Religious push sparks secularism row in Turkey


Turkish police fired tear gas on Tuesday to break up protests over a call for the country to adopt a religious constitution that has sparked concerns of creeping Islamisation in the traditionally secular state. Officers in riot gear clashed with a crowd of more than 100 demonstrators outside parliament in Ankara and fired rubber bullets to dispel some 300 protesters in Istanbul's hip Kadikoy neighbourhood, sources said.

"The police's mission is to protect secularism and rights. This boy is fighting for a secular regime," opposition MP Mahmut Tanal told officers, as he helped a dazed demonstrator stand after the police push in Ankara.

The row was caused by parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman, who said on Monday that the predominantly Muslim country "must have a religious constitution", alarming those worried that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is boosting Islamism.

"Why should we be in a situation where we are in retreat from religion?" he said.

Police also moved in to break up a protest in the coastal city of Izmir, one of Turkey's most secular cities.

Turkish society has been divided on the subject since the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk transformed the former Ottoman Empire into a secular nation-state, separating Islamic law from secular law. He created a modern republic, enforcing reforms from the emancipation of women to the abolition of all Islamic institutions.

But Turkey, which once had large Christian minorities, is now 99 percent Muslim and critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have accused him of trying to Islamise society.

The strongman reacted to the scandal during a press conference in the Croatian capital Zagreb, stating merely: "The state is at an equal distance between all religious groups, all beliefs."

Kahraman's comments were slammed by MPs from Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), the staunchly secularist party founded by Ataturk.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said a secular constitution was "a guarantor of all faiths". "It means freedom of religion and conscience," he said, accusing Kahraman of "abusing religion for your dirty calculations".

The party's parliamentary group leader, Levent Gok, called on Kahraman to resign immediately. Shortly afterwards, Kahraman released a statement saying that he had been expressing his own opinion, not that of his party.

Since the AKP's re-election in November, the government has said it wants to revamp Turkey's 1982 constitution, drafted by the military junta which took power after a 1980 coup.

Several attempts so far have fallen flat, with opposition parties rejecting a move which would give Erdogan sweeping powers. But Kahraman's comments worried defenders of the constitution who fear the government is intensifying its campaign.

The AKP holds 317 of the 550 seats in parliament and needs 330 votes in order to hold a referendum on proposed constitutional changes, leaving it with 13 votes to find.

Over the past two years, the government's Islamic push has seen it lift bans on women and girls wearing headscarves in schools and the civil service. It has also limited alcohol sales and made efforts to ban mixed-sex dorms at state universities. Early plans to criminalise adultery were only dropped as part of Turkey's overtures to the European Union on membership.

Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair for the leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), said the religious line was a red herring.

"They are trying to cover the draft constitution with the holiness of religion in order to pass a constitution that includes the presidential system in a referendum," in a move to greatly extend Erdogan's reach, she said. "The people of Turkey won't be deceived and won't fall for this lie," she added.    (AFP)

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