Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has vowed that Turkey’s draft constitution would guarantee secularism, after calls for a religious charter sparked controversy in the predominantly Muslim country.
“Secularism will feature in the new constitution we draft as a principle that guarantees citizens’ freedom of religion and faith and that ensures the state is at an equal distance from all faith groups,” Davutoglu said in a televised speech.
He said Turkey’s secular and democratic character was “not up for debate” under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002.
Parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman said on Monday that the country “must have a religious constitution”, further reinforcing concerns that the AKP government was seeking to Islamise the traditionally secular country.
The call led to protests on Tuesday in major cities where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators in Ankara and Istanbul.
Kahraman’s comments also drew fire from opposition parties, prompting the speaker to release a statement saying that he had been expressing his own opinion, not that of the AKP of which he is a member.
The separation of religion from state affairs is one of the fault lines in Turkish society.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, based the post-Ottoman republic on a strict separation between religion and state.
Opponents have voiced concerns over a rapid Islamisation of society after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, won the presidency in August 2014 following over a decade as prime minister which saw a greater emphasis placed on religion in Turkish life.
Cigdem Toker, columnist for the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, suggested that the parliament speaker’s appeal was a “declaration of intention” regardless of the government’s attempts to distance itself from his comments.
“It is a new threshold in the process of regulating all basic rights and freedoms from the education system to working life on the basis of religion,” she wrote.
Selin Sayek Boke, spokesman for the main opposition pro-secular CHP party, slammed Kahraman’s “defiant” comments, urging him to quit.
“To us secularism is a red line and a cause that we’ll defend until one single CHP member remains alive,” she said. “Parliament speaker must urgently resign.”
Erdogan said during a visit to Zagreb on Tuesday that the state was at an equal distance between all religion groups and all beliefs.
Over the past few years, the AKP government has lifted a long-standing ban on women and girl wearing religious headscarf in schools and the civil service as part of a democratic reform package.
It has also limited alcohol sales and made efforts to ban mixed-sex dorms at state universities.
Davutoglu said yesterday that the new charter would refer to a “pro-freedoms secularism instead of an authoritarian one”.
“I am of the opinion that the discussion is over, from our perspective,” he said.
Since coming to power, the AKP has prioritised efforts to change Turkey’s 1982 constitution, drafted by the military junta which took power after a 1980 coup.
But it has barely made progress over disagreements with opposition parties who opposed Erdogan’s aspiration for sweeping executive powers in the basic law.
Abdulkadir Selvi, pro-government columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper, wrote that the government had refrained from any discussion over a “religious constitution” but was debating whether to make a “reference to Islamic religion and faith in Allah given 99% of Turkey is Muslim”.
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