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Will Turkish Laicite Save The World?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] An opinion piece published in these pages a few days ago was praising Turkey's self-styled secularism with generous words. This thing called laicite, originally an import from France, was, according to the argument, so great that now it was "becoming an asset for Turkey's relations with Europe." And the proof, the reasoning went, was that a few European countries were studying Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate in order to train their own state-supported imams. Well, I have hardly heard an argument that is this objectionable. And let me tell you why. Laicite revisited First of all, here is what I think: Secularism, in the sense of separation of religion and state, is something I am fully supportive of. For I do not want the state to tell me what is right or wrong in regard to religion. I also do not want a particular religious group to impose its own interpretation of religion on the state. Separate the two, and we will all be better off. But Turkish laicite does not serve this liberalizing purpose. It has two main characteristics that are both pretty authoritarian. First, it wants to erase religion from public life by suppressing religious practices and symbols. The ban on the headscarf is a good example, among many others. The second thing about Turkish laicite is that it totally dominates and manipulates religion for the state's purposes. It even wants to monopolize religion, for it does not allow the existence of any civil religious movement that is independent from the state. For example, all Sufi orders and other Islamic communities who have their own charismatic leaders have been officially banned in Turkey since 1924. This ban was quite strict in the heydays of laicite (1925 to 1950), and Islamic figures such as Said Nursi were jailed for simply writing books that praise Islam. Newpapers from the '30s were full of headlines about the followers of Nursi, or "Nurcus," arrested by the police with their "illegal materials," such as books, letters and prayer caps. This ban has been softened over the years, and communities such as Nurcus have started to operate relatively freely, but they still feel themselves under threat. That is why, when you ask, they would hardly define themselves as a religious movement. They rather use euphemistic concepts such as culture, wisdom or even "love." This is not because they are dishonest. It is rather because they are living in a system in which any reference to religion is unwelcome and even dangerous. Now, some secularist Turks who are articulate enough to chat with you on liberal democracy would tell you that this authoritarian laicite is actually good, for it saves us from a greater evil, which is fundamentalist Islam. "Had Atatürk not crushed those Islamic orders," they could even whisper to your ear, "we would not be looking over the Bosphorus and sipping these nice martini cocktails." Well, do not buy into that. This argument presupposes that Turkey was something like the Taliban's Afghanistan before laicite saved us. The truth, however, was that Turkey had already been modernizing itself since early 19th century, and its Islam was hardly fundamentalist. (So, you would certainly be able to find bars in pre-Kemalist Istanbul, places where many Ottomans, including the young Mustafa Kemal Paşa, frequented.) The connection between laicite and fundamentalism is actually the opposite of what the Turkish secularists argue. The former is not a precaution to the latter; they are rather the two sides of the same coin. By suppressing even the most moderate expressions of Islam, and impoverishing Islamic thought by closing down all of its institutions, laicite opened the way for a more unrefined, literalist and angry Islam that emerged in Turkey in the '70s. This trend soon created the "Milli Görüş" (National View) movement of Necmeddin Erbakan, which was a great step back from the Islamic liberalism that Ottoman intellectuals such as Namik Kemal were able to articulate a century before. Diyanet matters Finally, let's come to Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, or, as it is simply called in Turkish, the Diyanet. I, too, think positively about this institution, and its growing prestige in Europe and the Middle East. And it is true that the Diyanet is a part of the state system that laicite had formulated. However, the institution is rooted in the Ottoman experience, and not in Turkish laicite's strong aversion to religion. The latter had allowed Diyanet only unwillingly and kept it quite weak until the Cold War when the Machiavellian Turkish state realized that a little bit of religion can be helpful against the communist threat. Yet still, the Diyanet has remained highly unpopular among Turkey's conservative Muslims, for it was seen as a tool of the authoritarian state. This started to change in the last two decades when the Diyanet started to prove that it was not a yes-man of the laicite regime. The latter's ban on the headscarf, for example, was never supported by the Diyanet, and the latter kept on saying that it is an established practice in the Islamic tradition. To sum it up, I should say Turkey indeed has an Islamic heritage that it can proudly share with the outside world. But that heritage was not produced by laicite. It rather has survived in spite of it.
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