Though even the controversial Beijing Olympics couldn’t keep the New York Times from calling summer 2008 one of the most boring in recent memory, the block was hot in Istanbul. In the six weeks I spent in the city, three terrorist attacks killed at least twenty and injured hundreds. By the third and most vicious attack, three days before I was scheduled to leave, I started to feel bad for my parents being woken up frantically in the middle of the night.
The conflict between Turkish political groups often erupts in violence, but this summer seemed different because of the omnipresent court case that was finally decided in my last week in Istanbul. On March 14th, Chief Prosecutor of the Constitutional Court Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya brought charges against the ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP), arguing that it had tried to implement Islamic law in Turkey. The Turkish people take their secularism very seriously. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s most favorite hero, created the Turkish Republic in 1923, he abolished the Muslim Caliphate and established a very rigid form of secularism for the republic. At least once a week I would pass by some sort of protest against the AKP as I walked back to my apartment building after a day of exploring the city. So, when I learned that my class would meet with AKP parliament member Nursuna Memecan, I almost wet myself in a flurry of intellectual excitement.
When I sat down for the talk I expected the usual political song and dance. The one and only other politician I have met in a personal setting was John Edwards, and all I got from him was a lingering hand after a photo op, a beautiful toothy grin, and a cool breeze from his flappin’ gums. I left the talk just as knowledgeable on John Edwards’ politics as I was before. But Minister Memecan didn’t give the typical American political rigmarole.
Memecan walked into the room, and we all could tell she knew this would be a hard interview. There were five Turkish students from an affluent private American-style university in the seminar. These were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and staunch Kemalist secularists. To them, Memecan and her party stood for the fall of Turkey’s secular cosmopolitanism to an Islamic regime.
Memecan framed the conflict in Turkey between the ruling “Islamist” AKP and Kemalist factions as fundamentally class-based. Turkish secularists tend to be urban elites and the military officers, whereas the AKP draws more heavily upon practicing (and often rural) Muslims and Kurds. Memecan contended that the charges against the AKP were politically motivated, stemming from the secularists’ resistance to a power shift from the elites to the ordinary people of the country.
Memecan addressed the controversial lifting of the ban on headscarves at universities as a women’s rights issue rather than a purely religious conflict. Many strict secular Kemalists saw this reversal as AKP ploy to use Islam as a wedge issue to expand its hold over parliament. However, Memecan argued that lifting the ban would help women who were typically subjugated get an education to better themselves.
At times Memecan strayed from the party line. She advocated educational reforms to weaken religious schooling, and conceded that in some cases the AKP had overstepped the secular boundaries created by the Turkish constitution. She did, however, argue that those measures were only taken in order to further democracy in Turkey. Still, I was amazed that, even in the midst of the current partisan crisis, Memecan drew distinctions between her own opinions and the AKP talking points.
I was impressed that Memecan really listened to our group. She took notes on what the group had to say and answered every single one of the questions posed to her. When faced with a comically specific request to explain a photograph published in a secular newspaper of an AKP party member’s wife sitting alone at a dinner three years ago, she gave the student a serious explanation. Memecan even became visibly flustered when another Turkish student called her high school religion classes “bullshit.” It was nice to see a politician be a person, and not a well-prepped, poorly-vetted drone.
On July 30th, six of the eleven Turkish Supreme Court justices voted to ban the AKP, just one vote shy of the seven required to disband a political party. However, ten of them found the AKP guilty of acting as “a centre of anti-secular activities.” So while I didn’t end up living through a major political restructuring in Turkey, I did find new respect and hope for public figures.