So, Who Will Protect Secularism Now?

Written by Mustafa Akyol on August 10th, 2011

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]

The question in my headline is asked by many these days, especially in light of the gradual decline of the Turkish military as an intruder into Turkish politics. But the question itself is questionable, for it seems to overlook a few crucial facts.First of all, the self-styled secularism that Turkey’s generals (and likeminded judges) used to impose was nothing like that seen in the democratic West. Inspired by the radical French Enlightenment, and the German “vulgar materialism” of the 19th century, it was based on zeal against, not neutrality toward, traditional religion. On the other hand, it sponsored the same religion with the sole aim of manipulating it for state purposes. So, it had bizarre consequences, such as the bans on headscarves and Sufi orders, and Ankara-issued mosque sermons that preached “martyrdom” in the ranks of the Turkish military for the sake of the national homeland.

Creating enemies

In other words, the self-styled secularism that Turkey’s generals (and likeminded judges) used to impose was inconsistent, undemocratic, and illiberal. It violated the rights of not just Turkish Muslims, but also Turkish Christians, whose churches and missions were also severely limited. (The closure of the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1971, for example, was the work of a military junta.) So, it is only good news that the enforcers of this illiberal laïcité are getting out of the way.

But what about the Islamists, who reject even the most liberal forms of the secular state, and rather insist for an “Islamic state”? Who will protect Turkey from them now?

Yet this question also needs to be scrutinized a bit, for it fails to ask where Islamism came from in the first place: Was it always there? Or was it a reaction to something? If you try to answer this question in the context of Turkey, you will see that Islamism in this country emerged mainly as a response to the military-imposed secularism that we are talking about.

In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey had become a constitutional monarchy, and most of its Islamic opinion leaders were in favor of more democratization. This emerging tide of Islamic liberalism was crushed, and its evolution was cut short, by the ultra-secular Kemalist regime of the second quarter of the 20th century. Yet still, when the “multi-party” era began in 1950, pious Muslims did nothing other than support the center-right Democrat Party, which not only brought religious freedom, but also created an economic boom and joined NATO.

Thugs in uniform

However, the thugs in uniform did not tolerate even the Democrat Party and launched a bloody coup against it in 1960, imprisoning all of its deputies, executing three of its ministers, including the all-popular Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Only after this frontal attack on the center-right did Islamism emerge as a political force in the late 1960s under the banner of Necmettin Erbakan, who promised an “Islamic NATO,” and, ultimately, an Islamic state.

So, when Turkey’s generals attacked the Erbakan government in 1997 with their “post-modern coup,” they were only eliminating a “threat” that their forbearers helped to create.

The same dynamic can be seen also in the other bête noir of Turkey’s generals, Kurdish separatism. Since the mid-1980s, Turkey’s generals have led a massive counter-insurgency against Kurdish separatists while disallowing any political reform on the “Kurdish question.” Little have they realized that it was the very strict Turkish nationalism that they imposed on all citizens, including humiliating bans on the Kurdish language, and the very violence they inflicted on even peaceful Kurdish activists, that created the trouble in the first place and perpetuated it.

Only with the removal of the military from the scene, have we been able to begin discussing the interpretations of secularism, the remedies to the Kurdish question and even taboos such as the tragic fate of Ottoman Armenians. So far, we have not fallen prey to any of the “domestic and foreign enemies,” which our generals claimed to have been saving us form. With them in their barracks, actually, we seem to be doing just fine.

 

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. nyoped says:

    this is pure fiction: “most of its Islamic opinion leaders were in favor of more democratization”

    What democratization mean for Islamic leaders is that they (the leaders themselves) have a vote on government policies. Iranian islamic leaders realized that ‘democratic’ dream.

  2. Muhammet Ali Zurnacı says:

    Professor Ahmet Kuru has an article about this topic comparing French , Turkish and American secularism. If you are interested

    search..

    Kuru, Ahmet T.
    Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion
    World Politics – Volume 59, Number 4, July 2007, pp. 568-594

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