Sacralization of the State and Secular Nationalism: Foundations of Civil Religion in Turkey

By Kucukcan, Talip | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Sacralization of the State and Secular Nationalism: Foundations of Civil Religion in Turkey


Kucukcan, Talip, The George Washington International Law Review


This Article will illustrate how secular nationalism has been introduced as a source of collective identity and as a founding ideology of the Turkish state vis-à-vis the Islamic legacy of the Ottoman Empire. This Article will also locate religion in the process of laying the foundations of civil religion and examine how religion has been sidelined, marginalized, and reconfigured by the state ideology. Finally, in the context of Turkey-EU relations, this Article will analyze how the Turkish state has repositioned itself with regard to Islam, non-Muslims, and freedom of religion.

I. SACRALIZATION OF SECULAR NATIONALISM

A. Secular Reforms

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new nation was established on secular grounds and has since created its own myths, symbols, rituals, shared memories, and objectives.1 The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 after a war of liberation against the Western occupying forces, which had literally carved up the Ottoman Empire and led to its disintegration.2 The war of liberation was an important constitutive element of a nation-building process. Indeed, it was the starting point of civil religion even though the war of liberation was described not only as a national duty to preserve the integrity and independence of the country but also as a religious obligation against the infidel enemies during the war in which religious figures were deeply involved.3 Mustafa Kemal4 (1881-1938) led the war of liberation. Kemal was later named Atatürk, which means "the Father of Turk."5 Modern Turkey was established as a secular nation-state based on the western political model.6 On a small scale, western and secular oriented reforms began in the late period of the Ottoman Empire especially under the reign of Mahmut II and during the Tanzimat between 1839 and 1876.7 Nevertheless, the founding fathers of Turkey deemed it necessary to disconnect the new state and the nation from the imperial legacy, which was thought to be heavily influenced by Islamic symbols and cultural values. Therefore, the ruling elite launched large scale and sweeping reforms to build a new nation-state on the pattern of the West, inspired by secular nationalism and modernization.8 Three main areas were identified to establish a secular state and a nation: The first area to undermine traditional strongholds of Islam was secularization of state, education, and law. The second target was the replacement of religious symbols with the symbols of European civilization. The third area was the secularization of social life and removing the impact of popular Islam in everyday life.9

All reforms during the formative period of the Republic were aimed at undermining the legacy of the Ottoman social, political, and cultural influence to establish a modern and secular framework to define the new Turkish nation. In an attempt "to eliminate every symbol that had a relationship with the Ottoman-Islamic heritage" and to radically "break from the Ottoman era,"10 earlier reforms included abolition of the Caliphate (1924), closure of religious shrines (türbes) and the dervish lodges (tekkes) (1925), abolition of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Pious Foundations (1924), removing an article from the constitution which declared Islam as the state religion (1928), "Turkification" of the call to prayer (1932), and change of the alphabet from Arabic to Latin (1928), which meant a complete disconnection from cultural and literary products of the past.11 The Turkish language for the state elite was to be purified, and therefore was cleansed of its Arabic and Islamic influences deemed to counteract inculcation of a secular identity through literature, education, and the media. With the introduction of the Latin alphabet, books, magazines, newspapers, and official documents were placed in the archives for years to come. Other major reforms between 1924 and 1935 included the acceptance of the Western style of clothing, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar (1926), the introduction of Western music in schools, the change of the weekly holiday from Friday to Sunday, adoption of the Swiss civil and Italian penal codes, and the adoption of laws pertaining to the unification of education12 (1924), which facilitated the emergence of secular myths, symbols, and rituals. …

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