Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Understanding Turkish “secularism”

with 3 comments

There are multiple—primarily inaccurate—interpretations of what “Turkish secularism” means. I have intended to post about this in the past, but I have never run across a clear explanation of the phenomenon to cite. What makes the effort even more difficult is that the meaning of “secularism” in Turkey is changing. This post is merely an effort to lay the groundwork for further analysis if, or when, I manage a fuller, more concise understanding.

I think the best starting point to understand Turkish secularism is probably an excerpt from Jenny White’s “Islam and politics in contemporary Turkey,” found in volume 4 of The Cambridge History of Turkey:

The Turkish state’s position on religion (laiklik) is more accurately translated as ‘laicism’, the subordination of religion to the state, than secularism, a separation of church and state. The term ‘secular’ is used here to refer to a non-religious identity or one that consigns religious beliefs to the private, rather than public, realm. The laic state controls the education of religious professionals and their assignment to mosques, controls the content of religious education, and enforces laws about the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public spaces and institutions.

The important thing to understand is that Atatürk’s reforms favored French secularism (laicism) to American secularism. Given Turkey’s Ottoman past, this made sense—Islam had been the state for centuries and it needed the harsher French approach to amend the situation. Atatürk clearly wanted to do to Islam what the post-revolution French did to the Catholic Church.

But almost ninety years on, things have changed: It is hard to see French secularism in 21st century Turkey any longer. This has, of course, led to columnists’ claims of the end of secularism in Turkey and the beginning of the Shari’ah-governed, neo-Ottoman era. But I would like to propose, if a bit haphazardly, that what we are witnessing is the shift from French secularism to American secularism, where the state is no longer so self-conscious as to purge itself of religious individuals, and where religion has become more “separate” than “subordinate.”

This, I think, is the historical charm of the AKP. If nothing else, the current rule of the AKP is a symbol of a maturing secular state. It remains to be seen whether they can restrain themselves in this regard, or if this is a transition to a less apologetic, more religious, government.

Written by M. James

August 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on turkischland.


    August 24, 2012 at 8:57 am

  2. It is not clear to me what you mean by “the historical charm of AKP”. Would it be a better depiction of the result of their governing if we use the term “contraversial charm” instead?

    Isn’t it a bit over-confidence of yours to mark AKP as “the symbol of a maturing secular state”? It’d be a fair judgment to define this period (AKP’s rule) as a “phase” in what seems to be a long struggle for the Turks to endure in the name of building a mature republic.


    September 5, 2012 at 11:58 am

  3. True, true, the AKP is up to its knees in controversy. I understand the misgivings you could have about the tenure of the party, especially given some of its political tactics; but even if this is an imperfect “phase,” I would argue that it is a completely necessary step toward a more mature state—whether it ultimately succeeds or not.

    M. James

    September 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm

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