Secularism and the Middle East

Secularism and the Middle East

We can view Turkish Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman’s statement that “secularism must be removed from the constitution” from a couple of angles. 

Firstly, even though Kahraman used a different wording later, it was an irresponsible statement. Regardless of his personal views, while speaking in his capacity as the parliament speaker he must not exclude any of the four main principles of the constitution. The speaker of parliament must act impartially and in a unifying manner. Secondly, and more importantly, for Turkey the principle of secularism is essential. The secularization of the legal system started back in the Ottoman era because it was a necessity. 

In Turkey and in France, there were certain traumatic periods when secularism was applied severely.

Raymond Aron has written about how French secularism was perceived as “the religion of the state,” while Catholicism resisted giving up on controlling the state. For this reason, the fight in France was severe and long-lasting. In the end, the state accepted democratic freedoms and the church abandoned its ambition for political dominance. France normalized. 

We have been through a similar process. According to surveys by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), in 1997 the rate of respondents who said “yes” to a religious state based on sharia law was 26 percent. Ten percent said they were in favor of punishments based on Islamic law. 

At the time of the Feb. 28 military pressure, such concepts may have sounded nice to many. However, in TESEV’s 2008 survey, this rate had fallen to 8 percent from 26 percent. It seems that as pressures relaxed, a secular state was more widely accepted. 

Unfortunately, Karaman’s recent remarks have again fueled polarization. 

The example of Pakistan

The 2008 study is the most recent TESEV survey, but today there is no doubt that a kind of “secularization” is being experienced in Turkey. According to a Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) survey in 2014, 61 percent of pious people agreed with the statement that “Living Islam freely passes through secularism.”

A truly pious Muslim, even an Islamic scholar, is able to live freely only in a democratic, secular state based on the rule of law.

It is worth considering the example of the era in Pakistan after Islamist General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup against leftist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. Because the only “glue” of Pakistan was said to be Islam, the military and the people adopted the slogan of Islamic law. Huge fights soon erupted over differences based on sect, cult and court practice. As a result, the project had to be suspended. If you’re interested in the subject, I would recommend (particularly to the most sincere Islamists) reading Mohammad Amin’s book, “Islamization of Laws in Pakistan.” 

I would also like to recommend to conservatives Ali Fuat Başgil’s excellent book, “Din ve Laiklik” (Religion and Secularism). Başgil explains how our state and legal system started the secularization process back at the time of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839), and it accelerated during the republican era a century later. “It is in nobody’s capacity or power to reverse Turkey from this road and drive it into the framework of religious rules. We cannot make rivers flow upstream; we can only regulate their flow,” he writes. 

Ironically, it was during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II that the highest level of secularization was practiced during the Ottoman era. Without understanding why the Ottomans opted for secularization of the legal system, the modern world we are living in cannot be comprehended; God forbid, we would become another state in the Middle East. 

Başgil writes about how equipping religion with the power of the state actually harms religion: “The scholarly and moral value of the clergymen who become civil servants falls when they wear a uniform and are tempted by power. They become greedy for personal interests. Religious values are sacrificed for politics.” 

In the end, Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state that respects the rule of law. If you remove one of these, we will not be able to survive in this geography.