MUSTAFA AKYOL > The need for a truly secular state

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As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other.

This new tension, like the old one, includes lots of mind-boggling details and jaw-dropping conspiracy theories. However, like the old one, it actually renders down to a simple question: the nature, and the masters, of the state. Since we have such an all-powerful and all-encompassing Leviathan, its control is a matter of life-and-death. Hence come all our bitter and zealous power struggles.

Another element in this new political tension is the Islamic credentials both sides have, according to their somewhat similar yet still distinct interpretations of religion. This religious element inspires a strong sense self-righteousness and causes the tension to get deeper and deeper.

But is there no way out? An interesting perspective came from an Islamic intellectual, Sibel Eraslan, who is a renowned novelist and a columnist for the conservative daily Star. She wrote:

“The [Gülen] Community-AKP conflict invites us to think more seriously on ‘secularism’… [because] the fight for political space and power among the pious forces us to look for a new referee.”

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the Frenchlaïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state. 

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power. If the latter is dominated by any particular worldview (let it be religious, ideological, philosophical), it becomes very oppressive on others. Therefore, the best political system is the one in which political power is kept as neutral as possible. It is, in other words, a liberal secular state -and not the illiberal one we used to have.

In my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” I argue that there are ideas and philosophical movements in early Islam which can allow modern-day Muslims to accept such a liberal secular state. But such political projects become popular out of not only intellectual arguments but also practical necessities. If Turkey’s religious conservatives are wise enough, they can see this burning necessity today. Or, they will inevitably see it one day, after hurting each other, and the rest of society, in a long political war of attrition.


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Turkic Dutch GB

12/21/2013 11:16:55 PM

@Baris My father is an atheist, my mother a humanist,my brother is into Buddhism and my best friends are: Hindus, Muslims, Atheists, Humanists, undefined ;) etc. I am greatful for all these friends and I can say that I myself beleive in Allah and that Muhammad is His final messengar. As for the nation states in the world, I beleive in a decentralized system with secular roots.

Agnostic Turk

12/13/2013 1:27:54 AM

I follow Mustafa's columns for many years. The idea of a "liberal Islamist" is intriguing to me because in my view the two terms contradict one another. In my view, an Islamist has Islamist sensitivities, and when liberalism contradicts them, it will end up in the dumpster. Alas, Mustafa proved my point and turned out to be a case in point. As an Islamist, he implicitly approves of the brutal policy of forcing non-Sunnis to fund imposition of Sunni-Islamist education on their very own kids!

Ameer Raschid

12/12/2013 10:06:51 PM

Even a "truly" secular democracy is subjected to internal and external pressures by groups that want to have their own piece of it. Governments establish a socialist, communist,atheist,Christian,Islamic,people's version that a majority of the people or I leaders impose on the minority. Islamic fundamentalists reject "democracy" as a system that allows the majority to establish policies based on rational change for the"better". Committed Muslims choose Islamic values and rules to be governed by.

mara mcglothin

12/12/2013 3:23:36 PM

Correct NADIRI BUT when it comes to religion, we all must be free to do what we choose in our hearts as long as we protect the right of others to do as they please. I am called an Islamophobe everyday on this site because I am critical of the governement. Criticism does not equal hatred or racism and I should be free to speak in any manner I choose. Right BARIS Suddenly MR AKYOL is teaching us about secularism after equating that with rabid "Kemalism" for how many years?

Agnostic Turk

12/12/2013 9:59:52 AM

You are right Mustafa; our ills result from an over-potent state. Whoever acquires it unleashes its power against its opponents. So what to do? Some proposals: 1) Make judiciary independent 2) Deliver tax-collection to a semi-independent institution (so no politically motivated "tax inspections" to threaten business world) 3) Abolish Diyanet (believers finance their own faith) 4) Stop state-imposed Islamic teaching (religious educ. will be optional) 5) Privatize TRT (no need for govt channel)

turkic voice

12/11/2013 11:02:25 PM

The key is with the leader the leader is the one that can pour cold water over this heat hopefully he is smart and strong enough to do so with simple words of love, peace, hope and patients to all the Turkic, Muslim, Jew, Christen, Anatolian and past ottoman people of the land, we need a new common bond between our people, maybe the word Turk needs to be redefined?

Murun Buchstansangur

12/11/2013 8:08:53 PM

Mustafa. Why must you always encourage people to look for answers to problems (caused by Islam) within Islam. How can you argue for secularism and ignore the totalitarianism that is inherent in Islam? People can respond to the illiberal imposition of religious nonsense by simply ignoring it. There are plenty of successful apostates, but they need our support.

american american

12/11/2013 8:05:40 PM

the akp-gulen battle royale proves, mustafa, that there is a definite problem with religion. it is hungry for more and it needs to eat.

Murun Buchstansangur

12/11/2013 8:03:57 PM

Dogan Kemal Ileri's comments on these pages vacillate from abject nonsense to the occasional pearl, as the case here. Super!


12/11/2013 7:50:42 PM

@Rover: You've hit the problem with democracy on the nail: people who wish not to dig deeper but to take the proffered easy answer and hold it as an idol. Not unique to TC by any means, but deeply rooted here because of the historical "democracy deficit."
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