Secularism and Religion in Turkey: The Role of Democracy and Engagement

By Eksioglu, Deniz | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Secularism and Religion in Turkey: The Role of Democracy and Engagement


Eksioglu, Deniz, International Journal of Turkish Studies


BERNA TURAM, ed., Secular State and Religious Society: Two Forces at Play in Turkey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

AHMET T. KURU and ALFRED STEPHAN, eds., Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

Two recent volumes, Secular State and Religious Society: Two Forces at Play in Turkey, edited by Berna Turam, and Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey, edited by Ahmet T. Kuru and Alfred Stepan, seek to present critical analysis of current state-religion relations under the unprecedented rise to power and electoral dominance of the center-right conservative, and religion-friendly, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party-AKP). Looking specifically at long-standing debates over state-religion relations and, within these debates, at the degree to which democracy has taken hold in Turkey, both books address a wide range of historical, political, social, and ideological realities pertinent to the Turkish case. With a shared emphasis on the possibility of heightened democratic transformation via increased engagement between the secular and religious segments of the state and society, the editors structure their volumes almost identically. Both offer historical background on the rise of the Kemalist power structure and its strict secular policies in an effort not only to shed light on the past and on the shortcomings of the Kemalist program, but also to indicate possible roads to future cooperation and democracy. The underpinnings of the Kemalist ideology are then presented in a practical context to illuminate their influence on modern-day society and on the stunted democratic development that Turkey has faced on numerous occasions in the past. Finally, through comparative studies of Turkey and other regional actors, both volumes home in on the need for greater accommodation and tolerance between the secular state and religious society to end societal polarization and make possible a path toward deepened democracy.

Compiled following a series of conferences involving scholars of Turkey during 2009 in Amherst and Hampshire College, Secular State and Religious Society offers a number of eloquent and thorough analyses, rife with apt examples, of the long-standing tensions and engagements between secularists and religious actors within the Turkish state and society. As presented by Berna Turam in her introduction, the main goal of each chapter is to offer evidence to counter the prevalent but misleading assumption that in Turkey relations between religious adherents and proponents of secularism, both in the state and in society, are polarized, contentious, and lacking cooperation. On the contrary, as each chapter serves to show, there is a significant degree of permeation between the state and society, and frequent voluntary convergences and strategic alliances have developed between the state and religion. In fact, Berna Turam explains and her contributors affirm, existing religious actors in Turkey have themselves been influenced by the secular ideology of the state and have adapted and liberalized. Because of a resulting "politics of engagement," rather than a deep-seated polarization, Berna Turam emphasizes, "Disguised by the Islamism-secularism controversy, Turkey's main challenge remains democratization" (Turam, 9). While the mainstream theories of secularization and modernization tout the democratic values of secularism, secularism without democracy cannot work; and as both history and modern-day politics in Turkey have shown, secular authoritarianism and unwillingness to engage with the non-secular have often created an undemocratic environment in Turkey. Without engagement, cooperation, and compromise on the part of both secular and religious actors, moving forward democratically will become increasingly difficult.

In particular, three historical contributions in Secular State and Religious Society consider three institutional manifestations of the Kemalist ideological vectors within the Turkish state apparatus. …

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