Always something to do

Talking privately, deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in Turkey admit that they have made mistakes by delaying the submission of some of the long-awaited reform packages to Parliament. Yet they also contend that every time they tried to push for them, the rug was pulled from under their feet and they had to deal with snap crises, leaving them to make politically correct decisions every time.

The excuse works only to a certain degree. One could raise “could have, should have and would have” arguments easily and claim that the AK Party missed some golden opportunities to advance on reform packages. They have enough numbers in Parliament to pass laws or even amendments to the Constitution, albeit with great difficulty in the former and with slim chances in the latter cases.

We know that the opposition rejects outright any compromise on European Union-oriented bills lest these laws will work for the benefit of the AK Party. They have already dug their heels in further and seem to be determined to stop or at least delay their progress in Parliament. Even if, by some grand design, the bill makes the floor and gets adopted, it is highly likely that the main opposition party will take the case to the Constitutional Court, which is known for its tendency to come down with a decision favoring the opposition most of the time.

But there are other areas in which the government could make a difference in addressing the grievances raised by many in this country. It could fix some of the problems mentioned, for example, in the EU Commission progress report. Without passing laws, simple changes in regulations and government decrees may help Turkey’s EU bid to gain some much-desired traction on the bumpy EU road. Of course, the Council of State, a high judicial body charged with examining whether the acts and the management of the executive branch comply with the law, may stop government from using this venue, engaging in a judicial activism that goes beyond simple review and at times amounts to law making.

Nevertheless, the government has abundant powers that can be employed here without stepping on the toes of the higher judiciary or stoking tension with the opposition and still make progress on the EU path. A case in point is the government’s efforts to improve the treatment of non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey. Though some of the changes require new laws or constitutional amendments, a good portion of demands can be met with simple steps. For example, the news that the government is trying to find a piece of land for the Assyrian community in İstanbul in concert with the municipality so that they can build a place of worship is a positive step.

The very fact that the prime minister and his Cabinet members are, for the first time, talking to and meeting with leaders of religious communities is testament that they are sincere in this endeavor. Sometimes the determination of the political leadership through public meetings like this helps overcome bureaucratic resistance within the state apparatus as well. Believe me, we have an abundance of resistance in government agencies that goes with the business-as-usual approach despite the executive branch trying to rein them in.

For instance, the financial authorities raided the Hemdat Israel synagogue in İstanbul one recent Sabbath morning and asked for deeds and social security documents to audit records in a routine check. Though a synagogue is no exception when it comes to reviewing financial records, the way it was handled, especially on the most crowded day, gave the wrong message to the religious community.

People close to the prime minister tell me that Recep Tayyp Erdoğan was furious when he was made aware of the complaint from the Jewish leaders and privately conveyed his anger to the Cabinet member who has the jurisdiction over the authorities who carried out the raid. I am sure the authorities will have second thoughts the next time they want to venture out on something like this.

Following in the footsteps of the prime minister, his deputy Bülent Arınç also met with the leaders of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities last week, signaling the government’s commitment to solving the outstanding problems challenging minorities. The meeting was well-attended by 21 individuals, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aram Ateşyan, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin and Simon Zazadze, who represented the Georgian Catholic Church.

The messages were promising and struck the right note with the leaders of the religious communities. For example, Arınç said it was very just for the Greek Patriarchate to demand the reopening of the Halki Seminary, stressing that it was completely normal for religious communities to want to raise theologians. He blamed the Constitutional Court for creating restrictions on the reopening of the seminary through previous decisions.

Arınç emphasized that the government is determined to restart education at the Halki Seminary in line with Turkish law before it is too late. “We are like a seven-colored rose that has grown in these lands with our different cultures, traditions and beliefs,” he said. Comments like these help break down barriers on stereotyping minorities and non-Muslim religious communities and boost the confidence of Turkish citizens belonging to minority faiths and cultures.

The government should keep working on improving the lives of these people no matter how adamant the higher judiciary or state bureaucracy or the opposition, for that matter, is. Even small steps here and there make a difference.

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