Why Atatürk’s secularism is liberal

Why Atatürk’s secularism is liberal

The Turkish Islamists and some liberals insist that Kemalist secularism is an authoritarian ideology and an obstacle to the consolidation of democracy and freedoms in the country. They are wrong: Secularism, as understood by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is one of the foundations of freedom in Turkey. 

For Atatürk, the meaning of secularism was twofold: first, the liberation of the legislative, executive and judicial power from religious law; and, second, the liberation of the individual from, in the words of the sociologist Şerif Mardin, the collective constraints of a stifling community tradition. While this vision has sometimes been implemented harshly, it provided the basis for Turkey’s progress toward liberal democracy. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in comparison with the countries of the triumphant Arab spring. Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia are all in the process of drafting new constitutions, with the stated goal of guaranteeing rights and freedoms of their citizens. But there is a crucial difference: While in Turkey not even the Islamist-rooted government seeks to establish a formal role for Islam, the debate in Tunisia and Egypt is merely about the extent to which Islam should be granted recognition. The Islamist parties that swept to power there after the ouster of the dictators want a bigger role for Islam. For example, the first draft of the new Tunisian constitution refers to Islam as “the principal source of legislation.” The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood insists that only a Muslim man can be the head of state. Thus, the way the Islamists seek to enhance the role of Islam is inherently discriminatory against minorities and women. 

Yet, it was not the Islamists, but the ostensibly “secular” regimes in Tunisia and Egypt that established Islam as the state religion in the first place. Now the victorious Islamists can claim, plausibly, that all they are doing is reinforcing this status by ensuring that no law contradicts the tenets of Islam. This status can also be used as a basis for demanding the “correct” Islamic behavior of citizens in matters such as dress, diet and sex. 

By contrast, in Turkey because of the clean sweep that Atatürk made in removing Islam from government, no legal basis exists for demanding the implementation of Islamic principles and imposing Islamic behavior on citizens. Moreover, any attempts to do so would amount to discrimination on religious grounds and violation of individual freedoms. Indeed, aberrations, such as compulsory religion classes introduced by the military junta after 1980, have been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. If Turkey these days looks to Brussels and Strasbourg, rather than to the ulama, for advice on constitutional reform, this is in no small part due to Atatürk’s foresight. Such a momentous achievement Atatürk’s secularization has proven to be that, in contrast to Egypt or Tunisia, even the newly empowered Turkish Islamists do not seek shariah law. 

But they do seek the Islamization of society (not state) by promoting gender segregation, subordination of women, intolerance toward homosexuals, atheists, Alevis and anybody who is perceived to “disrespect” Sunni Muslim sensitivities. Individuals under these categories can only be protected if the state guarantees not only freedom of religion, but also the freedom from religion. And this is why Atatürk’s vision of secularism as a guarantee of the individual’s autonomy vis-à-vis the religious communities is as relevant as his insistence on the separation of state and mosque. A liberal state must ensure assertively that the rights of those who do not share the values of the majority are fully protected. 

Far from being an obstacle to liberal democracy in Turkey, the spirit, if not always the letter, of Atatürk’s secularism can contribute decisively to its consolidation. 

Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament who writes in his personal capacity.