Constitutional Reform Poll Divides Turkey

In Turkey, a popular referendum on a series of constitutional amendments held this Sunday is pitting the ruling conservative party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against a largely urban and secular opposition which alleges that the “reforms” proposed by his government encompass in fact a cloaked attempt at enacting orthodox Islamic law.

The constitutional amendments, which have been endorsed by the European Union as part of Turkey’s effort to qualify for EU membership, are the most far-reaching attempt to date at altering the 1982 constitution that came about as part of a military coup two years earlier.

Whether the referendum returns a “yes” or “no” vote will likely shape Turkey’s internal politics for years to come. A rejection of the proposed amendments would bolster the left of center Republican People’s Party as well as the far-right Nationalist Movement, currently the two largest opposition factions in parliament. A victory for Erdoğan’s own Justice and Development Party AKP on the other hand may well forebode a third term for the prime minister while polarizing the political landscape between more cosmopolitan secularists and a Muslim majority that lives largely outside of the major cities.

In Istanbul especially, signs of protest are abound. Posters and political slogans line the streets while trucks blasting campaign tunes roam every neighborhood of Turkey’s metropolis. The opposition there compares voting in favor of the amendments as support “for Muslim women to cover themselves like nuns,” a not so subtle reference to the AKP’s unsuccessful effort to life a ban that continues to prohibit Muslim women from wearing a headscarf in public. Prime Minister Erdoğan, similarly oversimplifying matters, has compared the opposition to “defenders” of the military regime of the early 1980s.

The amendments, which modify or repeal a total of 24 articles of Turkey’s existing constitution, are largely aimed at changing the way judges and prosecutors are selected and evaluated in the country. Currently, all fifteen Constitutional Court appointments are made by the president. There is no legislative oversight. Among the amendments proposed by this government are an expansion of the highest court, a twelve year term limit for its members and a procedure that allows parliament to elect three supreme court judges.

Although these reforms are supposed to make Turkey’s courts more similar to Europe’s, the judiciary has traditionally been a very secular institution, dreadful of any prospect that Turkey might become an Islamic state. What’s more, the highest legal bodies were typically closed establishments, dedicated to protecting Turkey’s secular traditions, no matter public opinion. The reforms proposed by the ruling party would not only expand the courts in terms of membership but demand greater transparency and probably make them subject to everyday politics.

Further alterations to the Constitution are designed to improve access to the legal system, allowing individuals to bring cases to the Constitutional Court; make it more difficult for government to disband political parties and limit the power of military courts. The 1982 constitution authorizes military couts to try civilians in security related cases. If the referendum passes, that practice should discontinue, restricting the jurisdiction of military courts to military personnel.

Polls suggest that the outcome will be particularly close. Some 56 percent of Turks surveyed earlier this week said to be in favor of the proposed amendments. Polls conducted earlier, in August, were less conclusive. None of the polling agencies active in Turkey surveys in all 81 of the country’s provinces however. Considering the AKP’s popularity in the countryside, that should encourage hopes with Erdoğan and his party.

Anti-Islamism as Impediment to Growth

For almost ten years, Denmark has enacted policies that limit immigration and promote the integration of ethnic minorities in Danish society. Some now fear that the country’s economic woes can be attributed, at least in part, to its Islam backlash.

Since the start of this decade, Denmark has been ruled by a minority government of liberals and conservatives, sustained in parliament by the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) which is known for its nationalistic, socially conservative platform and tough positions on law and order. Since it first participated in the country’s parliamentary elections in 1998, the party’s popularity has risen sharply to stabilize at a little over 13 percent of the vote in recent years.

Under the People’s Party’s influence, Denmark’s ruling coalition has approved of different measures meant to curb immigration to the country, including the enforcement of laws that were designed to prevent marriages from being arranged and forcing migrants to learn the Danish language. Read more “Anti-Islamism as Impediment to Growth”

Building a Mosque in Election Time

The newest political hot spot in America is the mosque slated to be built near Ground Zero, the site of the Trade Towers bombing of 2001, in New York City. Politicians are lining up and taking sides in the countdown to elections this fall. Even President Barack Obama voiced his ambivalent and unclear opinion, noting that America’s commitment to religious freedom must be “unshakable.” That includes, according to the president, “the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.” The next day though, he backpedaled and declared that while people have a right to build mosques in America if they want to, he isn’t quite sure about the wisdom of this particular location.

As always politicians are using the controversy first stirred up by conservative talk radio hosts to make election bids. Some are saying that they believe in freedom of religion; others that they believe in zoning laws and the sacredness of this particular site. And surprisingly, unlike most issues, this one is not split down party lines.

For one thing, mere months from November’s midterm elections for Congress, no one can afford to disenfranchise his or her electorate. According to a recent CNN poll 68 percent of Americans are opposed to the mosque being built at Ground Zero. Even politicians not up for election this cycle have to watch their step or risk losing votes for their party. Many lawmakers have decided that silence, at least on this issue, is golden. Whatever they say, they’re bound to insult either their political base or their political party. We are way past the days of actual integrity and principle, if ever those days have existed in Washington.

What are the principles behind the issue? America certainly is a place of freedom, including religious freedom. Yet there are lines. Your freedom to do what you like cannot infringe on another’s for example. And no matter your religious preferences they cannot suspend the laws of the land, thus polygamy, human and animal sacrifices and honor killings are all illegal notwithstanding your religion.

To say the mosque should be built because of religious freedom is an emotional response and not an analytical one. There are already many mosques in America and none have ever been controversial as this one is. It’s not the mosque; it’s the location. The truth is that the building of this mosque in this neighborhood in New York is a local issue and has nothing to do with the federal government or the nation as a whole at all, at least under normal circumstances. With this in mind President Obama’s initial refusal to comment was the appropriate one since this has nothing to with him nor his branch of government. But these are not normal circumstances.

In this particular case even though the planes blew up and destroyed buildings in New York the attack was made on the whole of the United States and its people. Muslims made the attack. Perhaps not these Muslims, but the mosque’s intended location is certainly politically provocative and intended to be so. So the people of the United States and at length their president, after due consideration, do have every right to weigh in on this debate. Whatever the outcome, the mosque controversy will certainly affect the November elections and perhaps even those of 2012.

America’s Not So Original Islam Backlash

Throughout Western Europe, populists on the right have espoused anti-Islam rhetoric for many years. Banning the construction of mosques as well as the wearing of the burqa is now, in some countries, part of mainstream conservative thought. America’s political right is only just discovering the windfall to be gained from Islam bashing however.

Even in the wake of 9/11, Republicans took care not to demonize the Arab world at large. President George W. Bush could be very explicit in stressing that Muslims were not the enemy. In November 2002, for instance, he criticized evangelical Christians who rallied against Islam, noting that, “Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion.” The president promised that America would not “let the War on Terror or terrorists cause us to change our values.”

But it has, as evidenced by the recent controversy over the planned construction of a Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, mere blocks away from the site where once stood the towers of the World Trade Center. A “not in our own backyard” sentiment has exploded even in America’s greatest of melting pots; a metropolis once renowned for its open mindedness and cultural diversity.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, now believes framing the War of Terror as such was a mistake. “This is not a war on terrorism,” he told an audience of two hundred at the American Enterprise Institute last month; “this is a struggle with radical Islamists.”

Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate and until July of last year governor of Alaska, has called the construction of the “Ground Zero mosque,” as the project has been dubbed by its opponents, an “unnecessary provocation.” Just one year earlier, in Hong Kong, she was careful to note that the War on Terror “is not, as some have said, a clash of civilizations.” At the time, she believed that America was “not at war with Islam.”

Europe has had its fair share of such hypocrisy for several years. Hypocrisy, because instead of undermining the intellectual foundation of an ideology that preaches violence and destruction, Europe’s anti-Islamic rabble rousers have, in the guise of contesting radicalism, focused almost entirely on the symbolic.

In November of last year, Switzerland imposed a ban on the construction of minarets throughout the country, the only natural effect of which will be a further estrangement of Muslims who merely seek to practice their religion in peace. France, last January, decided to ban the burqa, the full facial veil worn by no more than a tiny fraction of conservative Muslim women living in the West. In France, a mere 2,000 women are estimated to wear a burqa or similar garment but as a result of its ban, all Muslims see their religious freedoms slowly evaporate.

Perhaps Europe’s most infamous of Islamic critics is Geert Wilders from the Netherlands whose Freedom Party will likely become part of the next Dutch government. Wilders has campaigned against what he describes as the Islamification of the Netherlands for many years, proposing to ban the burqa, the Quran and closing Islamic schools. He has consistently criticized the political establishment for allowing Islam to gain a foothold in the 1990s, blissfully ignoring its supposed incompatibility with Western tradition in the name of cultural relativism. His popularity has only increased as a result.

Wilders is scheduled to speak at Ground Zero on September 11 as part of a rally against the Islamic community center being built nearby. American conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, will join him.

Europe’s and America’s newfound backlash against Islam have similar reasons and are fueled by similar factions.

Both in Europe and in the United States, there is a crisis of confidence among intellectuals and representatives of traditional power structures about the superiority of their culture and values.

In Europe, this lack of confidence is older and harkens back to the post-colonial guilt and cultural relativism of the 1960s which led a whole generation of political leaders, mostly on the left, to turn a blind eye on the mounting frustration experienced particularly among the lower classes with a seemingly endless influx of migrants. These people, who traditionally voted for social-democratic or Labor parties, saw their neighborhoods change, sometimes deteriorate; their worlds literally turned upside down because of urban renewal projects; low-incomes jobs being shipped overseas, all the while their political representatives reveled in the wonders of globalization. It seemed to them as though the politicians who claimed to defend their interests simply didn’t know, let alone understand their problems.

Since the turn of the century, this constituency of largely working-class voters has turned to more radical solutions. They supported Jörg Haider in Austria, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, People’s Parties in Denmark and Switzerland, and more recently, Geert Wilders. What these political leaders and parties shared were blunt anti-immigration policies, a nationalistic tone and a fierce agitation against the establishment. Although readily identified as “far right,” most actually maintained fairly socialistic economic positions, opposing, for instance, raising the retirement age and favoring a certain measure of protectionism to secure jobs.

In most Western European countries, these anti-immigration platforms are in the process of being institutionalized as part of the political landscape. With the exception of France, all aforementioned parties either have been or are expected to become part of governing coalitions. They subsequently temper their rhetoric while working to enact real solutions, not banning the Quran or deporting criminals whose parents hail from Arab countries but imposing immigration controls and tougher prison sentencing for what is otherwise low level crime.

In the United States, a similar crisis of confidence is developing though it is both more recent and more defined. The Tea Party phenomenon is the most noticeable expression of a mounting discontent among a majority of Americans with what Newt Gingrich calls the secular-socialist machine that is the Obama Administration. Many Americans fear that their country’s traditions are being squandered by the current government in favor of European-style socialism.

In reality, America has been a welfare state for many decades and even most Tea Partiers supports its most pervasive of programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Like the European anti-immigration parties, Republicans in the United States today may strike a nationalistic tone, denouncing the Democrats’ policies as “European” (i.e., foreign) but they usually won’t propose to curb on entitlements. They understand that what’s driving their base is what’s driving disenfranchised voters in Europe: fear, of the future and the unknown, and, perhaps even more so, anger. Politically, it’s much more expedient to try to capitalize on such emotions than offer sound policy alternatives.

In fairness, there have been several Republican legislators who dare to voice bold, libertarian solutions to America’s pressing budget woes and evermore expansive government. They are urging Democrats as well as their own party to discover anew the virtues of austerity and fiscal balance in government and letting the free market reign. But overwhelmingly, Americans, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, agree that there is a place for government in nearly every sector of the economy, no matter the rhetoric.

In essence, the differences between the major parties in the United States are still slim. So when health-care reform came to Congress, most opposition members retorted to scare tactics, warning of “death panels” and denouncing their pro-choice colleagues as “baby killers.” With immigration reform looming, Republicans, again, rather simplify reality than face the inevitable necessity of changing America’s current immigration structure.

By framing the War on Terror as a clash of civilizations and by warning that immigration reform will “open the floodgates” to admit a stream of malevolent, job stealing Mexicans into the country, Republicans are thriving on a nationalistic, increasingly isolationist current of populist fury that is also fiercely anti-establishment. Within a few years, no matter their popularity today and likely electoral successes in the near future, that could easily come back to haunt them, as it did in 2006 and 2008.

For almost thirty years now, the Republican Party has understood that preaching family values and talking of America as a shining beacon of Christendom is more likely to attract voters than volunteering solutions that either slightly or starkly differ from the left’s. Newt Gingrich stills describes the United States as “an intensely religious country that believes our rights come from God” while simultaneously trying to appeal to the small-government conservatives and libertarians in the Tea Party. Perhaps the November midterms and remaining years of Barack Obama’s presidency will determine whether those two, seemingly opposite, sentiments can be mixed to revitalize the Republican base.

Obama’s Numbers in the Arab World

I’m a big fan of Dr Marc Lynch’s work. In addition to being considered a respected professor in a top-tier American university (George Washington University), he is also one of the best versed in Middle Eastern culture and knowledgeable about virtually every issue in the Arab world. So whenever Dr Lynch writes a post about Arab public opinion or has something to say about American-Islamic relations, I tend to read it very quickly.

Such was the case last Thursday, when Lynch devoted a post to the dwindling appeal of President Barack Obama in the eyes of ordinary Muslims. Technically, the Brookings Institution sponsored the poll and conducted the project, but it’s people like Lynch (not to mention Steve Walt and Tom Ricks) that make sense of the data and try to put it into some perspective.

For a full look at Brookings’ results, click here (PDF). I highly recommend that you take a look at the raw figures, because it gives us a sense of what issues still ring true in the hearts of Arabs. But if you just want to get to the nuts-and-bolts, the results can be best described as quantification of America’s declining appeal, even in countries that are considered to be American allies. The poll not only reveals an unfortunate American decline in popularity, but also the deep frustrations that many Arabs hold over America’s inability to meet its promises and commitments. Read more “Obama’s Numbers in the Arab World”

Turkey’s Irrelevant Islamism

After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister of Turkey for the conservative Justice and Development Party AKP in 2003, both the secular opposition and Western commentators were quick to expound their fears about the country’s apparently newfound Islamism. The legacy of Atatürk was being squandered, some alleged, in favor of backwardness and nationalism.

Those fears peaked in 2007 when Erdoğan nominated his foreign minister Abdullah Gül for the presidency. Gül was an outspoken Islamist and his wife even wore a headscarf! Such outward symbols of religion had for long been anathema to Turkey’s secularists yet Gül became president and has been popular ever since. Read more “Turkey’s Irrelevant Islamism”

Europe’s Crisis of Confidence

Old Europe is in something of an identity crisis. The specter of European federalism coupled with a widespread unease about Muslim immigration has many Europeans wondering about their nationhood and what it means to be “European” anyway. The financial meltdown and subsequent recession further fractured an already fragile self-image.

Foreign immigration and decades of post-colonial guilt and self-delusion in the name of cultural relativism cast doubt upon European values of equality. It is not-done to speak of Western civilization as superior today for there is supposedly no objective standard according to which cultures may be judged. Not everyone agrees which unfortunately leaves the great political divide in many parts of Europe between the cosmopolitan left that threatens to undermine the very foundations of Western prosperity and the nationalists on the right who speak of Western tradition to justify their fears of the future and the unknown.

