PM Erdoğan caused a stir the other day by giving two speeches in which he called for “one state, one flag, one religion,” which is of course a phrase that does not give comfort to Turkey’s different groups of religious minorities. Hüseyn Çelik and Erdoğan himself both chalked it up as a slip of the tongue, and Erdoğan even called the criticism of him following the remark justified and urged people not to read anything into it, but it is curious that he said it on two separate occasions before two separate audiences. The opposition is going to try to leverage Erdoğan’s comments to raise concerns about his intentions, and the optic of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu meeting with the heads of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious communities yesterday is bound to keep the story alive for a little longer.
I think it likely that it was a mistake and that a big deal should not be made of it, but it does raise the question of how the new constitution is going to deal with religious minorities in Turkey. It is one of the thornier issues that faces the commission charged with drafting the document, although it is also ironically in some ways one of the least pressing given Turkey’s enormous Muslim majority. The original Turkish constitution made no mention of religious minorities at all in an effort to create a new Turkish identity that would subsume all else, and while the AKP has fought for Muslim majority rights when it comes to things like headscarves, it has a more mixed record on religious minority property rights. Erdoğan’s blatant attempt to diminish Kılıçdaroğlu during the last election campaign by constantly bringing up his status as an Alevi was also not an encouraging sign.
There are three basic possibilities. The new constitution might skirt the issue of religion entirely, it might specifically guarantee religious minority rights, or it might enshrine Islam as the sole official religion of Turkey. Certainly Erdoğan’s comments increase fears that this last option is being considered, but I think it to be highly unlikely. The second option has its pitfalls as well though since it touches upon the issue of enumerated rights vs. unenumerated rights; in other words, can we assume that if a specific right is left out that it was done so on purpose and therefore is not meant to exist, or do we assume that any list of rights provided for in the constitution is not an exhaustive list? If rights are specifically provided for, does that mean that only those rights exist and no others? U.S. constitutional law has run into this problem since ratification, and it might be even thornier in Turkey given that Turkish official recognition of only three minority religions – Greek Orthodoxy, Armenian Apostolic Christianity, and Judaism – has historically led to real problems for Alevis, Shia, and others. Whatever ends up happening, it bears close watching even though it does not have the potential to lead to a complete breakdown of the constitutional process like the issues of a presidential vs. parliamentary system or Turkish identity.
Just a correction; Erdogan said “one religion” once. Other controversy was about Turkish Armed Force’s backlash against a journalist and Erdogan’s speedy defence of the army’s position.
Unfortunately it was neither a slip of tongue nor an honest mistake. Erdogan knew what he said. I watched his speech several times and there is no doubt that he meant what he said. But eventually he had to step back. Erdogan is known for his emotion-driven speeches which he denies after while because of the responses. ‘One religion’ comment is deeper and has to be discussed with regard to his previous statements on ‘one language’. Erdogan’s inconsistency may not be an issue for domestic audiences, however, it would eventually lead international trust in his administration to fade away. The new constitution process is a great opportunity yet it is a missed opportunity. Practical adherence to liberal democratic values and human rights would be romaticism if not a fool’s hope. 2010 constitutional amendments as well as the ongoing trial processes against opposing voices exemplify the real intentions of the Turkish government, not to mention his stance against Israel. Erdogan is unfortunately not very different than the rest of the leaders in his region: powerful and autocratic.
What leads me to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case is his response afterward to the criticism, which was unusual both in its acknowledgment that he was wrong and deserved criticism. I also think that the “one religion” statement is a separate issue from the “one language” that he has said in the past.