A call by Turkey’s parliament speaker for a new constitution to drop references to secularism provoked opposition condemnation and a brief street protest on Tuesday, potentially undermining government efforts to forge agreement on a new charter.
Speaker Ismail Kahraman said late on Monday that overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey needed a religious constitution, a proposal which contradicts the modern republic’s founding principles. He later said his comments were “personal views” and that the new constitution should guarantee religious freedoms.
His comments and the reaction highlight a schism in Turkish society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy. He banished Islam from public life, replaced Arabic with Latin script and promoted Western dress and women’s rights.
President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party he founded, their roots in political Islam, have tried to restore the role of religion in public life. They have expanded religious education and allowed the head scarf, once banned from state offices, to be worn in colleges and parliament.
The AKP is pushing to replace the existing constitution, which dates back to the period after a 1980 military coup. As speaker, Kahraman is overseeing efforts to draft a new text.
“For one thing, the new constitution should not have secularism,” Kahraman said, according to videos of his speech published by Turkish media. “It needs to discuss religion … It should not be irreligious, this new constitution, it should be a religious constitution.”
On Tuesday, he sought to clarify his remarks. The notion of secularism had been used in Turkey to limit freedoms, Kahraman said in a statement, and a clearer definition “that does not bring the state and the people against each other” should be included in the new constitution.
Critics fear a new charter could concentrate too much power in the hands of Erdogan, who wants an executive presidency to replace the current parliamentary system. The government has promised that European standards on human rights will form the basis of the new text.
Mustafa Sentop, a senior AKP member who heads a parliamentary commission on constitutional reform, said a draft text retained the precept of secularism and his party had not even discussed removing it.
But Kahraman’s comments drew criticism from government opponents suspicious of the ruling party’s Islamist ideals.