Erdoğan, gov’t distance themselves from speaker’s secularism remarks

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and several officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on Tuesday said a controversial call made by Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman for the removal of the principle of secularism from the country’s new constitution represents the speaker’s view alone.

Kahraman sparked a controversy as well as protests when he said in a statement on Monday that secularism should not be included in the new constitution. “We should not escape from the issue of a religious constitution,” Kahraman was quoted as saying at a conference.

Kahraman, who ran as a candidate for the AK Party was elected as the new parliament speaker in November of last year following the Nov. 1 elections that granted the AK Party parliamentary majority.

Following his call, opposition parties, being mainly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), lashed out at Kahraman for his call while demonstrations have been held in some parts of the country in support of the principle of secularism.

Speaking to reporters from Zagreb on Tuesday where he is on an official visit, President Erdoğan said: “Our Parliament Speaker expressed his own views [on the issue of secularism]. My personal view is obvious from the very beginning. This is also obvious in the party among whose founders I am. The speech I delivered in Egypt on this issue is very important. The state is in equal distance to all belief groups so that they could exercise their beliefs. This is secularism.”

Erdoğan was referring to a speech he made in Cairo in September 2011 in which he called for the new Constitution of Egypt to include the principle of secularism.

In a move that many saw as backtracking, Parliament Speaker Kahraman also made a statement earlier on Tuesday, saying that the views he expressed on Monday regarding secularism were his personal views.

Several AK Party officials also said Kahraman’s views do not represent the view of the AK Party on the secularism issue.

AK Party deputy Mustafa Şentop, the head of the parliamentary constitutional commission, has said the party did not even discuss the exclusion of the principle in the new constitution. “The parliament speaker is not speaking on behalf of the party. Secularism is included in our proposal for a new charter. The problem is not on secularism but on its implementation,” Şentop said on Tuesday.

AK Party’s Burhan Kuzu, who is also a constitutional professor, said the party’s proposal for the new charter does include the principle of secularism. AK Party spokesperson Ömer Çelik also said there will be the principle of secularism in his party’s proposal for a new charter.

The AK Party has been working on a new charter to replace the current one.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) which released a statement on Tuesday about the secularism debate, said the association finds the proposal to remove the principle of secularism from the new Constitution “worrisome” and “unacceptable.”

The AK Party has been accused of undermining the principle of secularism since it came to power in 2002.

In March 2008, Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya, then-chief public prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, submitted an indictment to the Constitutional Court demanding that the AK Party be closed down on the grounds that it had become a focal point for anti-secular activities.

The indictment also sought a political ban of five years for 71 party members, including then-Prime Minister Erdoğan and then-President Abdullah Gül, who was also an AK Party member at the time.

The Constitutional Court ruled against the closure of the ruling party, although six of the 11 judges voted in favor of closure. The court fined the party on the grounds that it “became a focal point for anti-secularist activities.”

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