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A Lunch With Kılıçdaroğlu

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments] Early this week, I received a phone call from Sencer Ayata, a professor of sociology who joined the Republican People's Party, or CHP, a little less than a year ago. He invited me to join a lunch at which the CHP's new "youth report" would be launched. "Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu will also be with us," said Dr. Ayata. "It will be a chance to chat with him." Pleased with the idea, I said, "Thanks, sure." This was the very first invite I was receiving from the CHP, and it seemed to signal the change the party is going through – or, at least, trying to go through. I also knew that Dr. Ayata, an erudite sociologist and a true social democrat, was a man whose works are worth looking at. So, on the day of meeting, I headed to the locale, a nice costly restaurant near İstanbul's ever-busy İstiklal Avenue. Kılıçdaroğlu welcomed me and the dozen or more "young journalists" – which was quite a flattering definition for some of us. Besides youth matters, I was also interested in learning what Kılıçdaroğlu thought on my favorite issue: religious freedom. Hence I wanted to ask him about one of the key problems in Turkey regarding that matter: the bans on the headscarf. First let me give you a background: The new stage in Turkey's never-ending headscarf controversy is about whether veiled women can be elected to Turkish Parliament and serve there with their headscarves on. The only case of a veiled deputy so far was that of Merve Kavakçı, who was elected in 1999 from the ticket of the Virtue Party, the predecessor of the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP. But the then-31-year-old Ms. Kavakçı was able to stay in Parliament for only 15 minutes, for the militants there (also known as deputies) pushed her out by madly yelling, "Out, out!" Ms. Kavakçı was publicly denounced for "defying the state," and was soon stripped of not just her seat in Parliament but also her very Turkish citizenship. Yet there is a new campaign now to elect veiled deputies again, and the CHP does not sound as intolerant on this matter as in the past. But Kılıçdaroğlu did not turn out to be too reassuring on this during our pre-lunch discussion. "Of course veiled women can be elected to Parliament," he said. "But then they should obey the parliamentary rules for dress code." In other words, they have to take their veils off. So much for the CHP's freedom agenda. Not terribly impressed with this answer, I began listening about the presentations about the "youth report" of the CHP. There were certainly good ideas: the shortening of the mandatory military service, social and cultural programs to "empower the youth" and efforts to reach out to uneducated and unemployed women. Other ideas, such as giving "a youth discount" to youngsters in shops, sounded too welfare-state-ish. (If we the state will subsidize the youth, why not the old as well? And, well, why should the middle-agers be excluded? What you will reach at the end of that road is an economic disaster, because the all-subsidizing state will simply run out of money.) Yet the CHP's socialist tendencies are the least of my problems with the party. What matters more is their stance on political, civil and religious liberties. That's why their focus on education caught my attention. Both Kılıçdaroğlu and his aides explained how they will open more schools all across the country and "expand" education to every corner. And that was all welcome. However, I was interested in not just the extent but also the content of the Turkish education system. "Ours is not a system that encourages free and critical thinking," I noted, and recalled the notorious oath that every Turkish student takes every week "to follow Atatürk's path... and to sacrifice my self to Turkish existence." Would the CHP keep such blunt methods of collectivist indoctrination in its new vision? In his response, Kılıçdaroğlu was again not reassuring. He said "unity" is a very important value to teach school kids, and they can learn about diversity when they go to college. In other words, we must keep on indoctrinating children with a state ideology until they became adults. Now, I don't want to be unfair to Kılıçdaroğlu – for actually, despite all these criticisms, I liked the man. He is a modest and polite human being with whom you can converse comfortably. (Not a very common trait among Turkish political leaders.) I also support the "winds of change" he is trying to bring to his archaic party. Some of his recent criticisms against the AKP government are also well-placed. But the CHP needs more "change" than what it is signaling right now. Democrat minds such as Dr. Ayata seem to know that well, and Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu seem to have been rightly benefiting from their vision. But he needs more. It is very hard, if not impossible, to become a social democratic party while staying loyal to the CHP's Kemalist roots. I don't expect Kılıçdaroğlu and his team to reject Kemalism categorically – as I do. But they can well declare that it was an ideology for its own time and that Turkey now needs to move forward. This would make them more coherent in their effort to make the CHP an advocate of liberty.
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