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European secularism and the imposition of standards for Turkish secularism

August 15, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Secularism in Turkey didn’t have a natural birth. It was neither the product of a social conflict between the clerics and the politicians, nor the result of a conflict between religious and secular authorities, as was the case in Europe. It was the result of a common desire between the founders of the post-Ottoman Turkish republican regime and Europe, which wanted the country to be based on the separation of religion from the state. There was also a desire to exclude political and military leaders from the Ottoman era from the republic.

Hence, founding father Kemal Ataturk brought closer those military and political leaders who were loyal to him to form the nucleus of the new republic, and kept away from those who wanted the political regime to remain as it was during the Ottoman Empire. Although some of his associates wanted the old-style politics to continue, such ideas were not approved by Ataturk, and he worked on the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 after having abolished the sultanate in 1923. The latter referred to a nationalist Turkish Republic of Anatolia, while the caliphate was a global Islamic institution and the Turks alone had no authority to abolish it. Nevertheless, that is what Ataturk did, making sure that even if the caliphate was re-instituted elsewhere — a move that he worked to prevent — it would have no ties with the Turkish Republic. Had the caliphate been established in another Muslim or Arab state, the secular Ataturk would have faced a lot of pressure to be affiliated with it, because the majority of the Turkish people were still religiously inclined towards the concept of the transnational Islamic authority.

If the caliphate had been left in place, even symbolically, there would have been a historic opportunity to create an Islamic political system whereby the Turkish government would be republican in terms of administration, politics, economy and the army, leaving the caliphate to be a purely spiritual position. “Modernity” could have been adopted without separating altogether the religious leadership represented by the caliphate. Such a development would have faced many difficulties, struggles for authority and split loyalties amongst the citizens of Turkey. It was not possible practically-speaking to separate the sultanate from the caliphate by means of a coup in order to maintain the unity of the Turkish people.

The establishment of a republican regime based on removing religious influence from politics was remarkable for Muslims given that there could have been a distinct secularism into which religious aspects of life could have been integrated. Instead, at the beginning of the Turkish Republican we can see that the founders imported the European system of separating state and religion entirely; this was an alien concept within the context of Turkey. As such, the efforts to implement the French-European secular system in Turkey between 1925 and1945 were unsuccessful, economically unproductive and unable to address any of the problems it faced. The state was based on tyranny, dictatorship and violence, as well as killing and displacement. The development of a new Turkish political system turned into a clash between European governance methods and the social system that had been in place for centuries. This conflict did not end until 1950, when a government took office which did not clash with society but rather tried to understand and get close to it.

Ataturk’s secularism was cloned from the French system and planted in an unsuitable environment; it was bound to fail from the beginning. The search for a secularism that is compatible with Turkish society and consistent with the beliefs of the predominantly-Muslim Turkish people has become the objective of political parties and their election manifestos. The nature of secularism called for by Turkish political parties has become a mainstay of parliamentary election campaigns because it has also been one of the main bones of contention within Turkish society and the cause of a number of military coups.

In Turkey, coups have not only defended secularism within the state, but also the French model of secularism, which failed to satisfy Turkish Muslims after they were coerced during Ataturk’s time in office and the era when Ismet Anino governed for the Republican People’s Party until 1950. After that, the Democratic Party government led by Adnan Menderes applied a new secularism that eased hardship and was more acceptable, even though it was not the desired type of secularism in totality.

Mitigating the negative effects of the Ataturk French secularism became the objective of Turkish parties and democratic governments which put the public’s needs first, and not the deep state which was centred on the Republican People’s Party in the opposition and military leaderships which were strict about implementing European secularism. Both are linked to the image of Turkish secularism as envisaged by the West, including US and Europe. Military coups always claim to be “returning” to Ataturk’s secularism while knowing that the Turkish people reject it because it was planted in soil unsuited to its growth. The people desire a secularism that is planted in Turkish society and developed in a manner that is in line with its contemporary ideology and that is neither anti-Islam nor anti-Turkish identity; nor, indeed, anti-Turkish civilisation.

A number of clauses were approved recently by the Shura Council for the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey after the failed coup last month. They address public, intellectual and cultural problems in Turkish society, including the problems that were created or exploited by the Gülenist movement.

“We will be working together with non-governmental organisations to prevent the formation of similar structures and to prevent the recurrence of similar mistakes,” the council explained. More specifically, the clauses approved of insist that “there must be joint action between the Presidency of Religious Affairs — with the knowledge of the Higher Council for Religious Affairs in particular — and civil, social and religious bodies which provide support for religious education and religious services, without interfering with their freedom.” Joint action should focus on remaining steady on the path of Islam, agreed the council, staying away from excess and becoming transparent and thus able to be monitored. “The religious structures that were created in the state-society-religion vacuum arising from the failure to establish specific institutions in our country during periods of political and social tension have at some point weakened religious life in Turkey. This situation requires politicians to tackle relations between religion, the state and society again, including the formation of necessary legal measures.”

These clauses demonstrate that the largest religious institution in Turkey has acknowledged the existence of political and social tensions which have affected relations between religion, the state and society. This has prompted people to ask a number of searching questions: wasn’t it enough for the military institution to see the weakness suffered by the republic during its first few decades for officers to understand that the Turkish people do not accept European levels of secularism? Wasn’t it enough that the outcomes of all parliamentarian elections, after the implementation of multi-party laws in 1950, did not produce even one political party calling for the adoption of strict Ataturk secularism; that moderate secular parties were winning elections due to their open image of secularism which is reconciled with Turkish society’s values, beliefs and culture?

If the army and strict secularist parties could not understand this of their own volition, who was making the decisions to carry out a military coup? Were they simply tools in the hands of international actors interfering in Turkey’s political affairs?

It is as if the people of Turkey are required to send a strong message that they are adjusting to European ways. This was made apparent when Vice President Numan Kurtulmuş spoke in the days preceding Britain’s referendum on remaining or leaving the EU in June; the campaigning for the poll had been extremely Islamophobic and in parts anti-Turkish. “I hope that European countries not to do what Britain did,” said Kurtulmuş, “and not use their hatred towards Turkey or hatred towards Islam as a card to achieve their political goals.”

Secularism is a materialistic ideology that regulates the relationship between religion and politics. It is not a fixed concept so there is some room for flexibility, based on the wishes of the people and their political and religious structures. Western secularism is not a standard for secularism all over the world as there is no single version to be used. There is no condition that it has to be anti-religious or that religion should be excluded from public life; that is up to the will of the people.

Societies going through a renaissance close to religion use it as the main pillar of their secularism, which becomes regulatory for faith and politics. Those societies which have been held back by religion tend to push a secularism that is based on excluding religion and religious people from the public sphere. The type of secularism to be developed in Turkey is, therefore, a question for the people to decide; they are in charge in a democratic society, and it is not fitting for Europe or any Western state to impose their own version on an unwilling population.

Translated from, 7 August, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.