Secularism in Turkey: Myths and Realities

By Kuru, Ahmet T. | Insight Turkey, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Secularism in Turkey: Myths and Realities


Kuru, Ahmet T., Insight Turkey


In March 2008, the Chief Public Prosecutor of Turkey's High Court of Appeals opened a closure case against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, which had received 47% of the votes eight months before in elections competing with 14 other parties. The prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court not only to close the party, but also to enact a five year prohibition from politics for its 71 leading politicians, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in addition to President Abdullah Gill. The indictment depicts the AK Party as the center of anti-secular reactionism in Turkey. Elsewhere, I already rejected this claim by revealing that the AK Party defends secularism while opposing its particular Kemalist version, which aims to remove religion from the public sphere. (1) In this essay, I will focus on four misperceptions about secularism which have been largely embraced by the Turkish establishment, which are reflected in several of the Constitutional Court's decisions, and which have most recently been repeated, explicitly or implicitly, by the prosecutor in his indictment against the AK Party. Only after deconstructing these four myths can one evaluate the AK Party's position towards secularism.

Myth 1: Secularism is a worldview and a constitutional principle

On September 20, 2004, Necdet Sezer, then President of Turkey, stood before the Diyanet's Third Symposium on religious affairs and proclaimed, "Secularism is a way of life, which should be adopted by an individual. A 'secular individual' should confine religion to the sacred place of his conscience and disallow his belief to affect this world." (2) Conversely, rightist politicians, from Turgut Ozal to Erdogan, have depicted secularism as a characteristic of the state, not of individuals, and have recognized that religion has implications beyond an individual's conscience. (3)

The mistake of rightist politicians is their denial of the possible existence of a secular individual who embraces secularism as a worldview. There are secular individuals in Turkey and elsewhere who choose a secular lifestyle by rejecting religion or confining it to their consciences. On the other hand, the mistake of Sezer and his followers is to confuse secularism as a worldview and secularism as a constitutional principle. Secularism in the Turkish Constitution, as in the constitutions of other secular states, implies a political principle that delineates the relationship between the state and religions, especially regarding two criteria: 1) Parliament and courts in secular states are not subject to institutional religious control, and 2) secular states constitutionally declare neutrality toward religions. Secularism as a worldview is not a constitutional principle of the Turkish Republic. It is only one of several alternative lifestyles. A neutral secular state cannot impose a secular worldview on its citizens.

In this regard, some individuals may define themselves as "secular" in terms of rejecting or ignoring religion in their lives. The state should be neutral toward these citizens as it should be toward citizens who take religion seriously in their lives. In some countries, such as Belgium, secularism is considered "not as the basis of the state, but as one of the ideological components of society." (4) The Belgium state, therefore, funds the secularists among other religious groups. (5) Secularism in Belgium is one of several officially recognized, comprehensive doctrines, none of which are imposed by the state on the people.

A secular state can only ask individuals to be "secular" in the sense that they defend secularism against anti-secular regimes. Recently, Prime Minister Erdogan acknowledged this point. He declared that he could define himself as "a secular individual" in terms of "supporting the secular characteristic of the state;" though not in terms of believing secularism as an alternative to religion. …

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