According to the American legal system, neither the federal government nor states can prohibit religious symbols in general, or symbols of a particular religion by singling them out. In France and Turkey, however, the state has singled out students' religious attire to exclude them from public schools without having a general regulation due to a practical (e.g., health or security) purpose. The US respect toward religious freedom is not against secularism, but it is because of it. The First Amendment established secularism in the US in 1791, more than a century before the French Law of Separation in 1905, with the following statement: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Since then the US Supreme Court consolidated the secular nature of the state with famous decisions such as Everson and Lemon, which intended to put a "wall of separation" between the state and religion.
On some crucial issues, such as financial separation of the state and religious institutions, the US is more clearly secular than France and Turkey. Taxpayer money cannot be used to fund religious schools or temples in the US. The French state, however, funds 80 percent of the budgets of Catholic schools, which train about a fourth of all students. The French state also finances the maintenance of all churches built by 1905. Similarly, in Turkey, the state pays the salaries of imams through the Directorate of Religious Affairs and runs Islamic imam hatip schools. In this regard, the US is clearly a secular state and its policies should be taken seriously by those who defend secularism as a universal principle.
The similarity of Turkey and France is also problematic. The French state does not intervene in rituals in publicly funded church buildings or in Catholic schools' religious characteristics. The Turkish state, however, has used the Directorate of Religious Affairs and imam hatip schools as a means to keep Islam under control. In France, students have had the opportunity to attend churches or other institutions for religious education on school-free Wednesdays; while in Turkey, the state has barely allowed any religious education, except limited religious instruction in schools, which teaches a state-drafted version of Islam. Since the 1905 law, French public schools have had Catholic chaplains to respond to student demands for religious counseling. There have also been chaplains in French prisons, hospitals and barracks. In 2005, Muslim chaplains also started to feature in the military. In Turkey, however, there is no Muslim or non-Muslim chaplain in schools, the military or many other public institutions. Furthermore, in terms of the rights to association and private religious education, France provides more freedom to religious groups than Turkey, where teaching the Quran to children under 15 is forbidden except over the summer. For children under 12, it is totally banned.
Even the ban on headscarves is not easily comparable between Turkey and France. The ban in France is confined only to public schools, whereas the ban in Turkey encompasses universities, private schools and all other educational institutions. The ban in France was established by a law that was supported by 72 percent of the population, while in Turkey it is imposed by courts against Parliament's attempts to lift it and despite the fact that only 22 percent of the people supported the ban. In France, the headscarf is a symbol of a formerly colonized and immigrant religious minority while in Turkey Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority and 61 percent of women wear some kind of headscarf.
Consequently, not only does the US constitute an example of a long-standing secular state, but also French-Turkish sameness on secularism is misleading due to Turkey's much more rigid policies toward religion.
The deconstruction of the four myths examined in this essay is significant to have a constructive discussion on secularism in Turkey. The Turkish Constitutional Court should no longer be bound by certain misleading past opinions. The court can play an historical leading role with its future decisions if it provides new perspectives to the understanding and practice of secularism in Turkey.
*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.