This article was first published on Modern Diplomacy
The state-religion relationship and secularism policies in Turkey have been of a scholarly endeavor for both local and international researchers. While analyzing democracy journey and modernization history of Turkey, secularism has been one of the top-analyzed issues.
The first attempts of secularism were witnessed in the late Ottoman times. While the order based on the Millet system continued until the end of 1800s, it was subjected to change during Tanzimat era, it was replaced by a secular ideology known as Ottomanism. During the modernization period, the intellectuals who got training in Europe were influential. For instance, Abdullah Cevdet believed that there had been no civilization in the world except for Europe. Cevdet wanted to make society get a form based on a strict idea of positivism. It is known that, Cevdet had been an ideologist of the Young Turks until 1908.
Since the establishment of Turkish Republic, the nature of the relationship between state elites and religion has been dynamic and it has changed over time. In the single party-rule there was a heavy state control and pressure on religion. In this regard, Ahmet Kuru’s concept of “assertive secularism” can be seen as a theory that summarizes the early Republican years. According to Kuru (2009), there are two models of secularism: Assertive secularism and passive secularism. In the Anglo-Saxon world especially in the US, the dominant ideology is “passive secularism” which allows public visibility of religion. By contrast, the dominant ideology in countries such as France is “assertive secularism” which confines religion to the private sphere. Turkey witnessed assertive secularism for several decades. The military elites and other state elites like the judiciary elites and some actors in the academia and media defended assertive secularism.
Until the multi-party years, Turkish state elites took major steps for secularizing the political and societal system. The Islamic schools were closed. The Ottoman fez was banned and the European-style hat was imposed. The Islamic calendar was replaced with the Gregorian one and the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin one. In 1928 the principle of “laiklik” (adopted from the French “laïcité”) was established in the Constitution as a feature of the Turkish Republic. A number of policies were made for further secularization. In 1942, Arabic ezan (call to prayer) was forbidden.
Islam was put under official control through the creation of a Directorate of Religious Affairs and this actor promoted Sunni Islam. The Directorate is within the general administration. As this Directorate promotes Sunni Islam, it can be said that the Alevi citizens were excluded. This has been a threat to religious pluralism and democracy.
The multiparty years witnessed the relaxation of state-religion relationship. The number of İmam Hatip schools (schools training Islamic civil servants) increased along with the rise in the number of mosques. However a military coup occurred in 1960 and the Democrat Party was accused of politicizing Islam.
In the post-1980 period, against communism threat state elites took measures. One of them has been the promotion of Turkish-Islam Synthesis ideology. This was a right-wing ideology. According to Çiler Dursun (2004), the idea of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis combines the concepts of nationalism and Islamism on the basis of Muslim identity.
The 1990s saw the rise of identity politics and an Islamist Party (Welfare Party) was the coalition partner in the mid-1990s. However due to its Islamic policies (the mainstream media and secularist academics and journalists reflected the reason as this) the army forced the government to resign during the post-modern coup process.
After 2002, with AK Party rule especially with the lift of headscarf ban in 2013 and Alevi opening which started in 2007, a certain degree of liberalization was realized in secularism policies. I argue that for almost a decade, important steps were taken in the path to a more liberal state-religion relationship. However this is not sufficient for a better working democracy. The Alevi citizens’ demands such as the reformation of the Directorate of Religious Affairs have not been satisfied.
In one of my articles I wrote the following:
“… [t]he state policies and practices toward religion constitute a major problem in the consolidation of democracy today, although a considerable degree of development has been achieved in order to make these practices more compatible with democratic procedures. Turkey must have an appropriate balance between religion and secularism. It is noteworthy that, compared to past decades, Turkey has made a considerable amount of progress making its understanding of secularism understanding more harmonious with her democracy. In the previous decades, Turkey had adopted a specific kind of laicism that is the Kemalist understanding of laicism in its relationship with religion. This Kemalist understanding of laicism is both authoritarian and undemocratic”
To summarize, it can be said that the historical background of Turkey saw the adoption of a strict secular(ist) understanding. This understanding has neglected the religion-oriented pluralism in society. However, for more than a decade, this strict interpretation of secularism has been challenged and passive secularism has started to dominate Turkish political scene.
In my next article, I will try to address the media-politics relationship in Turkey and how this relationship transformed over time and shaped democratic processes.
Arslanbenzer Hakan, 2019, Abdullah Cevdet: Eccentric, strange and misunderstood Abdullah Cevdet: Eccentric, strange and misunderstood | Daily Sabah (8.2.2021)
Burak, Begüm, 2011, Can Secularism Hinder Democracy? The Turkish Experiment, begum-burak.pdf (insanvetoplum.org) (8.2.2021)
Dursun, Çiler, 2004, Türk-İslam Sentezi İdeolojisi ve Öznesi [The Ideology of Turkish-Islamic Synthesis and Its Subject]. Doğu Batı, Year: 7, (25).
Kuru, Ahmet, 2009, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey, Cambridge University Press.
Author : Begum Burak