Talking constitution in Abant

by Yavuz Baydar, Today's Zaman on . Posted in Columns

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As the Arabic proverb goes, “The caravan is organized while on the move.” This is the best one that can explain the current moves to help shape a new constitution in Turkey.

Despite existing legal restrictions (such as the Anti-Terror Law, Law on Political Parties and articles in the Turkish Penal Code) society is speaking out.

But time is running out. The parliamentary commission's deadline to collect and sort out data from the nation is the end of April. Just as the gloom had spread out, the “caravan,” set off in city hall-type meetings or platforms.

The Abant Platform has been one of those. When more than 130 people from all sorts of creeds and ideologies and various professions gathered at Lake Abant over the weekend, to discuss five points, they knew that the talks would be intense.

Cemil Çiçek, speaker of Parliament, had already painted a critical timetable at his opening speech. He was hopeful, however, in his tone for a healthy delivery, but added that all depended on the political actors and fired a warning: “If we miss this opportunity, a new constitution will be an unfulfilled dream for the next 30 years.” Many participants seemed thankful for the heads up. Two high-level deputies of the Republican People's Party (CHP) joined the sessions of the Abant Platform for the first time. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) were also present. All of this raised the expectations higher.

This was an open-ended, on the record, often no-holds-barred type of exchange and debate. Three of the five points (citizenship and identities, education in native tongue, devolution of power, democratic autonomy and the unitary state) placed Kurds at the center.

The discourse in the hall was outspoken, but soft. What defined all the sessions was the courage -- as a prominent Kurdish figure, Kemal Burkay, underlined -- to call a spade a spade, with a terminology once banned. But, what was unfortunate was the occasional disinterest of some Kurds: When, for example, Müge Ayan Ceyhan, arguably the best expert on native tongue and “dual languages” in Turkey, started going deeper into various models in the world, some Kurds preferred to sit outside the hall, chatting among themselves. They were oblivious as to how much they missed in terms of concrete arguments, clear choices.

The well-chosen title of “self-administration” was a great opportunity to bring forth one subject that was, in fact, least touched so far in the national debate. Yet, both the choice of the speakers and the following discussion showed how confused, unprepared or -- regarding a few of them -- “fixed” the participants were, be they Kurds or those of other origins. This was a warning for a possible stumbling block if or when the commission and Parliament were to discuss decentralization.

If the one on devolution was the least successful of the sessions, the one on the third day, titled “The Freedom of Faith, the Directorate of Religious Affairs and religion courses” was the most intense and amazing one. The success had to with the Abant organizers fine choice of speakers. In particular, one of them, Ali Yaman of İzzet Baysal University, presented from an Alevi point of view powerful arguments in favor of abolishing the powerful state institution, Directorate of Religious Affairs, which he defined as an untouchable instrument of civilian-military tutelage. “It enables the state to continue the status-quo, and I am ashamed of those in the institution who instead of promoting change, resist it,” he said. To explain the privileges of the directorate, he noted that it had its own hospital, foundation and university, though “it was all unnecessary.”

In a bitter tone, Yaman said the so-called “Alevi Opening” was just a show, with no concrete aim. But, he also added, that the Alawite reality was so undeniable “It would not be as easy as tearing down a so-called freak statue in Kars.” He gave examples of books on religion, and said that its content lacked pluralism and discriminated against the Alawite identity; even mocked them by adding poems by Necip Fazıl, a Sunni intellectual known for his fierce anti-Alawite views. Yaman -- backed by other Alawites, liberals and also prominent Sunni intellectuals -- said it was imperative for a democratic constitution that the Directorate for the Religious Affair be abolished, religion extracted from ID cards and courses on religion becoming non-mandatory.

Overall, the three day conference at Lake Abant was a fruitful one that will add up to the national data for a constitution. Given its tradition for assisting democratization and bringing liberal, social and Muslim democrats together for years -- Abant's messages for a constitution will send the tutelage system to the grave. Its final declaration must be read in this kind of spirit.