I know Turkey is a secular state. As a reader of books about the Middle East (such as this fine one) and as someone who got a degree in political science, I have heard all about Kemal Ataturk and the secular founding of the country. But I had never appreciated how secular Turkey was until I read reporter Laura King’s story in The Los Angeles Times.
King wrote about whether the country’s ruling party would be shut down by its highest court because of alleged anti-secular activity. (The party ended up being fined.) King wasted no time in showing readers the importance of the nation’s secular constitution. Her introductory paragraphs began this way:
In an overwhelmingly Muslim but avowedly secular state, the legal confrontation illuminates the deep divide between the devout and those who are determined to keep displays of piety from public life.
In the most drastic outcome, the Constitutional Court could outlaw the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, for anti-secular activity. It could also ban dozens of senior party leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from participating in politics for five years.
Later, King showed the nature of the ruling party’s offense: It tried — tried — to overturn a certain type of ban:
The AKP overwhelmingly won last summer’s elections, running mainly on a platform of economic development. However, it caused an uproar this year when it attempted to toss out a ban on head scarves at public universities. That set the current case in motion, with the party standing accused by prosecutors of harboring an Islamist agenda that runs counter to Turkey’s secular constitution.
Then, King gave readers the context necessary to understand the highest court’s impending decision:
Turkish courts and officials have banned political parties in the past, about 20 times in all. But banned parties have often simply reconstituted themselves under another name, and the AKP would probably do the same. The current party is a more moderate offshoot of an Islamist party that was outlawed in the 1990s.
The story was not perfect. Perhaps King could have cited the secular constitutional laws in question. Perhaps she could have mentioned whether the anti-secular laws are unpopular or not. But of course, as Tmatt implied, perhaps newspapers could stop reducing the length of their news stories.
Yet this story got religion. Or rather it showed what happens to a state where public displays of religion are banned completely.