.
I have spent the past 15 years in spiritual retreat and, irrespective of what happens in Turkey, I intend to continue to do so. I pray that Turkey sees its current troubles as an opportunity to advance democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And I believe that by renewing our commitment to fundamental democratic principles, we can re-establish trust and stability and revive the Turkish example that had become an inspiration for the region and the world
The writer is a Muslim scholar and honorary chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul