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Turkey: When Secularism and Democracy Collide

June 26, 2008


To the Editor:

Re “The Fight for Turkey” (column, The New York Times on the Web, June 23):

Roger Cohen expresses his support for secularism in Turkey and for the decision by Turkey’s highest court to overturn the governing party’s legislation allowing women to wear the hijab, or head scarf, at universities.

While Mr. Cohen acknowledges that “women of college age should be allowed to wear what they like in accordance with their personal convictions,” he then says that “on balance, I side with the court.”

The court’s decision was distinctly illiberal in its infringements on personal rights. And it ran counter to the fact that a policy decision by the current government, which was elected by some of the widest margins in Turkey’s history, was overturned on transparently flimsy grounds.

Turkey is a country at war with itself. A corrupt, decrepit, chauvinistic secular core is facing off against a vital and honest Justice and Development party, or AKP. To stand with the secular old guard is to stand with those who have consistently opposed the advancement of liberal democracy in Turkey.

Bisher Tarabishy
Ann Arbor, Mich., June 24, 2008

To the Editor:

The secularism at stake in Turkey would be immediately rebuffed in the United States, as it would interfere with the free exercise of religion.

Roger Cohen acknowledges this sentiment, and yet supports the court decision that required the hijab ban as a necessary impediment to the unyielding and irreversible effects of Islamism.

The ascendancy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, Justice and Development, or AKP, has not been without impediments from the secular forces in the Turkish government, most notably the military.

Mr. Cohen’s fear of the AKP seems based on guilt by association with other Islamist parties, and thus he supports continuing a policy of opposing democracy to support secularism.

The United States’ support for secular, undemocratic governments in the Middle East has led to the Iranian revolution, the Algerian civil war and to much of the political strife in Pakistan. We continue to pursue this trend, and it continues to let us down.

Secularism is not necessarily a moderating or stabilizing force, as shown by the examples of Communist Russia and China. Meanwhile, democracy, by holding the government accountable to the people, arguably is.

But this stability is only possible if we get over the politics of fear and guilt by association that is widespread in the debate between Islam and democracy.

Fauzia Shaikh
Melville, N.Y., June 24, 2008•

To the Editor:

Roger Cohen says that the court ruling in Turkey enforcing a ban on women’s head scarves in universities “is unacceptable,” but he ends up accepting it because he’s “confident that in the medium-term, Turkish women will win the right to wear head scarves wherever.”

And so, yet again, a woman’s right to wear what she wants, do what she wants and believe what she wants is brushed aside in favor of a dominant ideology.

Is this so different from the Islamist policies Mr. Cohen opposes?

Tom Hitchner
Long Beach, Calif., June 23, 2008

To the Editor:

Roger Cohen compares “secular fascists” and “Islamofascists” in Turkey. His ruminations on the benefits of “an occasional dose of ‘secular fascism’ ” in Turkey are interesting and not without merit.

But what I think he really means is “secular authoritarianism” and “Islamo-authoritarianism.”

The distortion of the term “fascism” is unfortunate. Even though WordNet and other dictionaries may give sanitized definitions for fascism like “a political theory advocating an authoritarian hierarchical government (as opposed to democracy or liberalism),” the roots of fascism lie in the perversion of representative government by the interests of business.

As Upton Sinclair wrote, “Fascism is capitalism plus murder.”

Maybe if people would draw clearer lines between fascism and authoritarianism, it would be easier to drive both out of Turkey and the rest of the world.

Andy Deck
New York, June 24, 2008

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