Alparslan Altan. Does the name ring any bells? If you rely on English-language sources for news of what’s happening in Turkey then the answer is probably no, for he seems to have made no ripples. But in the Turkish-language media, Mr Altan was the subject of some controversy earlier this year. More recently, he has been the focus of an online video clip that has been circulating in the run-up to next month’s constitutional referendum.
Mr Altan is one of the four substitute members of Turkey’s Constitutional Court. He was appointed to that position by president Abdullah Gül at the end of March. If the current referendum campaign results in a ‘yes’ vote, Mr Altan will become a full member of the expanded court within weeks (as will each of the current substitute members). He is relatively young, which means that he is likely to end up being one of the court’s longest-serving members—it will be 2033 before he reaches the retirement age of 65.
Mr Altan therefore has the makings of a potentially highly influential individual in Turkey in the years ahead, a period that is likely to be characterised by continuing conflict over how exactly Turkish democracy should work. Which in turn means that there is a perfectly valid case for inquiring into what kind of a man Mr Altan is and where his instincts and experience would be likely to lead him as a judge.
“Islam cannot accept this”
This brings us to the video clip that has been circulating, which I received first in early May and then again over the weekend, and which appears with a heading that reads: “Let’s meet the new member of the Constitutional Court”. The clip seeks quite clearly to answer my question as to what kind of a man Mr Altan might be. I’m not going to transcribe it in full, but you’ll get a sense of it from the following excerpt (apologies for a rough and ready translation):
“Allah has an opinion on matters that come before the courts and a judge can’t deliver that opinion, a judge has no choice but to deliver another opinion. Normally where Allah has one opinion, it isn’t right to deliver another one. Islam cannot accept this.”
Alarming? Evidence of the governing AKP’s contempt for the secular foundations of Turkey’s higher judiciary? Well, yes, it might amount to just that, were it not for the really quite pertinent fact that the man speaking in the video clip isn’t Alparslan Altan. Nor, for that matter, is he any of the other members of the Constitutional Court, nor of any other court. His name is Alparslan Kuytul, and he heads a foundation, the Furkan Vakfı, which wears its religious leanings rather prominently on its sleeve.
Here are three images for you to compare. On the left is a photograph of Alparslan Altan. In the middle is a screenshot from the video clip. On the right is a photograph of Alparslan Kuytul.
I have no idea how widely circulated the clip of Mr Kuytul has been. I’m not even sure whether it’s possible to find out (it’s been doing the rounds in a variety of formats). But I would hazard a very strong guess that many of those who receive it will assume that it is what it purports to be, namely a speech by an AKP-appointed member of the Constitutional Court and therefore an indication of what might lie ahead. I would hazard a further guess that it will swing some votes. This is, of course, to be regretted. There are more than enough points of substance on which to criticise the government without resorting to viral duplicity.
An unduly rapid rise to the top?
The irony is that one of the issues on which the government could be (and has been) criticised is the manner of the real Mr Altan’s appointment in March. Granted, the point at stake wasn’t as dramatic as the conflict between divine and human justice on view in the Kuytul clip, but it wasn’t trivial either.
Mr Altan was appointed to the court as a substitute member following the retirement of Mustafa Yıldırım. Mr Altan was appointed by the president to be one of the court’s quota of members drawn from among senior administrative officers. He was eligible to be chosen on this basis because he was working as Deputy Undersecretary in the Undersecretariat for Maritime Affairs. However, the controversy over Mr Altan’s appointment arises from the fact that he had only been appointed to that role 31 days before being elevated to the Constitutional Court. (For the preceding nine years he had worked as the rapporteur of the Constitutional Court, a position from which his appointment as a judge of the court would not have been possible.)
As far as I’m aware, no-one has suggested that the letter of the rules or procedures was broken in any of this. Mr Altan held a position that made him eligible to be appointed to the Constitutional Court by the president as a senior administrative officer. But it doesn’t look good—there is at least a prima facie case to answer in terms of Mr Altan having been shoe-horned into the court via a hastily contrived appointment to the Undersecretariat for Maritime Affairs. At the time of Mr Altan’s appointment, the opposition CHP was deeply critical. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, now the party’s leader, called on Mr Altan to withdraw immediately to show that he understood the difference between honour and shame. Those who supported the appointment countered by highlighting the routes taken into the court by other, pre-AKP, appointees—notably Fulya Kantarcıoğlu, who joined the court in 1995.
The question of Mr Altan’s appointment appears to be a non-issue as far as the current referendum campaign is concerned. This is odd, because the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the constitution goes to the heart of the referendum. The AKP is correct in saying that the proposed changes, if accepted, would bring the text of the constitution closer into line with European norms. But the opposition is worried less about the text of the changes being proposed than about the spirit with which the AKP would seek to implement them. With that in mind, the events surrounding Mr Altan’s appointment would seem to give the government’s opponents a useful story to (re)tell now to sow doubts about the government’s intentions. And yet it’s the video of Mr Kuytul that’s being pressed into service for this purpose.