This article details a current example where statements made by leading AKP figures have raised concerns over the state’s interference in individual life choices.
More generally though, the question of whether political figures are entitled to acts of freedom of speech – in terms of voicing personal opinions- is a more difficult question to answer. Whilst from a fundamental rights perspective I might be inclined to argue in favour, the reality is that the conservative remarks constantly posed by AKP officials result in the preferential treatment of certain ways of life, namely those that match a conservative lifestyle in line with Islamic teachings. They are hardly benign words of wisdom since they can lead to neighbourhood pressure and conformist behaviour. Therefore, on matters of individual choice, it is immensely irresponsible for people like the Prime Minister and Ministers of the whole nation to make positive remarks on the personal living habits of certain citizens at the expense of others.
Latest example: objection to mixed-sex student accommodation
During a closed door meeting with AKP deputies on November 3rd, PM Erdogan condemned female and male students’ living under one roof, vowing to take measures against such instances. The argument was made over the province of Denizli where the PM has instructed the Denizli governor to “investigate” the matter.
Whilst some AKP figures like Bülent Arınç -Erdoğan’s Deputy PM- or Yalçın Akdoğan – chief advisor – have made statements that try to cover up what was said in an attempt to salvage what has turned into a massive criticism of the AKP, Erdoğan has kept up his polarising and authoritarian style, insisting upon regulating the living spaces of unmarried mix sex students. Out of all places, whilst on a state visit to Finland, Erdoğan explained that the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had already been completed in around three quarters of all dorms. The most striking parts of his speech reads, “It’s not clear what is going on in these places. They are all mixed up, anything can happen. As a conservative democratic government, we have to intervene as this is against our principles. In these places, there is intelligence received by our security forces, the police department and the governorates. Acting upon this intelligence, our governors are intervening in these situations.
Highlighting the absurdity of these charges and that such anxieties emanate from religious sensitivities, Interior Minister Güler has argued that many of these apartments harbour terror and other illegal activities, such as prostitution.. Hence, in line with Erdoğan’s recommendation to enact laws to interfere in private lives, the issue is simplistically being portrayed as one of security… I would also like to highlight that currently, under Anti-Terror laws and the Turkish Penal Code, there are around 2,800 incarcerated students. If legislated, all that this law will do is to increase that number.
Right now, Turkey is a country very close to local elections (2014) followed by Presidential elections and National Elections in quick succession. In this climate, PM Erdoğan has decided that his personal rulership in Turkey is conditioned on polarising the population, homogenising the opinions of a certain collective opinion and commanding their allegience. The 50% vote gained in the 2011 elections doesn’t really benefit anyone because it has allowed Erdoğan to see politics as a 50%-50% game. As long as he has his 50%, the rest is a medley of voters that are trivialised. This is precisely why the Gezi Demonstrations were completely misunderstood and abused by what I can only describe as AKP hubris. Anyway, the point is that Erdoğan’s rhetoric is getting harder by the day.
On the issue of personal opinion
The AKP assures us that the party does not intervene in the life choices of ordinary citizens. This statement is made over and over again. Only days before this latest blunder, Erdoğan said, “There is certainly no polarization in Turkey and… no interference in people’s lifestyles [by the government]”. The problem is, the AKP continuously falls back on arguments of legality, stating for example that there is no law inhibiting mix-sex unmarried citizens to live under the same roofs as consenting adults. At the same time, both Erdoğan and other critically influential AKP politicians make personal remarks on a daily basis that have dire repercussions.
For example, Hüseyin Çelik was interviewed last night where he spoke on the recent issue. On the one side, he reiterated that a state governed by the rule of law is bound to the principle of legality not legitimacy, meaning that only illegal practices were quashed by the state. On the other, Çelik made 5 statements in a single interview where he confessed his personal conviction as a Muslim did not allow him to permit his adult daughter to live with another male, or that he personally did not condone atheism, or other organised religions. Çelik defends himself and the AKP by saying that no one is holding a gun to citizens’ heads and telling them how to behave.
The question though is, isn’t legal interventions an intervention regardless? Within the AKP rhetoric, there is a deliberate lack of a nuanced understanding on manufacturing consent and obedience. The party doesn’t shy from admitting that it wants to “raise a conservative, religious generation”, but denies societal engineering through public statements like the case in hand. Similarly, practices that are seen to be morally superior (a pious youth) are encouraged through the catering of optional religious classes whilst culturally local customs – like alcohol consumption- that are deemed morally bankrupt are restricted and contained.
To drive the point home, lets not forget that a TV host was fired because in Çelik’s ‘personal opinion’, which he chose to voice on television , the TV host’s dress was showing too much flesh. So how are TV anchors who want to keep their jobs likely to dress from now on?
Similarly, there have been numerous reports that show certain administrations or individual citizens have taken Erdoğan’s statements on the current issue as an edict. For example, two students renting a flat in a residential building in Üskudar have been singled out by residents of the building. A note that read “there are boy-girl residents in the building that live together. This type of behaviour is not appropriate in this building. When you see such people, denounce them to the police” was placed at the entrance. On an administrative level, Adana’s governor Hüseyin Avni Coş described Erdoğan’s statements as a ‘standing order’ and stated that “taking the necessary precautions for our children, our legacy to the future, to grow up in accord with our national and cultural heritage and with our moral values is our constitutional duty.”
During the ‘post-modern coup’ period around 1997-98, the military forced the Refah (political Islamist party) led coalition to step down. The images that are engrained in our collective memory from that period is of police conducting raids to houses linked to the cemaat and religious organisations, manufacturing negative publicity and placing pressure on segments of society that were pious.
I don’t want to sound cynical but last week we were talking of the right of women MPs to enter parliament with headscarves. Something that I fully stand for and always have, as do most people nowadays in Turkey. On this issue, there is no divide over conservative or non-conservative thought. More like, the political bulwark, the dominant discourse favours religious emancipation. But today, Erdoğan, Hüseyin Çelik and other AKP leaders are discussing whether it is ok for men and women to live under the same roof. They state that it is anthitethical to their conservative democratic ethos. On the one side, the AKP are pushing for equality in the public realm for one collective identity, whilst interfering into freedoms deep in individual’s private sphere.
People are free to live with whom they choose, and to have sex with whom they choose. The proposal to introduce law enforcement into the most sacred and personal of spaces, people’s homes, because a conservative government is distressed that young and unmarried kids might be having sex, falling in love and interacting in ways their parent’s generation did not is indefensible.