In the latest round of Turkey’s culture wars, thousands of women have taken to the streets in Istanbul this week, protesting a plan by the country’s Islamist-leaning government to restrict reproductive rights.
On Sunday, roughly 3,000 women marched alongside their sons and husbands through Istanbul’s Kadikoy district carrying banners that implored the government to “Keep your hands off me” and singing a famous Turkish protest song called: “I was born free, I shall live free.”
Since 1983, abortion has been legal in Turkey until 10 weeks after conception. Yet last week, with a speech in Istanbul, the country’s deeply religious prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, launched his government’s plan to prohibit all abortions four weeks after a child is conceived.
“Every abortion is a murder,” Erdogan said.
“There is no difference between killing a baby in its mother's stomach and killing a baby after birth.”
Erdogan’s remarks have sparked a new clash over the role of religion in Turkish society, pitting a secular, Westernized urban minority against the conservative Islamist heartland from which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, draws its strength. Erdogan and his allies won the last showdown with the ultra-secularists in 2010, when the AKP changed the Constitution to allow women to attend university wearing Islamic headscarves.
In one sense, some analysts see the debate over abortion as a healthy dialogue between opposing sectors of Turkish society.
“Turkey is finally having a ‘normal’ culture war, one like in the U.S. The older culture war—over whether a woman [can] wear a headscarf and go to university—was abnormal,” says Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.
“Of course women … have that right.”
In another sense, however, Akyol says the debate “creates yet another controversy in an already polarized country.”
In his battle for headscarf rights, Erdogan had the backing of the European Union. His latest campaign against abortion, however, has received a very different response from EU officials. There is no European standard on abortion rights, which are restricted or banned in several Catholic countries, including Poland and Ireland. But many European observers are concerned that Erdogan is attempting to impose a religious agenda.
“In the early years, the AKP’s priority was dismantling the legacies of totalitarianism in Turkey, [reforming] free speech legislation [and] reducing the political role of the Army,” says one Western diplomat in Istanbul, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“Now Erdogan believes he has a mandate for religiously based social engineering, which is a concern for many of Turkey’s friends,” in Europe.
The last time the AKP attempted a similar sort of plan was in 2004, when the prime minister proposed criminalizing adultery. At the time, Turkey was desperately vying for membership in the EU. So when European leaders responded to the proposal with stinging criticism, Erdogan quietly dropped it.
Eight years have passed since then, and much has changed. While Europe faces a deep financial crisis and enduring political paralysis, Turkey is still generating annual economic growth of more than 4 percent. Erdogan, meanwhile, has won six general elections and referendums. After a decade in power, he has never been more popular, thanks in large part to an unerring instinct for populism. The AKP’s attack on abortion is classic Erdogan: crude Turkish nationalism, backed with unspoken religious undertones.
“Turkey should have a young population,” AKP Health Minister Recep Akdag told reporters in Ankara on Saturday. “We cannot follow the wrong path of Western countries … where abortion is unconditionally free and where families have a certain lifestyle, [and] are in serious trouble due to their aging populations.”
Akdag and others have infuriated pro-choice advocates by opposing abortion even for rape victims.
“Killing the baby in the mother’s womb is a greater crime than the deeds of the rapist,” AKP lawmaker Ayhan Sefer Ustun, the head of Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, said Saturday.
A recent report by the Turkish Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that prior to abortion’s legalization in Turkey, 250 out of 10,000 pregnancies ended with the death of the mother—with most of the deaths caused by back-alley abortions. Under the proposed new law, abortions after four weeks will be legal only when it’s a medical emergency.
Erdogan’s move on abortion comes after a series of pro-Islamic initiatives by local AKP authorities, from a ban on the consumption of alcohol in public places in the Aegean province of Afyonkarahisar, to a proposal to introduce pink women-only buses in Istanbul. Last year, the AKP also introduced restrictions on sponsorship of sports teams by alcohol producers, prompting accusations of creeping Islamification.
That accusation reverberated again last Friday, when the internationally renowned Turkish concert pianist Fasil Say was charged with “publicly insulting religious values” after he posted quotes from the 11th-century Persian poet Oman Khayyam on Twitter:
“You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you?” he tweeted. “You say two hours await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”
Say’s trial is scheduled for October. If convicted, he faces up to 18 months behind bars.