18 March 2013 Monday

‘No problem with secularism in writing new constitution’

Ahmet T. Kuru
9 October 2011 /LEVENT KENEZ
“Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey,” a book by Associate Professor Ahmet T. Kuru, a renowned academic from San Diego State University, has been recently translated into Turkish and published by Bilgi University Press.

The notions “passive secularism” and “assertive secularism” that Kuru coined based on his examination of the secularism practices in Turkey, France and the US have the potential to serve as guiding principles in the making of a new constitution.

He believes that a more gentle form of secularism, which he defines as passive secularism, as opposed to the Kemalist and French versions of laicite, could still allow pious individuals to keep God and religion in their daily lives, while ensuring justice for members of all faiths. Kuru notes that a passive form of secularism also gives individuals the opportunity to influence public opinion and even public policy to be shaped in ways that can be more accommodating with regard to their belief system.

Sunday’s Zaman interviewed Kuru on secularism and his book. The author shared his opinions on a broad range of topics, from whether Turkish secularism could be a model for the North African nations that have traditionally had religion in state and legal affairs and the problems with having an “Islamic state” to how secularism in Turkey’s new constitution should be defined to avoid restricting the religious freedoms of believers.

What does passive and assertive secularism mean?

Assertive secularism requires the state to take religion from the public sphere. In countries like Turkey, France and Mexico, the state sought to confine the religious discourse and symbols to the private sphere. On the other hand, passive secularism asks the state to remain passive and impartial vis-à-vis the religions in public sphere. In countries like the US, India and the Netherlands, the state ensures freedom for religious elements and their non-religious alternatives in the public sphere.

Turkey has been exhausted by debates over secularism. Will we be wasting our time again on this topic during the process of making a new constitution?

Maybe this is why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered his message of secularism in Egypt, maybe he noticed that it would be better when Turkey receives this message through the Arabs [laughter].

How did you understand the prime minister’s emphasis on secularism?

There is a propaganda campaign going on against Turkey in the West. It is alleged that Turkey is becoming Islamic and turning away from secularism. This pro-secularist statement silenced this criticism.

What would you say he specifically meant by in that speech in Egypt?

I saw the video of that interview by the prime minister, who explained his views at length there. He said that everybody should be equal before the state in terms of their religious beliefs. What he said next was that he was a Muslim but ran a secular state. He was saying that the state was neutral in regards to religion, which shows that he is against the thesis of Islamists.

Some argue that it was really a message to Western public opinion. Would you agree?

The first message is to the West, signaling that there is no shift in allegiance. The second message is to Turkey, stating that in regards to the new constitution, he [Erdoğan] is in favor of secularism. But my understanding of secularism is not a type of secularism that imposes secularism upon the individuals and takes religion from public sphere. And there is no reason why the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party would act hypocritically. There is no imminent threat of dissolution by the Constitutional Court. In short, I think that the prime minister firmly and sincerely stands by what he said in Egypt. And the third message is to the Arab region.

What is the message to the Arab world?

The notion of an Islamic state is vague and like a bottomless pit that does not let you out once you are in. If they get trapped there, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will lose 20 to 30 more years. I believe that the prime minister’s recommendation is friendly guidance.

Some prominent conservative thinkers raised objections to this message, stressing that imposing a set of values was improper and that secularism was not reconcilable with Islam

We hear the argument that Islam is not compatible with secularism from two opposite ends. First, those who promote an Islamic state, and secondly from the Orientalists who criticize Islam. Orientalists like Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington attempted to present Islam as a religion that contradicts modernity and is not compatible with secularism. The Islamic thinkers who argue that Islam is not compatible with secularism should consider with whom they are aligning.

What part of the Islamic state do you oppose?

A state that bears the title of Islamic will justify everything it does, including war, by their religion. However, the state should not be sacred. It is an institution that needs to be criticized. I do not think that for Muslims, founding an Islamic state is an obligation like prayer and fasting. Within a democratic order, the nation can have its culture and traditions reflected in politics by drafting laws in parliament. We observe this in the US, where Evangelical Protestants are fairly active in a number of fields, ranging from foreign policy to family life, and the secular state does not prevent this.

Is there an example of the separation of religion from the state in the history of Islam?

After the period of the Righteous Caliphs (the first four successors to the Prophet Muhammad), religion and politics took different routes in many fields. The clash between the imams who founded the four schools of Sunni Islamic law and the political authority is an example of this. In short, it is wrong to argue that there is no separation of religion from the state in Islam. Those who think that religion has been separated from the state in Christianity should take a look at the political role of the Catholic Church throughout history.

Some stress that what is banned by religion should also be banned in social life. Is it possible to solve all this through parliament?

How many people would you convince? In a society like Turkey, which has a visible cultural accumulation, you cannot possibly appeal to the masses if you support bans. A religious person is able to observe his religious duties in a secular system, and he is also allowed to express his views on the legal system. If he is convinced enough, he would support government policy. This is possible in an American-style passive secularism, but not in a Kemalist or French-style assertive secular system.

Does not secularism bring about a secular lifestyle?

