Posts in English

Who Knows What Secularism Is

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Once again, Turkey is in the middle of the headscarf debate. Once again, the overwhelming majority of Parliament is in favor of setting the headscarf free in universities. And once again, the chief prosecutor sinisterly “warns” the politicians not to take that step. If history is indeed a repetition of the same events, then this Turkish craze about the veil is a perfect example. For me, it is absolutely crazy, because I see the ban on the headscarf as a violation of individual rights. The state, I further hold, has no legitimate authority to tell the citizens what they should wear. I also think this liberty is what secularism should entail. But Turkey’s chief prosecutor and his ideological allies have a different notion of secularism which gives the state unlimited powers over the lives of the citizens. And they impose that view unabashedly on Parliament. To see this clearer, we should take a look at the Turkish Constitution, which was installed by a military junta in 1982. One of the “unchangeable” articles of this text notes that Turkey is a “laik” country, a term whose origin is French but whose meaning is unclear. Unlike the American Constitution, which contains a ban on both “an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the Turkish one simply says nothing about what “laik” means. This vagueness is not an accidental mistake. It rather seems to be created, and preserved, quite purposefully. For the makers of the Constitution, i.e., the generals, did not want to leave the definition of secularism to the Constitution itself, which can be amended by elected politicians. They rather gave that exclusive privilege to their best friends: the judges of the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court took its first decision on this matter in 1971, when Turkey was going through one of its customary military coups. The court extended the definition in 1989 and reaffirmed it in 1991. The latest text is still upheld by the establishment and imposed on Parliament by the chief prosecutor as the official definition of secularism. And that is quite an interesting definition. It does not speak about the separation of state and religion, something that I would support, but it rather focuses on the supposed rights of the state to curb religion in public life. It tells how religion blinded societies “during the middle ages,” and how this “darkness” was broken by “the light of science.” It then defines secularism as “the highest stage in the mental and organizational evolution of human societies.” The less religion there is in a society, in other words, the more “evolved” it will be. I am used to hearing such anti-religious views from thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, and, although I disagree with them a lot, I accept their right to advance their philosophy. But I cannot agree to see that philosophy as the official ideology. Yet the Turkish Constitutional Court does exactly that. After defining religion as something bad for societies, it praises secularism as the organizing principle of “political, social and cultural life.” Not just political, but also social and cultural life? That means that religion should not have any role at all in society. There should be no religious communities, charities, schools or NGOs. “The right place of religion,” the Constitutional Court enlightens us further, “is the conscience of the individuals.” This is clearly an exceptional secularism whose bias against religion is unmatched even in France. It sounds rather like the policies of the Soviet Union and some mild communist countries of the past century, who also allowed religion in “the conscience of the individuals” but erased it from public life. Notably, the judiciary admits that Turkey’s self-styled secularism is different from what is in the West. “Since the natures of the Christian and Islamic religions are different,” the chief prosecutor himself explained in 2007, “the implication of secularism in the West and in our country has been different.” He elaborated by noting that Islam has more rules and regulations than Christianity, so secularism in a Muslim country needs to be more assertive. Well, that is an argument not too unlike the official argument on nationalism — that we need an assertive Turkish nationalism to deal with our assertively nationalist Kurds. My argument would be that precisely this assertiveness of the state creates reactions on the Kurdish or the Islamic side. Both our secularism and nationalism needs to be softer, in other words, to be able to win the pious Muslim and the proud Kurd. I believe we Turks can discuss all these matters and reach a definition of secularism that will be agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of the society. But our juristocracy just doesn’t allow that. The only real way out seems to make a new constitution in which secularism will be clearly defined – not by a bunch of judges and their rigid ideology, but by the elected representatives of the people and their diversity.
All for Joomla All for Webmasters