Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘secularism

Secular state, Islamic nation

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As my next week will not be spent near a keyboard, I will leave readers with a thought from the late Peyami Safa—to which I will unavoidably return in the future:


Türkiye bir Islâm Devleti olmaya gitmiyor, Türk Milleti bir İslâm milleti olduğunu bügün daha iyi biliyor. Çünkü bugünkü Dünya’da lâik devletler vardır, fakat lâik millet yoktur. Columbiya Üniversitesinde lâiklik üzerine araştırmalar yapan bir İngilizin bana dediği gibi “Ancak devletler lâik olabilirler, milletler lâik olamazlar.”

Tercüman, 1 Mart 1960


Turkey is not becoming an Islamic State, but the Turkish nation today knows better that it is an Islamic nation. The reason being, in today’s world there are secular states, but there are no secular nations. Like an English researcher on secularism at Columbia University said to me, “Only states can be secular, nations cannot.”

Tercüman, 1 March 1960



Written by M. James

July 17, 2013 at 12:21 am

Understanding Turkish “secularism”

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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

Before and after: museums to mosques

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The İznik (formerly Nicea) Ayasofya Müzesi (formerly a church) has at last been converted into a mosque. I don’t think I should have to explain the symbolism of the secular state’s museum becoming a mosque—especially in light of the parallel controversy over İstanbul‘s Ayasofya (which is still a museum)—but I will take the time to mention that the conversion was tastefully done.

In fact, the space has been shared so effectively between the faithful and the tourist that the former church now fully serves a dual function of museum and mosque.

The remaining adornments of the former church—of which there are few to appreciate—are not only visible and accessible, but are separated from the carpeted prayer space. Even the altar is left alone.

It was as if when the question of turning the museum into a mosque came up, someone said: “Why not both?” What would be useful to know, of course, is how that compromise was made. Is this Kemalism, still kicking? Or is this “moderate Turkish Islam” at work?

Written by M. James

July 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Tunisia takes to Turkish model

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Tunisian constitution will make no place for faith
Tom Heneghan; Reuters; Nov. 4, 2011

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s Islamist-led government will focus on democracy, human rights and a free-market economy in planned changes to the constitution, effectively leaving religion out of the text it will draw up, party leaders said.

The government, due to be announced next week, will not introduce sharia or other Islamic concepts to alter the secular nature of the constitution in force when Tunisia’s Arab Spring revolution ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M. James

November 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Bashar al-Assad’s operating system

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From the Telegraph’s recent interview with President al-Assad:

Comparing Syria’s leadership with that of a Western country, he said, was like comparing a Mac with a PC. “Both computers do the same job, but they don’t understand each other,” he said. “You need to translate. If you want to analyse me as the East, you cannot analyse me through the Western operating system, or culture. You have to translate according to my operating system, or culture.”

But al-Assad, many say, is too slow to update his operating system, and this is reason enough to uninstall. The danger? An “earthquake,” President al-Assad says. “Another Afghanistan,” or “tens of Afghanistans.” In other words, a very unstable operating system.

He described the uprising as a “struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism], adding: “We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them” [here].

Why, then, if this is to any extent a struggle between pan-Arabism/secularism (al-Assad) and Islamism (Muslim Brotherhood), is Turkey (secular) supporting the (armed) uprising in Syria? I still maintain what I said in my first post: that Turkey is merely trying to “retain its legitimacy” as a supporter of the Arab Spring. And that’s whether it believes in the Syrian uprising or not.

Written by M. James

October 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm