By Yasser Latif Hamdani
As a Pakistani, I consider myself a friend and well-wisher of the Republic of Turkey, one of the few places in the world where when I tell people that I am a Pakistani, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. This friendship is rooted in history dating back to the Turkish War of Independence. Muslims of British India supported the Turkish struggle against the Greeks backed by the imperial powers not just in words but also in deeds, through financial contribution and through political mobilisation. It is also well known that Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah admired Kemal Ataturk and his reforms greatly, calling him the greatest man of the age and an example for Muslims of British India. Consequently, many Pakistanis have for a long time looked at Turkey as a model Muslim majority nation that revived itself through embracing modernity and secularism.
Turkish parliament Speaker, Ismail Kahraman, reportedly stated that there would be no place for secularism in the new Turkish constitution being mulled over in that country. He called for an “Islamic constitution” instead keeping with the fact that Turkey is a “Muslim nation.” There is no question that Turkey is a Muslim nation, a fact that was underscored by the Turkish War of Independence and the Treaty of Lausanne that followed it. Yet must a Muslim nation have an Islamic constitution and has this idea worked out elsewhere? I present Pakistan as a test case. Pakistan’s independence movement, like that of Turkey, was led by modernist Muslim leaders, who were denounced as Kemalists by the religious clergy. However, unlike Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, who were military strongmen and were inspired by the French model of the secular state, Pakistan’s founders were lawyers and politicians schooled in the British parliamentary tradition. Increasingly, and especially after Jinnah’s death, the Pakistani leadership sought to arrive at a compromise with the religious clergy by attempting to frame a constitution that was modern, democratic and Islamic at the same time. Out of this compromise, Pakistan was christened an Islamic Republic in 1956. While there were certain nods towards the clergy, significantly, the constitution did not prescribe a state religion. However, under this constitution, the president of the republic had to be a Muslim and no law could in theory contradict the principles of Islam. This was the repugnancy principle.
Pakistan’s second constitution in 1962 followed the same scheme, though for a short while, under General Ayub Khan, the soldier-president and a decidedly Kemalist military ruler, Pakistan became simply the Republic of Pakistan. Pakistan’s current constitution was put in force by Pakistan’s parliament in 1973, which, interestingly, was the most secular parliament in our history. This time, the clergy succeeded in getting Pakistan’s secular elites to agree to an even more extensive list of Islamic provisions than either 1956 or 1962. Significantly, for the first time, Pakistan now had a state religion. The ‘Muslim’ bar for the office of president was extended to the office of prime minister as well. The following year, the same parliament, by a unanimous vote, declared the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim, and thus legitimised a form of constitutional sectarianism that haunts Pakistan to this day.
Yet even these unconscionable compromises did not satisfy the clergy. In 1977 the religious parties in Pakistan, in alliance with a few secular parties, started the Nizam-e-Mustafa campaign calling for the implementation of Islamic law in Pakistan. As a result of this movement, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, which had bent over backwards to accommodate the religious forces, fell and was replaced by General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. General Zia, who ironically was very close to General Evren and the military junta that drafted Turkey’s current secular constitution, set about changing the very nature of Pakistani society, changing it from a moderate Muslim population to one riven with fear and obsessed with religion. Many of the personal freedoms that Pakistanis, before 1977, took for granted (and what Turks today take for granted) were taken away through ordinances. Everything was justified in the name of Islam.
Ataturk had realised in the 1920s that allowing religion in governance would be especially problematic given that clergy’s claims in the name of religion are always absolute. Turkey more than any other country had the claim to being an ‘Islamic Republic’, given that it was a successor state to the Caliphate, and its Turkish nationalism had been wholly centred around Muslims of Anatolia. Yet Ataturk and his successors decided not to take that path. They opted instead for a clean break with religion, French style, to the great benefit of the people of Turkey.
Many well-meaning Indian Muslim modernists like the Aga Khan III and Syed Ameer Ali wrote letters of appeal to Ataturk asking him to preserve the institution of Caliphate, to even become the Caliph himself, but Ataturk refused to budge. There are many historians and scholars of constitutional law who have questioned Ataturk’s decision to follow the French model instead of the British model that would have accommodated some role for religion. Pakistan and Malaysia are two Muslim examples of the latter model and, at best, there is a tenuous peace between modernity and religion in these countries. Great energy is expended in these countries explaining away meanings of the holy texts and arguing about what the true religious doctrine really is. Turkey has evaded such superfluous legal and constitutional debates by treading a completely and even militantly secular path.
Through this article, therefore, I appeal to the people of Turkey and to President Erdogan not to make the same mistake as Pakistan and not to indulge this fantasy of an Islamic constitution. Let your constitution be a true compact between the state and the people of Turkey, based on human rights and freedom for all citizens regardless of their religion or gender. Turkey is a unique country amongst Muslim majority countries of the world and can act as a bridge between the West and Islam, but it can only do so if it remains a secular republic.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.