Civil Society

Institutionalizing democracy has a long way to go in Turkey and time is needed for civil society, the social capital driving development, to grow and increase in influence. Non-profit groups such as the Turkish Earthquake Foundation and the Search and Rescue Association (AKUT), historically overlooked by Ankara, took on new importance after the August 1999 Earthquake when they came to the assistance of victims and communities more quickly and effectively than the government in many instances. Youth organizations such as the national ARI Movement and the Young Leaders of Anatolia play a role in Turkey, where more than 60% of the population is under 30. The goal of these groups is to promote volunteerism among Turkish youth, encouraging young people to participate in democracy and become informed civic voices. They serve as a counterbalance to radical Islamic youth groups, whose agendas tend to focus on helping the Palestinians and rejecting the West.

There are more than 200 women’s organizations in Turkey. Some are secular and Western-leaning. Others are more conservative, seeking reforms within a more traditional interpretation of Islam. Women have gained legal rights under the new AKP government and are now working on getting these rights translated into practice. They know that this will take time and look to the EU accession process with its emphasis on human rights to help catalyze the process. Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation, Ka-Mer, Flying Broom, Association of Support for Women Candidates, and the Turkish Women’s Association are a few examples of women’s groups that operate without state aid and strive to help Turkish women live independent lives, free of violence.

One dynamic women’s group, KADER, founded in 1997, is working to increase the number of women working in all fields. While women are currently well represented in the fields of law and higher education, only 4.4% of Parliament members are women. KADER and other women’s groups also press for property rights, education, and the end of honor killings and other forms of domestic violence. Despite shared agendas, western-leaning women’s groups and conservative women’s groups often lose potential for synergy by failing to work together.

Political reforms are essential to the growth of civil society in Turkey. Business groups such as the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD) are actively engaged in reforming election laws and laws governing political parties, and working to establish needed checks and balances in the government.

Religious freedom is particularly circumscribed when it involves the Greek Orthodox Church, which some Turks view as a Trojan horse for Greeks seeking to undermine Turkey. The Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki remains closed despite pressure from the U.S. and the international community. Even though the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, is based in Istanbul, there are currently no new Greek Orthodox priests being trained in Turkey.

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