Passive secularism means state neutrality toward religions in the public sphere; it is dominant in such countries as the United States, the Netherlands and India. The opposite is assertive secularism, which requires the state to play an assertive role to exclude religions from the public sphere. It is dominant in France, Mexico and until recently, Tunisia, among some other cases. I argued that the AK Party defended passive secularism and that was why the assertive secularist judiciary in Turkey defined it as “anti-secular.” Several colleagues criticized me for missing the AK Party's hidden Islamic agenda and giving too much credit to it. Nevertheless, I kept defining the AK Party as passive secularist in my book "Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey" and several other publications.
While the euphoria of the “Arab Spring” still existed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made historic remarks during his visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya by calling on new regimes to embrace secularism. This revived the idea of the Turkish model for the Middle East. I tried to contribute to the discussion with a paper entitled "Muslim Politics Without an "Islamic" State: Can Turkey's Justice and Development Party be a Model for Arab Islamists?" published by the Brookings Doha Center both in English and Arabic. The paper offered the AK Party and passive secularism as a model to Arab Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to an-Nahda in Tunisia. I also presented these ideas at various academic meetings in Qatar, Egypt, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the United States, Canada and Australia.
Recently, however, Erdoğan has moved away from passive secularism and embraced an Islamist discourse. Given the reactions of Islamists at home and abroad, he never repeated his call of secularism for Arab countries. Instead, he declared that the AK Party government would educate a “pious generation” and put the imam-hatip schools into the center of this education project; increasingly used the Directorate of Religious Affairs as an instrument for political purposes; made a sectarian statement by stressing that the leader of the main opposition party is “an Alevi”; insisted that Alevis' cemevleri (houses of worship) cannot be recognized as places of worship; asked those who drink alcohol to drink it at home and defined them as alcoholics; planned to pass a law to prevent male and female students from renting apartments and staying together; and did not take the necessary steps to reopen the Halki Seminary of the Greek Orthodox Church. These attitudes have meant a deviation from passive secularism and would disturb even some moderate Islamists. A main ideational source of justification for Erdoğan's initiatives as such came from Hayrettin Karaman, a professor of theology, an Islamist ideologue and a columnist for the Yeni Şafak daily. Karaman has issued fatwas to support Erdoğan on crucial issues. Recently, his fatwas related to the issue of government tenders and donations to pious foundations have become an important part of debates on corruption and bribery. This newly strengthening Islamist discourse has become problematic not only for Turkey's process of democratization but also for the idea of a Turkish model of passive secularism in the Middle East.
Erdoğan and his source of inspiration, Karaman, are wrong in assuming that the majority of Turkish society agrees with their Islamist discourse. According to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and some surveys, only 10 percent of people support the idea of an Islamic state in Turkey. In other words, only a tenth of Turkish society would approve of the following statement, made by Karaman in a 2011 article he wrote for Yeni Şafak: “In an Islamic democracy ... Muslims cannot engage in immoral and sinful behavior in the public sphere; in the private sphere their acts would not be investigated -- as long as they are not harmful to society.” Another approximately 20 percent of society supported assertive secularism in Turkey. They backed the headscarf ban at universities for a long time. The rest, about 70 percent, are neither Islamist nor assertive secularist. They can be regarded as passive secularists, who reject both an imposition of religious principles through state power and an exclusion of religion from the public sphere. A founding father of this passive secularist perspective in Turkey is Ali Fuat Başgil, who was a professor of law and later a senator half a century ago. His book "Din ve Laiklik" (Religion and Secularism) notes that Muslims in Turkey should ask only one favor from the state (like Diogenes the Cynic asked from Alexander), “Stand from between me and the sun.”
Following this societal inclination toward passive secularism, the Constitutional Court recently made a crucial decision, which was passed by a 15 to 2 vote and announced on April 18, 2013. The court declared that instead of strict, old (read: assertive) secularism, it now embraces a new liberal (read: passive) secularism as the reference point. The fact that the overwhelming majority of society prefers a moderate stance shows that both Islamism and assertive secularism are wrong choices for a mainstream party in Turkey. The AK Party, the Republican People's Party (CHP) or any other party that seeks to represent the majority should refer to passive secularism.
The prediction that Turkey would provide a passive secularist model to Arab countries has not yet materialized. Nevertheless, such a regional role may become possible in the future. Despite the zigzags of politicians, an overwhelming majority of society still prefers passive secularism. This preference will design Turkish politics and its regional role in the long run.
*Ahmet T. Kuru is an associate professor of political science at San Diego State University and the author of “Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey.”