The economic downturn has shaken Europe’s welfare states to the core meanwhile, forcing governments all over the continent to severely cut on social security programs. Poverty is on the rise while decades of government caretaking have undermined peoples’ sense of personal responsibility.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, France’s national ombudsman, is weary of people who think of themselves not as citizens but increasingly as consumers of the state. France, he said in mid-February, “is a fragmenting society, where an attitude of everybody-out-for-themselves is replacing the desire to live together.”

Although the country is the most socialist of EU member states with individual liberties greatly curtailed by the pervasive presence of the state in nearly all economic activity, the French people, apparently, still refuse to sympathize with state-imposed solidarity. Instead, massive government expenditures and welfare spending have given rise to an entitlement mentality with people expecting the government to address any perceived ill in their lives or in society at large.

Such a situation, according to German Foreign Minister Guide Westerwelle, is unsustainable. “Whoever promises the people the good life without effort,” he warned, “is making an invitation to late-Roman decadence.”

Unfortunately, in many countries, policymakers remain convinced that the solution is just a little more government control. In spite of mounting deficits and rampant unemployment, Spain insists on continuing to flirt with socialism. In Greece, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, the state has gone on spending well beyond its means in spite of the financial crisis, leaving all of Europe to worry about record debts. But in France, President Nicholas Sarkozy blissfully attacks what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of recent years. He hopes to demonstrate the success of the European approach which, according to Sarkozy, “has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.”

Oh, good.

Capitalism, in fact, is at the heart of European culture. It was capitalism that elevated parts of the continent from centuries of backwardness and depravity to allow growth and progress to take shape. It was capitalism, with its emphasis on individual accomplishment, freedom of enterprise and the protection of property rights, that gave rise to an age of abundance of wealth and wellbeing.

Notions of racial superiority unfortunately took hold of Europe as it established itself as the dominant force on Earth. In more recent years, such bigotry has been proven false but with it, too often, the very values that made Europe supreme are denied as well.

Geography Matters in Yemen

What was, until recently, a quiet war has, according to some commentators, quickly turned into President Obama’s greatest foreign policy challenge for the year ahead: the ravage that we call Yemen.

Since 2004 the Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shia Islam, are one of the most impoverished people of Yemen and feel discriminated against by their government. Thousands of people have lost their lives in the onslaught already with tens of thousands more on the run.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once legitimized their uprising by referring to it as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although its northern neighbor is, understandably, the most concerned about the violence. Read more “Geography Matters in Yemen”

The Quiet War in Yemen

It is a conflict that has been going on for several years but one that receives little attention in our Western media: the war in Yemen. Since 2004 the Shiite Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shī‘ah Islam, are one of the most impoverished groups in Yemen and feel discriminated against by the government. Thousands of people have already been killed in the onslaught with tens of thousands more fleeing the conflict zone.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once described their uprising as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although it is especially the former that worries about the violence on its southern borders.

Out of precaution, Saudi Arabia built a wall along parts of the border but increasingly it has had to resort to military force to stop Zaidi fighters from entering the kingdom.

The conflict flared up again last July when in the Sa’dah province, nine foreigners were abducted by Zaidi rebels of which six are still missing. During the weeks thereafter, the Zaidis managed to gain ground until the government launched a major offensive on August 11 with air- and missile strikes against known Zaidi bases in the border area with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom got involved early November when a sentry was shot by rebels and border patrols were fired upon. On November 5, Saudi Arabia also launched airstrikes against Zaidi bases, claiming to target only rebels within its borders but actually involving itself in the Yemeni war.

Yemen can use the Saudi help. The government lacks both the funds and the public support to wage a violent campaign in the north and so far, it has been unable to break the deadlock.

It remains to be seen to what extent foreign countries, Saudi Arabia foremost among them but possibly the United States also, are willing to emerge themselves in the trenches to win this battle for Yemen. With the support of American intelligence and special forces, the war could easily be decided in Yemen’s favor but Washington risks upsetting Iran and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide which, considering the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not a welcome prospect right now.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.