[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
In June 1998, a very significant meeting took place at a hotel near Abant, which is a beautiful lake in the east of Istanbul. The participants included some of the most respected theologians and Islamic intellectuals in Turkey. For three days, the group of nearly 50 scholars discussed the concept of a secular state and its compatibility with Islam. At the end, they all agreed to sign a common declaration that drew some important conclusions
The first of these was the rejection of theocracy. The participants emphasized the importance of individual reasoning in Islam and declared, “No one can claim a divine authority in the interpretation of religion.” This was a clear rejection of the theocratic political doctrines — such as the one established in the neighboring Iran — which granted a divinely ordained right to a specific group of people for guiding society.
The second important conclusion of the Abant participants was the harmony of the principles of divine sovereignty and popular sovereignty. (Some contemporary Islamists reject democracy by assuming a contradiction between the two.) “Of course God is sovereign over the whole universe,” the participants said, “but this is a metaphysical concept that does not contradict with the idea of popular sovereignty which allows societies to rule their own affairs.”
The third argument in the declaration was the acceptance of a secular state that would “stand at the same distance from all beliefs and philosophies.” The state, the participants noted, “is an institution that does not have any metaphysical or political sacredness,” and Islam has no problem with such political entities as far as they value rights and freedoms.
In sum, the “Abant Platform,” as it became known, declared the compatibility of Islam with a secular state based on liberal democracy. This was a milestone not only because the participants included top Islamic thinkers, but also because the organizers were the members of Turkey’s strongest Islamic community, the Fethullah Gülen movement.
From Diversity to Secularity
Let me elaborate a bit more on why a secular state is not just compatible with Islam but also good for Muslims. The need for such a neutral political entity comes basically from the diversity of modern societies. The Turkish society, for example, includes not just practicing Muslims, but also Muslims with secular lifestyles, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, New Agers, and God knows what.
Moreover, among practicing Muslims, there are so many different religious interpretations. Establishing a religious state will inevitably impose one of these interpretations on all other citizens. This authoritarianism will not only suppress many rights and freedoms, but also create resentment among those who feel oppressed. And this resentment will easily breed hatred towards religion, which will undermine the very reason of its existence — winning the hearts and minds of men, and leading them to God.
In the Medina of the 7th century, during the time of Prophet Muhammad, it was quite feasible to found a theocratic state, because all Muslims constituted a small, self-contained community and the definition of true Islam was clearly and unambiguously made by the prophet. Today, Muslims live side by side with non-Muslims all around the world, and there are many different Islamic interpretations, about none of which we can be sure by any objective criteria. That’s why even overwhelmingly Muslim nations like the Pakistanis who cherish Islam as their identity can not find peace with the shariah law, because they strongly and fiercely disagree on what that is.
The solution seems to be in ending the official acceptance and sponsorship of religion, and leaving matters of faith to individuals and communities. This is needed not because there is a problem with religion, but because we humans have different ideas about it, and we can’t find peace unless we accept this natural diversity.
After all, isn’t it the Koran itself that celebrates pluralism on earth? “Had Allah willed He would have made you a single community,” the Muslim scripture reminds. “So compete with each other in doing good.” (5:48) The secular state can well be an impartial institution that serves and protects all the competitors.
The Problem With Secularism
All of these arguments stand in favor of a secular state. But they would not justify a secularist one. Such states are based on anti-religious philosophies and they take measures to diminish or even destroy the role of religion in their societies.
The world has seen many examples of such tyrannies since the Enlightenment. The French Revolutionaries, particularly the bloody Jacobins, inflicted terror on the Catholic Church and tried to de-Christianize French society by imposing neo-pagan myths and practices. The communists went further by their purges, gulags and massacres. “Religion is a poison,” said Mao, and he and his comrades did everything they could to wipe it out.
Today the big question in Turkey is whether our republic will be a secular or a secularist one. Our homegrown secularists have never gone as far and radical as Mao, but some of them share a similar hostility toward religion. And they have every right to do so as far as they accept to be unprivileged players in civil society. But they don’t have the right to dominate the state and use the money of the religious taxpayers in order to offend and suppress their beliefs.