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Misperceptions on secularism in Turkey (1):
Secular individual and society
The Turkish Constitutional Court will soon decide on the closure case against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

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The case once again revived debates on secularism in Turkey. Four major misperceptions need to be deconstructed for a healthy debate on this issue.

1. Secularism is a way of life and a constitutional principle.

On Sept. 20, 2004, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president of Turkey at the time, stood before the Directorate of Religious Affairs' third symposium on religious affairs and proclaimed: "Secularism is a way of life which should be adopted by an individual. A 'secular individual' should confine religion in the sacred place of his conscience and disallow his belief to affect this world." On the other hand, rightist politicians, from Turgut Özal to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have depicted secularism as a characteristic of the state, not individuals, and have recognized that religion has implications beyond an individual's conscience.

The mistake of rightist politicians is their denial of the possible existence of a secular individual who embraces secularism as a worldview. There are secular individuals in Turkey and elsewhere who choose a secular lifestyle by restricting religion in their consciences. On the other hand, the mistake of Sezer and his followers is to confuse secularism as a way of life and secularism as a constitutional principle. Secularism in the Turkish Constitution, and constitutions of other secular states, implies a political principle that delineates the relationship between the state and religions, especially regarding two criteria: 1) Parliament and courts in secular states are not under institutional religious control, and 2) secular states constitutionally declare neutrality toward religions. Secularism as a way of life is not a constitutional principle of the Turkish Republic. It is only one of alternative lifestyles. The secular state cannot impose a secular worldview on its citizens.

In this regard, some individuals may define themselves as "secular" in terms of rejecting or ignoring religion in their lives. The state should be neutral toward these citizens as it should be toward citizens who take religion seriously in their lives. In some countries, such as Belgium, secularism is considered one of the alternative religious and ideological components of society. The Belgian state, therefore, funds secularists as it does other religious groups. Yet, secularism in Belgium is one of several comprehensive doctrines, not the one officially recognized and imposed by the state on the people.

A secular state can only ask individuals to be "secular" in a sense that they defend secularism against anti-secular regimes. Recently, Prime Minister Erdoğan also acknowledged this point. He declared that he could define himself as "a secular individual" in terms of "supporting the secular characteristic of the state," but not in terms of believing in secularism as an alternative to religion. In addition to the misunderstandings on secularism as a way of life, secularism as a constitutional principle is also misperceived in Turkey, especially with regard to religion's relations to social life.

2 . Secularism does not allow religion's impact on social life

In a decision made on Jan. 16, 1997, the Turkish Constitutional Court argued that secularism did not denote the separation of religion and the state, but that it implied "separation of religion and worldly affairs." According to the court, secularism means the separation of "social life, education, family, economy, law, manners, dress codes, etc., from religion." This is an exceptionally radical definition of secularism that imprisons religion to individuals' conscience and is hard to find even in some authoritarian countries such as Tunisia and Uzbekistan.

Under this definition, the court takes secularism as a social engineering project to secularize society. By doing so, it confuses secularism with secularization. Secularization refers to particular social processes, including the erosion of religion's public role. These are gradual and bottom-up social processes based on people's demands and choices. Secularism, on the other hand, is a constitutional regime that determines the political boundaries between state and religion, as explained above. A neutral secular state should not take a position for or against the secularization of society. The absence or existence of religious symbols and discourse in the public sphere, therefore, should not be in the policy agenda of a secular state. If a secular state pursues policies to secularize society, it will lose its neutrality.

In this regard, an institution's position toward secularism can only be evaluated with its stand regarding a) the secular character of Parliament and courts, and b) the state's neutrality towards religions. In Turkey, there is almost a consensus on secular legislation and jurisprudence. According to recent survey data, supporters of an Islamic state based on Shariah constitute only 9 percent. The debates on secularism, therefore, focus on state neutrality towards Sunnis, Alevis and non-Muslims. Those who support equal rights of these groups are truly for secularism in Turkey. To support the exclusion of religion from the public sphere is not a universal criterion to evaluate an individual or an institution's approval of secularism. Such support can only be a criterion to examine one's opposition to liberal democracy.

In sum, secularization of neither individual nor society can be a policy goal for a truly secular state. In democratic secular states, individuals are free to decide religion's impact on their social life. The defenders of Turkey's restrictive polices toward religion have tried to justify these policies through the so-called exceptionalism of Islam and the uniqueness of secularism in Turkey. The second part of the essay will refute these two claims by examining Islam's relations to politics and by comparing Turkey with the United States and France.

Islam, Christianity and secularism

3 . Islam is incompatible with secularism, requiring secularism in Turkey to be restrictive.

In a decision handed down on March 7, 1989, the Turkish Constitutional Court claimed that Islam, unlike Christianity, had public claims. For controlling such a religion, a strict secularism, which confined religion to individual spirituality, was necessary, something unnecessary in Christian societies. The court, in fact, did not invent the argument on the so-called exceptionalism of Islam but adopted it from Orientalists, who regarded Islam as a set of eternal rules independent of human will. Orientalists often refer to a verse of the Bible to prove the compatibility of Christianity and secularism: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's." According to Bernard Lewis, "The distinction between church and state, so deeply rooted in Christendom, did not exist in Islam." Samuel Huntington expands Lewis' thesis to other religions and cultures: "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner. The separation and recurring clashes between church and state that typify Western civilization have existed in no other civilization."

The Orientalists, therefore, present Turkey as an exception in the Muslim world with its secular state. A general survey of the Muslim world, however, refutes this claim. Well-known historian Ira Lapidus stresses that there have existed separate religious and political authorities in the Muslim world since the eighth century. At that time, independent Sunni schools of law, Shiite sects, and Sufi tariqas (orders), in addition to secular military and administrative rulers, challenged and replaced the institution of the caliphate, which claimed to represent both political and religious authorities. Recently, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report on the constitutions of Muslim-majority countries. The commission concludes that "the majority of the world's Muslim population currently lives in countries that either proclaim the state to be secular or that make no pronouncements concerning Islam to be the official state religion." The index in my forthcoming book, "Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey" (Cambridge University Press), confirms the report's textual analysis as summarized below. The index disproves the alleged homogeneity of state-Islam relations in the Muslim world while showing that Turkey is not the only secular state in the Muslim world.

State-religion regimes in 45 Muslim countries

Islamic states.....11

States with islam established religion.....15

Secular states.....19

Orientalism has difficulty explaining not only the Muslim world, but also Christian societies. Its argument about the inherent church-state separation in Christianity overly romanticizes Christian societies by ignoring their a) historical religious wars and church-state struggles, b) substantially diverse state-religion regimes at present, and c) current experience of religiously driven debates on political and legal issues, such as divorce, abortion, gay rights, and evolutionism, which cannot be simply explained by rendering them unto Caesar.

In sum, Islam is not an inherently political religion. Like Christianity, it has both political and apolitical interpretations. Therefore, rigid policies of the Turkish state toward religion cannot be justified by the so-called exceptionality of Islam. Another excuse for these policies is the so-called exceptionalism of Turkish secularism. Defenders of strict secularist policies in Turkey generally argue that states that deeply respect religious freedoms, such as the US, are not comparable with Turkey since they are not secular enough, while Turkey can only be compared with similarly secular states, such as France. The next section will address this fourth and last myth.

* Dr. Ahmet T. Kuru is postdoctoral scholar and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion at Columbia University.

Note: The expanded version of this essay will be published with references in Insight Turkey.


17 July 2008, Thursday


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