Turkey’s Islamist government has abolished a long-standing tradition established in 1933: reciting a patriotic oath before starting class every morning in Turkey’s elementary schools. In response to criticism from nationalists and opposition parties Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan retorted yesterday, that nationalism isn’t about shouting slogans, but about making economic progress. He recounted how his Justice and Development Party (AKP) reduced the national debt and improved the economy since coming to power in 2002. He said the 1930’s slogan was outdated for the modern era. Effective last Monday he also removed the ban on wearing headscarves in public office.
The patriotic oath was part of a vision by the Republic’s founding father Ataturk who told his people to be proud, diligent and confident, words that have adorned a park in the heart of the capital city of Ankara over a statue of the unknown soldier. The school oath runs: “I am Turkish, I am truthful, I am diligent. My creed is to protect the young, respect my elders, and to love my country and my people more than myself.” The move has angered Turkish nationalists who suspect that it is part of an agenda to transform Turkey into an Ottoman style Islamic republic made up of autonomous or semi-autonomous ethnic communities. A sarcastic comment posted on the Internet suggests that the oath may be replaced by the words “I am a lazy dishonest Medieval Bedouin in bathroom clogs...” Nationalists often call Islamists men in bathroom clogs in reference to the anti-reform riots in the Ottoman Empire led by steam bath attendants. Patrona Halil, a steam bath attendant, led a religious riot that destroyed what is known in history as the Tulip Period when Ottoman rulers tried to introduce the printing press from Europe and a Renaissance of fine arts and science.
Nationalism and patriotism are often at odds with Islamist precepts since under Islam interests and well-being of the Islamic community of brethren must take precedence over any other political consideration. Prime Minister Erdogan has made no secret of the fact that he would like the educational system to change to raise a new generation of good pious Muslims. His recently announced reform package also included lifting the 80-year-old ban on wearing headscarves in public office. As of last Monday headscarves can be worn by any public servant but judges, prosecutors and armed forces personnel, but nobody doubts that these will be next on the hit list. An AKP deputy has already demanded to know in the Parliament if a judge’s reasoning would be impaired because of a headscarf.
In spite of the deepening divide between Turkey’s Islamists and secularists Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP continue leading in the polls thanks to his economic performance and support of the borderline vote as well as the business community in general. A “secular” Turkish businessman visiting Vancouver told the author that the Prime Minister has weeded out corruption from the bureaucracy and done some good things his secularist predecessors failed at miserably. He said that the PM could’ve become the second Ataturk were it not for his religious zealotry. It seems to be a trade-off between the Republic’s fundamental values and bread on the table, which most Turks are apparently willing to live with as long as the bread keeps coming.