Secularism and freedom of religion
UMUT AZAKAccording to a survey from 2008, around 70 percent of Turkish women covered their heads, and the prohibition of the headscarf for public servants and students in the name of secularism was unpopular. According to three surveys conducted in 1999, 2006 and 2009, 70 percent of voting-age Turks supported lifting the ban. Similarly, another survey indicated that 57 percent of people saw revoking the ban as “the requirement of democracy and freedom of religion.”
The pious Muslim’s perceived feeling of oppression has diminished under the conservative and pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rule since 2002. However, the headscarf ban still symbolizes the assumed oppression of Islam in the eyes of Islamic groups and AKP leaders. Accordingly, the government has been promoting “liberal secularism” in place of the Kemalist “assertive secularism.”
Their liberal secularism, however, follows the center-right tradition, motivated by their religious and conservative urge to protect and strengthen the majority religion, i.e. Sunni Islam. The question then is: How can a state, which is governed by politicians who understand secularism as protecting the freedom of conscience of adherents of the majority religion, be truly secular? Or, can (Sunni) Islam-friendly secularism have equal distance vis-à-vis diverse practices and interpretations of Islam as well as non-Muslims and nonbelievers?
The close positioning of liberal secularism to the majority religion does not promise a secularism that can be a more democratic alternative to the Kemalist one, because liberal secularism shares
a common paradox with Kemalist secularism:
The projection of an ideal Islam on the nation in the name of secularism. The proponents of both secularisms imagine a Turkish Islam that truly represents the nation.
According to female supporters of the headscarf, it is not a symbol of political Islam or male
domination, but their free and democratic choice reflecting their will to live in conformity with the
tenets of Islam as they understand them.
However, the recognition of women’s free choice concerning Islamic veiling has to be accompanied
by an equal respect for and recognition of women as individuals having equal rights and freedoms
with men. It is only then that the rhetoric of democratic rights and freedoms adopted by conservative advocates of liberal secularism can be convincing.
Women, veiled or unveiled, are challenged by the same patriarchal hegemony denying them treatment as equal individuals in any space, conservative/Islamic or secular. Only a feminist perspective – which comes to terms with religious claims to control women’s bodies and to impose on them a “proper” role limited to the home – from within and outside of Islamic circles can shift the concern for women’s rights and freedoms beyond the narrow focus on the headscarf controversy.
Umut Azak is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Okan University in Istanbul. This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). This one is an abbreviated version of the piece. For more information, please visit www.turkishpolicy.com