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Islam

Atatürk's Country betwixt Democracy and State Doctrine

Turkey's position within Islam is somewhat unusual. The Turks have passionately embraced the Islamic religion, despite its undoubtedly Arab origins, and made it into a sign of national pride and identity. The Republic, founded under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the military and political chief who was as ruthless as he was ingenious, was almost totally composed of old liners of the Union and Progress party (Ittihad ve Terakki) from the final phase of the Ottoman era. Paradoxical though it may seem, his guidance contributed to the strengthening of a deep rooted Islamic identity and ideal which, at the same time, was detached from other Muslim nations.  

The people who demonstrate for secularism are the ones who have a secular lifestyle and think that Muslims will not tolerate them if they become more powerful. But this is not a realistic fear.

 

And a devout Muslim president is of course no problem, but Turkey's ultra-secularists don't think so.

 

It is no secret that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to democracy, freedom and security in today's world, especially in the Middle East. Yet the same values can be threatened by secular fundamentalists, too. Turkey's self-styled laïcité, a much more radical version of the French secular system, is a case in point.

 

The American model of secularism guarantees individual religious liberty. The Turkish model, however, guarantees the state's right to dominate religion and suppress religious practice in any way it deems necessary.

 

This devolves from the veneration of the state as an end in itself, an entity to which all other values may - and must - be sacrificed.

 

Mingled with this is the hostility felt by the Turkish secularist elite toward religion generally. Influenced by the European anti-religious movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it views religion as a pre-modern myth, one that must be extinguished for modernity to blossom.

 

The outcome of this mindset is an authoritarian strategy: Political power is to remain in the hands of the secularist elite. Thus the "secular republic" equals the "republic of seculars" - not the republic of all citizens.

 

Moreover, the secular elite holds itself responsible for preventing religion from flourishing; it is the proper role of the state, they believe, to suppress religious communities, restrict religious education and ban visible signs of observance such as the head scarf.

 

The secularist program functioned smoothly in the second quarter of the 20th century, during which Turkey lived under a euphemistic "single party regime." But after World War II, the secularist elite was forced to accept a disagreeable inconvenience - democracy.

 

Since 1950, almost every election has been won by center-right parties, which have advocated relative religious freedom. More recently, Islamist parties have risen in popularity.

 

A liberal offshoot of these parties, the Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish initials as the AK party, came to power in 2002 by rejecting its Islamist past and defining itself as "conservative."

 

Noting that Western democracies give their citizens the very religious freedoms Turkey has denied its own, Muslims of the AK party have rerouted their search for freedom. Rather than trying to Islamize the state, they have decided to liberalize it. That's why in today's Turkey the AK party is the main proponent of the effort to join the European Union, democratization, free markets and individual liberties.

 

Interestingly, this has led the party's secularist opponents to embrace fierce anti-Westernism. Most ultra-secular pundits speculate about "the alliance between moderate Islam and American imperialism" - and they despise both.

 

This anti-Western, anti-religious and anti-liberal ideology lies beneath the current ultra-secularist hype in Turkey.

 

It is true that Turkey's Islamic circles need further modernization, but studies show that they are already on that track. And whatever Turkey's problems, it should never retreat from democracy. The ultimate solution, of course, will come when we Turks understand that all citizens - whether they wear a head scarf, cross or miniskirt - are equals. Our over-susceptible republic will be much more secure and relieved when it treats them as such.

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