Foreign Policy Blogs

Last Week in Turkey: Abortion, Education, and the Fazil Say Case


A Turkish woman holds a sign that reads "Abortion is a right, Uludere is a massacre" as she demonstrates with thousands of people in Istanbul on June 3, 2012. In Turkey, abortion is legal during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. (Source: Bülent Kılıç, AFP)


Dear FPA Blog Readers,

Here is a brief summary of recent debates (concerning the new education law and abortion) and the legal case against the renowned Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say. I believe all three issues signal the rapid erosion of democratic governance and rule of law in Turkey and they seriously challenge the arguments put forward in “Turkey as a democracy model for the Middle East” themed analyses.

Democracy in Action:

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan recently compared abortion to botched air strikes (last December Turkish Air Force jets accidentally targeted and killed 34 civilians in eastern Turkish village of Uludere, sparking countrywide reaction against the government). Prime Minister Erdoğan told (ironically in a gathering of the women’s branches of his Justice and Development Party, or the AKP) that “each abortion is an Uludere” – a reference to the air strike that killed 34 civilians in December. He further said that those who question the Uludere incident are “dead-lovers, in other words, they need dead bodies for politics.”

Following the prime minister’s comments, the chair of the parliament’s human rights commission, another AKP member, said that “abortion is a crime against humanity.” When asked about abortion in relation to unwanted pregnancies due to rape, he said that abortion is a “worse crime than rape.” Later, the minister of health declared that a draft bill banning abortion will be coming to the parliament floor in June, sparking serious reaction from women’s rights groups. Last Friday, police detained around 25 women after the protesters tried to pass a police barricade and enter the health ministry building.

Turkey’s ultraconservative Islamist daily Yeni Akit attacks the abortion protesters with defamatory and insulting content: The headline story reads “those who are lower than animals,” defying “ethics and moral values,” demand the “right to murder” under the disguise of abortion. (Source: Yeni Akit)

In an unprecedented move, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) has weighed in on the country’s abortion debate, siding with the prime minister. The head of Diyanet Mehmet Görmez, who is also the top Muslim cleric in the country, said that “No woman has the right to say, this is my body, I will deliver a baby if I want to,” because, according to Görmez, the mother is “not the owner of the fetus but rather a vessel to keep it alive.” It is unusual for Turkey’s top cleric to issue political statements and take sides in political debates in the secular country.

Fazıl Say, an internationally known Turkish composer and pianist, has recently announced that he is planning to leave Turkey and move to Japan. Last month, Say faced an online lynching campaign after his tweets about Islam was taken as an offense by hundreds of twitter users. “I am an atheist and proud to say it loud and clear,” said Say on his Twitter page. He later mocked the call to prayer by retweeting “the imam has recited the evening ezan in 20 seconds. What’s the rush? Lover? Raki?” and then cited (retweet) a poem that read, “Since you are promised drinks and beautiful women for doing good deeds, heaven sounds like a pub or a brothel.” Say received hundreds of hate messages – among the furious twitter users was Şamil Tayyar, an AKP member, who tweeted “which brothel were you born Say?”

Say’s case is not a mere fight over ideology through Twitter. Last month, Say was placed under investigation by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for insulting religious values and offending Islamic belief. On June 1st, an Istanbul court approved the indictment against Say, calling for 1.5 years in prison for “insulting the religious values of a section of society.”

Islamic Education in Public Schools

The Turkish parliament recently passed an education law that dramatically changed the county’s public education system. The AKP single-handedly drafted and later passed the legislation in the parliament within a matter of weeks. The opposition requested the withdrawal of the draft law as experts and education reform groups continuously expressed that any significant change to the country’s education system should be debated in detail. The AKP has absolute legislative majority in the parliament and the proposal appeared in the education commission within a couple of days. A week before the second round of commission meetings, Prime Minister Erdoğan said that the “law will pass one way or another on Sunday” (referring to the second meeting that was held in Sunday, March 11).

What followed the prime minister’s statement was an unprecedented incident in the history Turkey’s parliament: on March 11, over 100 AKP members came in several hours prior to the meeting and occupied the room and did not allow any opposition member to be present for the discussions on the draft law. When the non-AKP commission members tried to enter the room, the AKP members blocked their entrance. While a furious battle of fistfight was going on outside of the room, the chair of the commission read all 26 articles of the draft law for commission’s approval. The proposal was accepted unanimously by an all-AKP commission within a couple of minutes. The following week, the draft law passed in the parliament and became law despite protests after President Abdullah Gül’s approval.