Secularization is a sociological concept, whereas a secular state is a political notion. For instance, the US is a secular state but Americans are religious people.

How religious are they?

Forty percent of the people go to church regularly.

Does this mean religiosity?

Relatively, it does. For instance, there is an official religion in Britain: Anglicanism. But only 10 percent of the people go to church. That the people are secular does not mean that the state is also secular. Iran is an Islamic state but attendance of Friday prayers is lower than in Turkey.

Do you think that secularism is a worldview?

French secularism, or laicité, for instance, is a political view. But secularization is a worldview. A Muslim can ask the state to become secular, but a Muslim cannot subscribe to secularism and secularization as non-religiosity at the same time.

What do you say about the criticism that Erdoğan was seen as imposing Turkey’s values? Can Turkey serve as a model?

We need to discuss this being a model issue. It will provide some relief for our fierce debates and discussions. In the final analysis, exporting your own values is not a bad thing. It depends on what you export. Nations can learn everything from each other. Did not we borrow the notion of a national army from Europe? And likewise, Europe borrowed many things from us. And is democracy not something that was borrowed from somewhere? I don’t see any reason why Turkey’s blend of secularism, which wouldn’t offend the Muslims, can’t be a model for other countries.

Going back to the question at the beginning, will the issue of secularism become a problem during the making of a new constitution?

I believe it will not. What parliament needs to do is to lift articles that restrict freedom. To make progress in regard to secularism, the military guardianship should be completely eliminated. To achieve this, the appointments to YAŞ (Supreme Military Council) should be left to the government under the constitution, which should also make sure that the military judiciary recognizes the Court of Appeals and Council of State as the highest authority of appeal. If politicians stop expecting approval from the military, the discussions will be more constructive.

‘I would have attracted greater respect if my name was Michael’

Do you see yourself as someone who invented a theory? Do you hold the patent for passive secularism?

[Laughter] No, no, I am not saying I invented it. I said I would investigate this thoroughly. I strove to go beyond the clichés. I tried to explain this by more universal notions such as passive and assertive rather than French or American secularism.

Do you think that you got the respect you deserve?

I even noticed that some Turkish academics, when using the term passive secularism, referred to another academic within the text while giving me credit in the footnote. Perhaps they cannot take the fact that a young Turkish academic invented a term. Had my name been Michael or Charles, I would have been given greater respect, no doubt.

How long have you been in the US? Do you consider coming back?

I have been here for 12 years. Being in academia in the US is like playing basketball in the NBA. You make the name of Turkey heard. I would go back in the long run, but for now I am here.

What are the differences between Turkish and American college students?

The undergraduate students are encouraged to discuss and write in the US. This is not the case in Turkey. I think that we are not as good as the US in training college students to express themselves orally or in writing. And because of the Mülkiye (School of Political Science) tradition in Turkey, social science departments have traditionally come to be seen as places where future bureaucrats are trained. However, public administration and political science are different. Unfortunately, in Turkey, practice is ahead of theory in almost every field.

Muslims Christianized Europe

You say in your book that we were inspired by France with regard to secularism and that France was inspired by us in its treatment of Muslims. During its rule in Algeria, France relied on the model whereby the French state controlled Islam in its Muslim colonies. Therefore, keeping the Muslims in check is something that France is familiar with. As far as the headscarf ban is concerned, even though it did not follow the exact same path, France borrowed it from Turkey after it became popular. The French arrogance does not allow for it to admit that it borrowed something from Turkey.

What is the popular support for assertive secularism in France?

Catholics have been left in peace since the end of World War II, but this does not apply to Islam, especially now that assertive secularism attracts greater support. There exists a double standard on this issue.

The voting sessions in the senate and parliament in France on the burqa ban are pretty interesting. The results were 335 against 1 in the senate and 246 against 1 in parliament. How democratic is this?

When I met Nilüfer Göle, she told me that it was easier to discuss the headscarf ban in Turkey and that there was not such an environment in France. Even though it seems liberal and democratic, France is not a place where Muslims can freely express their views.

Do Christians or Jews in the EU countries complain about secularism?

For a long time, they did. There are also such incidents like burqa bans and other restrictions on practicing Islam now as well. In Germany, for example, the constitutional court of the state of Bavaria ruled for the removal of crosses in the buildings and classrooms of the state schools, but the politicians challenged the rule and did not act to remove the crosses. A similar ban in Italy was referred to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the court, which supported the anti-freedom stance in regard to the headscarf issue, ruled for the preservation of the cross. Another discussion took place during the attempts to insert Christianity in the text of the EU Constitution. In the end, the EU draft constitution did not include such a statement or provision, and this is good news for Turkey’s full membership.

When it comes to Muslims, we observe that pretty diverse groups make alliances in Europe. With the rising Muslim population in Europe, many Christians who were not observant of religious precepts returned to Christianity as an ethnic and cultural identity. This was a reactionary response. The visibility of Muslims and their increased share in the economic income are factors affecting this. A return to Christianity as an identity rather than a belief is attributable to the increasing number of Muslims among the population.

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