Erdoğan’s secularism or ‘Secularism as Disaster’

Erdoğan’s secularism or ‘Secularism as Disaster’

The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is only to be celebrated for being wise and courageous to advise “secularism” and democracy to Egyptians. It was also very good answer to the Turkish secularists who have long been skeptical of Erdoğan’s sincerity concerning secularism. I think there is no need to call it Erdoğan’s “neo-laicism,” which is a contribution to political theory. There are many examples of personally religious leaders who are in power in the secular or laic states of the Western world. This is the “democratic understanding of secularism” against authoritarian definition of laicism or secularism.

Nevertheless, we have to admit that it is a novelty for Muslim countries. Turkey has been unique example (apart from some ex-Soviet republics) of a secular state in the Muslim world. But the Turkish model has never been an attractive example for other Muslim countries since it was based on quite rigid understanding of secularism. Besides, this rigid understanding created a serious democratic deficit so far. Under those circumstances, Erdoğan is the most reliable and credible politician to advise secularism to Middle Eastern countries which aspire to more democratic rules.

A democratic understanding of secularism should be the best model for Muslim countries if they aspire for true democracy. Yet, it is unclear if “Arab Spring” countries aspire for secular or true democracies. Those countries, including Tunisia, have never been secular constitutionally. Islam has always been cited as “the religion of state” and personal law has always been based on Shariah law as a reference. Moreover, Islamism has always been on the rise and came out as the main opposition force after the events of Arab Spring. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt opposed Erdoğan on this matter.

Libya has already declared a “Shariah-based democracy.” There is a friction among the “revolutionaries” in Tunisia, which used to be the “most secular Arab state” and the Islamist Nahda movement is on rise.

Besides, Erdoğan’s remarks on secularism in Egypt have not been welcomed by the conservatives in Turkey too. Most of the conservatives either avoided making any comments or have been critical like Ali Bulaç. Bulaç stated that “laicism has never been a problem in Middle Eastern Arab societies” (Zaman, Sept. 17, 2011). He did not only refer to laicism as a “problem” but also stated that “it is true that laicism or İlmaniyya in Arabic is not anti-religion, but it came to the point of being nihilistic and imposes materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle.”

Despite the fact that Erdoğan clearly defined secularism in a democratic way, Bulaç insists to portray laicism in its pre-AKP era and referred to it as a “disaster.” It means that left alone Arab countries and their moderate Islamists, even among Turkish conservatives or post-Islamists, laicism or secularism is still a “bad word” no matter if it is defined by authoritarian modernists or defined in terms of democracy and tolerance.

It is quite frustrating for someone like me who defended democratic understanding of secularism against the skepticism of authoritarian secularists for so long. It will also be very disappointing if the controversy between Islamists, conservatives and authoritarian secularists cannot reach a point of compromise in terms of “democratic secularism.” Then we will have to choose between authoritarian modernism and authoritarianism of Islamists for the next century. I hope not!