Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

"Secularism" from the Last Years of the Ottoman Empire to the Early Turkish Republic

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

"Secularism" from the Last Years of the Ottoman Empire to the Early Turkish Republic

Article excerpt

The main aim of this article is to discuss both the concept of secularism among the Ottoman intellectuals and the principle of secularism during the period of the Turkish Republic based on ideas rather than practice. We can analyze "secularism in Turkey" in two separate periods of time: First, "The Ottoman Empire and Secularism" which discusses the ideas of secularism before the foundation of the Turkish Republic, and second "A Brief Analysis of the Turkish Republic and the Principle of Secularism" in which the idea of secularism related to the ideology of the state in the course of the Turkish Republic are shortly examined. In this article, we generally state the consistent development of secularism practiced in Turkey.

Key Words: The Ottoman Empire, Secularism, Westernization, Islam, Turkey.


Throughout approximately three centuries, we observe "westernization" as one the most serious problems both in Turkey and on the whole, most Eastern countries. When the efforts of "westernization" were started in the Ottoman Empire, many countries like Japan, Russia, India and Iran had already carried out "westernization" or had been about to start to do it. However, "westernization" had brought many problems with itself to the Ottoman Empire as well as other countries. One of the most important of these problems was religion because it was the process of secularism which improved in parallel with the reformation of religion that contributed to the development of European countries. In other words, the more religion and state were separated, the faster the advancements in society were becoming. This situation was a special problem in Eastern countries since there was no social structure, no such organizations and no dominant power like the church gained in Europe.1 As opposed to a clerical social structure in Europe, it was obvious that religion had such a strict structure and powerful place in Eastern countries that it could not be possible to remove religion out of its permanent place; where it stands alongside social associations at the heart of life. Also the fact that Eastern countries did not have any theocratic classes independent from civil life which would have had dominant power the over the government was a significant difference from European countries.

Also, it was naturally almost impossible to separate religion from government especially in Muslim countries where people believed in Islam. In this context, arguments which often arose based on the efforts of westernization focused on religion. Especially, from the mid-1800s, due to the movement of positivism which Ottoman Empire was affected, most of intellectuals demanded westernization to prevail in order to include western values and thought of traditional values as an obstacle to advancement (westernization). Consequently, the idea of westernization included religion inevitably and important innovations about religion were advised. "Secularism" was adopted in Turkey quite late and it may be accepted that implementations about secularism started with the movement of westernization. In short, secularism in the Ottoman Empire was an issue of argument which came out within the discourse of westernization.

Secularism, with its confirmed definition also effective to us, is the absolute detachment of religious affiliation from state affairs. According to this definition, either the state or religion ought not to have a direct intervention to one another. Thereby, the state should, rather than gathering its constitutional faculty by religion as in classical theocracy, hold a balanced policy to all faiths. During the time when the initial proposals on the notion of secularism were suggested, the Ottoman intellectual did not own such a directly figured secularism definition. Contemporaries of the era, by mostly referring to the structure of a western country so as to determine the distinctions between western countries and the Ottoman Empire, were trying to analyze the causes of the lagging of the Ottoman Empire. …

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