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İHSAN DAĞI i.dagi@todayszaman.com Columnists

Passive secularism and the poverty of the Kemalists


Last week Professor Ergun Özbudun gave an interview about a book he had co-authored with Professor William Hale titled “Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey.” In the interview Professor Özbudun underlined the need for adopting a “passive secularism” instead of an authoritarian one.

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The fact that Turkey is the only member of the Council of Europe where there is a ban on the headscarf in universities confirms this oppressive system of secularism, according to Özbudun.

In order to modify such an authoritarian notion of secularism he suggests the adoption of passive secularism, a notion developed by Dr. Ahmet Kuru from Colombia University in his ground-breaking book “Secularism and State Policies Toward Religion: the United States, France and Turkey,” and in his two articles which appeared in World Politics and Comparative Politics where he identifies two forms of secularism; passive and assertive.

 Passive secularism brought to the agenda by Kuru's research and Özbudun's interviews received rather “odd” reactions from the Kemalist/secularist circles. The commentaries of Oktay Ekşi, Güngör Mengi and Güneri Civaoğlu, all writing for newspapers that belong to the Doğan media group, are reflective of the intellectual poverty of these circles. Among them, Güneri Civaoğlu's response is really “typical,” demonstrating how the minds of secular Kemalists work.

A senior journalist with a Western-looking lifestyle, Civaoğlu simply presents the following, published in his Milliyet column: Dr. Kuru's photo with a Colombia University logo, and beneath it written “made in the USA.” How sophisticated, intelligent and thought provoking a commentary piece this is, isn't it? Instead of criticizing Dr. Kuru's arguments he resorts to a simple strategy of discrediting Dr. Kuru by underlining the fact that he is working for an American university. The way Civaoğlu presented Dr. Kuru shows how his mind works; Dr. Kuru has developed an argument that I do not like; Dr. Kuru is working for an American university. Thus the conclusion: The argument put forward by Dr. Kuru is the making of the US government. Well done!

With such a level of knowledge and understanding of academia, science, the US, Europe and the world, their status as pioneers of modernization has long been lost.

Notwithstanding the poverty of the Kemalists, it is time to move toward a more liberal understanding of secularism, one that does not interfere in individual religious choices and their public appearances. In the Akşam interview, Professor Özbudun asserts that “passive secularism” entails “the neutrality of the state towards all religions; the state's equal distance to all religions, sects and even agnostics; nondiscrimination based on religions and sects; separation of religion and state.”

The Turkish version of secularism is rather different; according to Özbudun it is based on an understanding that the “state has a mission to secularize people.” With such a mission in mind the state does discriminate against religions and sects, closes political parties, bars students with headscarves from entering universities and oppresses religious foundations and associations. All these discriminative acts are then justified by a reference to the principle of secularism. This cannot be if a “proper” understanding of secularism is implemented.

But the militant secularism that is in practice is and has been a device to exclude, suppress or at least control non-Kemalist social, political and economic groups. (Militant) secularism has been a mechanism of control in the hands of the Kemalist power elites, which is the essence of Turkish militant secularism. Out of this mission of “secularizing the people” the Kemalist power elites generate the right to rule over those “backward, ignorant and non-secular people.” The mission to secularize sets a power relationship in favor of the Kemalist elite.

The question is that such a mission and the usage of secularism as an act of exclusion and control do not work in contemporary Turkey. Turkey's growing engagement with globalization, the emergence of open society and the dynamics of democratization and the market economy make it impossible to sustain such a power relationship that is constructed with militant secularism. Thus the Kemalist power elites claim that “secularism is under threat.” What is under threat is, in fact, their unfair power and privileges derived from an authoritarian/militant notion of secularism.

Whether they like it or not, militant secularism is passé even in this country. It is being replaced by a liberal or passive secularism through democratization.

28 September 2009, Monday
İHSAN DAĞI
Comments on this article

michelle , Sep 28 2009 19:48, Monday
It is a sad day for the people of Turkey. Secularism is the only path to being respected as a world power. The subtle ...
Viggo , Sep 28 2009 12:22, Monday
I share the view of the author, but we still must make sure that Turkey remains a secular country which will never be gu...

Click to read the details of comments
   
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