Cultural Revolution as Nation-Building: The Turkish constitutional crisis

By Asli Bali
Submitted to Session P2573 (Perspectives on Nationalism : Turks, Arabs & Kurds, 2010 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Turkey's constitutional court ruled in June 2008 that the constitution could not be amended to allow women to attend universities wearing headscarves. The amendment passed by the Turkish parliament in February was held to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated Turkish constitutional principles of secularism. The ruling was widely seen as a political decision by the court to curtail efforts by the executive and legislative branches to liberalize Turkey's constitutional order. Moreover, the ruling was delivered as the court also considered a legal bid to close the governing Justice and Development party (AKP) - and ban the prime minister and seventy other members of the party from politics - a move viewed by some in Turkey as a "judicial coup." The challenge to the AKP was based on allegations that it was engaged in "anti-secular activities." In the event, the court narrowly avoided closing the party, but the attempted party closure coupled with the court's ruling in the headscarf case sent a chilling message to those who would seek to liberalize Turkey's Kemalist conception of secularism.

This paper will argue that the headscarf case and the AKP closure case are recent examples of pathologies that have marked the Turkish republic's constitutional order since its founding. Secularization and Turkification were wrenching social engineering projects that left the emergent nation with deep cleavages that have yet to heal. Minorities that posed a challenge to the state's preferred notion of national identity were seen as a threat - like the Palestinians in Israel today, or the Jews of Europe in the past, the Kurds were transformed into an unassimilated "question" through the crucible of nation-building. Similarly, those who resisted the secularization strategy of subordinating church to state were deemed a lasting internal threat to the republic's national project.

This paper will provide an overview of the Kemalist cultural revolution of the 1920s and 1930s to provide the historical context of Turkey's latter-day constitutional crisis. This overview contributes toward a broader argument concerning the dangers of the deployment of culture by the state in the service of national identity formation. The paper will conclude with my argument that liberalization requires a new approach to national identity. Such an approach entails an inclusive definition of citizenship that does not dictate the erasure of difference and creates room for competing conceptions of secularism in the public sphere.