by Mine Eder, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey
Religion and Islam have long been powerful political instruments for most of the center-right parties in Turkey. Parties on the left—and the People’s Republican Party, in particular—have used secularism, and strict separation of Islam and the state, as the fundamental platform to get votes. This paper will argue that behind the secularism debate that has continued for two decades in Turkey lies the utter failure of both sides to address and solve the classic issues of political economy: rising unemployment and poverty, declining incomes in the countryside, and the failure of the state to provide basic public services such as education and health care. While issues such as headscarves, the status of religious schools, and alcohol consumption occupy the country’s social and political agenda, the most crucial issues have been left out of the public discussion. The fact that issues such as poverty, inequality, and social/economic exclusion require basic structural policy and priority changes can also explain why both sides might prefer quick appeals to their constituencies through debates on secularism. This paper suggests that a host of factors—depoliticization of the economic issues since the 1980s against a backdrop of premature economic liberalization in Turkey; the “obsession with identity politics” rather than economic issues as a global trend, particularly since 9/11; and the absence of a genuinely social democratic platform in the country, despite lip service from both the Islamists and the so-called leftists—can be blamed for the crucial absence of such political economy issues from Turkey’s political agenda.