The law contradicts with Turkey’s secular constitution, as the new public education system favors Sunni Islam over other faiths. Moreover, CNN Turk recently reported that administrators in an Ankara public school distributed elective course forms in which students are given the option to choose from “Quran and our beloved prophet Muhammad” and “the life of our beloved prophet Muhammed.” On the forms, however, there were two options to choose from: “Yes” or “Not Sure.” The critics argue that the new system will eventually undermine the education of girls as the elective courses on Islam will require boys and girls to be educated separately, and will require girls, as early as age 9, to wear Islamic headscarf.

Democracy Cocktail:

Lengthy pre-trial detentions and legal probes that affiliate students, environmental activists, retired generals, academics, journalists, and even football club presidents with organized crime and terrorism now dominate the headlines in Turkey. Those who protest in the streets face the country’s police which use disproportionate force and excessive amounts of tear gas and pepper spray. The Human Rights Watch underlines that the police uses tear gas regardless of the size and intensity of the protests, injuring and sometimes killing demonstrators. The use of firearms by the police against unarmed suspects is another serious concern noted by the Human Rights Watch.

Last week, a 31 year old man, who was hospitalized after suffering asthma and panic attacks as a result of excessive use of pepper spray by the police, died. Members of his family, while protesting his death, were also hit by pepper spray by the police. Ironically, in May 2011, a retired teacher suffered a fatal heart attack after being exposed to excessive amount of tear gas fired by the police during a protest against Prime Minister Erdoğan’s election rally.

In the last two years, more than 7,000 students were detained by the police and tens of others are being investigated over charges such as carrying out terrorist propaganda or aiding criminal organizations because of handing out concert tickets, wearing regional scarfs, or throwing eggs at the ministers (eggs are often thrown at Egemen Bagış, the country’s EU minister). Around 100 journalists and 30 newspaper distributors are currently in prison in Turkey. An increasing number of journalists and columnists lose their jobs because of their political views and writings about the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Moreover, self-censorship is spreading among columnists and opinion writers who oppose the government policies. The US State Department’s 2011 report on human rights notes significant deficiencies in access to justice and government interference in the freedom of speech and of the press in Turkey. Similarly, Jean-Maurice Ripert, the EU’s ambassador to Turkey, recently expressed his concerns over the issues of freedom of expression and press freedom in Turkey.

Last March, thousands gathered in Turkey’s capital Ankara to mark a historic day in the country’s democracy. The Ankara court opened the trial of two retired generals who staged the notorious 1980 military coup, known as September 12” in Turkey. The coup trial was perhaps one of the few occasions where everyone in Ankara, from the hardline nationalists to pro-Kurdish groups, was in agreement – the trial was a major step toward strengthening democracy and rule of law in Turkey. The recent developments in the country, however, demonstrate that the spirit of authoritarianism is still alive and well.

Thanks to Turkey’s recent activism in regional affairs, the erosion of democratic governance and rule of law in the country barely finds coverage in the international media. Just like the generals in the 1980 military coup, the AKP is endeavoring to engineer Turkey’s social and government life. The Party’s discourse and actions at home seriously contradict with its talk of democracy and human rights abroad, challenging the arguments put forward in “Turkey as a model of democracy for the Middle East” themed analyses. The AKP needs to match its deeds on democracy and human rights at home with its strong voice them abroad. To do so, it has to commit to democracy starting with ensuring freedom of thought and the press for all in the country.

  • nicholas

    This exposure of the recent developments in Turkey show a rift between the old and the new. We may understand the process as a comeback of the old, the tradition, the cultural chains holding back the future. I will venture a different reading. The issue of abortion, is a heated subject in all societies. It is not an easy matter to settle in a Muslim country or for that matter in Christian America. There are too many pitfalls to overcome for a final verdict. Turkey is awakaning to the difficult task of realingning its unexamined past with what is a practice of daily routine in a world far removed from deserts, conquests and the Faithful as a form of social inclusion. The recociliation of modernity, or actually post-modernity with traditional ethos will take time and produce conflicts. What we ecpect is a shift without procecutors and jail-terms. Say committed a mistake to declare his atheism, not because atheism is wrong, but because atheism as theism is a privete matter. We cannot go out to advertise either of the two. Perhaps Say wanted to oppose another trend in Turkey, the trend of accepting religious credentials in civil cases in front of courts. This is a slippery slope for the Turkish Justuce System. Religion is not a credential for a civil society and its institutions.
    What is unacceptable is the legal aspect of the response to his admittance. Some Turks may be offended by his views but the Justice system has no business with matters of private beliefs.
    The education reform legislature is very disturbing. This is a step back from a more secular and free society. Tradition must be respected but induvidual choises must be also respected. This is actually a step back from democracy. Education is the founding block of societies. All political parties must have a say about it.
    We will follow this process of transformation ot Turkish society with great interest and judge accordingly.

    • Lauren

      I agree with you Nicholas! Great comments.

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