The need for a truly secular state

The need for a truly secular state

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.