President Gül: “Separate politics and religion”
It is becoming increasingly important to debate the subject of secularism in Turkey, especially at a time when work on a new constitution is ongoing. The intention here is not to debate whether Turkey needs to be secular or not. It is evident that a Turkey that is not a secular democracy will invite social chaos. Rather, the debate should be aimed at putting the subject in proper perspective, freed from the political manipulation that has characterized the subject for decades and which has merely sowed the seeds of discord among those who consider themselves secular, and those, like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who don’t.
Despite its secular regime Turkey has always had an Islamic identity in the eyes of the world. A significant portion of the population, however, nevertheless believes that its religious sensitivities have not been fully respected in the past. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but what is certain is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power reflecting this sentiment. The attacks that emanate from the AKP against the staunchly Kemalist administrations of the past also prove this. Given the point at which the country has arrived under the AKP, however, the tables have turned somewhat.
Now it is those who consider themselves to be secular individuals who fear that the secular political order of the country is under threat. It could also be debated whether this is a valid fear or not, of course, but the existence of such a sentiment in Turkey is a fact. The changes the government has made in the name of “reforming the education system,” for example, when combined with remarks Prime Minister Erdoğan has made indicating that he wants to see “a religious generation emerge in Turkey,” have merely fueled suspicions in this regard.
What is interesting in all this is that it was Erdoğan himself who provided the best definition of secularism during a visit to Egypt last year. While in Cairo he called on Egyptians “not to fear secularism,” and explained what he understood this system of government to mean. “Secularism most definitely does not mean atheism. I as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan am a Muslim and I am not secular. But I am the prime minister of a secular country. Under a secular regime individuals have the freedom to be religious or not.”
Unfortunately Erdoğan has not stood behind these remarks or developed them in a way that would contribute constructively to the secularism debate in Turkey. Instead he has cast a shadow over his own observations by declaring that he wants “a religious generation,” implying that if this does not emerge, a “glue-sniffing generation” would arise in its place.
This is why some remarks President Abdullah Gül made in an interview with Serbia’s Politika newspaper last week, which might have gone unnoticed otherwise, have gained added importance. According to the Turkish ANKA news agency this is what Gül said in that interview: “I believe that political identity and religious identity are two separate concepts. This applies to all religions. The job of the man of religion is to transmit the message of God and educate the people in order to make them live happily in peace. But the situation is different for a politician. If someone who is involved in religion wants to also get involved with politics, then he must first give up his religious duties and then engage in politics. We have to separate politics and religion. When you mix politics and religion, this harms religion.”
The reverse is also true. It you mix religion with politics, this harms politics. The bitter political quarrels in Turkey prove this. One can only hope that President Gül will develop these thoughts further and contribute positively to the secularism debate in Turkey.