Debating Secularism: If You Can’t Do It Right, Don’t Do It At All

By Dağhan Irak

Secular protesters clash with police over statements made by Parliamentary Speaker İsmail Kahraman, who argued that secularism should not be included in the new constitution. Source: Reuters

Secular protesters clash with police over statements made by Parliamentary Speaker İsmail Kahraman, who argued that secularism should not be included in the new constitution. Source: Reuters

A new debate on secularism ignited this week following controversial statements made by Turkey’s Parliamentary Speaker İsmail Kahraman (AKP), who said; “As a Muslim country, why should we be in a situation where we are retreating from religion? We are a Muslim country. So we must have a religious constitution,” and suggested that the new Constitution should bear any remarks on secularism.

Attracting widespread outrage on social media, as well as stern warnings from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Kahraman – who also failed to find an open support from his own party or the President’s palace – had to retreat from his statements, claiming that he believed “the concept of secularism should be defined clearly and concisely.”

Even though President Erdoğan and AKP officials were quick to denounce Kahraman’s words on secularism, Prime Minister Davutoğlu opted to keep the debate open by stating; “We will propose a libertarian sense of secularism rather than an authoritarian one.”

The wording in Davutoğlu’s statement is well-chosen as there has been an ongoing debate on “authoritarian” and “libertarian” practices of secularism in intellectual circles for some time now.

The PM’s emphasis on “libertarianism” is an obvious reference to this debate where Kemalists take a more authoritarian approach. Davutoğlu is likely seeking the liberal intellectuals’ (in the European sense, not American) support on this debate, as they have advocated a more libertarian form of secularism for years. However is “libertarian secularism” even possible in Turkey?

Turkey’s flavour of secularism has its roots in the authoritarian secularism approach of France, with a few extras that give the state further control of the religious field. While banning (or having banned) most displays of religion in the public space, secularism in Turkey was proposed as a “one-size-fits-all” type of religious belief, namely a moderated sort of Sunnism.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı or Diyanet) has dealt exclusively with the Sunnite faith, while Alevis, non-Muslims and non-religious communities have never been represented. This type of secularism vigilantly protected the country from radical Islamic fundamentalism, however systematically discriminated against non-Sunnis, which paradoxically paved the way to the emergence of a more Islamic society as it forced people to become moderate Sunnis instead of freely choosing their own belief systems.

After the 1980 coup d’etat, staged in line with United States’ strategy of forming an Islamic barrier against the Soviet Union, the Turkish version of secularism became more permissible to Sunnism, with it even pervading the school curriculum. To counter this, clergy schools and Qu’ran courses have since become the forefronts of a new pro-Islamic regime.

It is obvious that Turkey needs a more democratic take on secularism, as the former actually sowed the seeds of Islamism by favouring Sunnism over other types of belief.

Towards this end, religious favouritism should be immediately removed. “Elective” Islamic courses at schools should be discontinued, the clergy schools should be turned into secular schools, the Diyanet must be dissolved and Alevis’ places of worship should be recognized. Unless these measures are taken, the proposed libertarian secularism would in fact only be libertarian to certain groups; which is in fact not libertarian, nor does it count as secularism.

One of the most irreparable damages Turkey’s democratic foundations sustained during the AKP era is that these critical issues and debates have been handled in such a vindictive and self-interested manner, that they will be off-limits now for years to come.

The AKP turned the long-sought demilitarization of the political life into a purge, sending hundreds of military officials to jail on unfounded grounds. The corruption probes have spurred on the elimination of allies-turned-enemies. The definition of ‘terrorism’ now extends to journalists, academics, lawyers and even people wishing peace in call-in TV shows.

Even though the current secularism model in Turkey has its shortcomings that need to be addressed, the proposed version of libertarian secularism may well mean further favouritism of Sunnism, and continued discrimination against marginalized groups.

However negotiating secularism with the AKP would probably make the issue un-debatable, and trivialize another critical concept in favour of the ruling party’s political agenda. For Turkey, secularism is far too great a life-line for that.

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