Mad About Secularism: Turkey and the Global Politics of Religion

Buried in the April 1 New York Times was a short article on developments in Turkey that deserve a good deal more attention than they have received. The story, titled “Turkish Court to Consider Ban on Top Party,” recounts the unfolding of what’s shaping up as a major political crisis in Turkey, a noteworthy story in its own right given the size and importance of this country. But it also offers an illuminating glimpse into the global politics of religion and secularism in our world today; and the urgency of our becoming more aware of the power and work of these categories.

Turkey’s highest court has agreed to hear a case for disbanding the Justice and Development Party, the ruling party to which the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul both belong. With the justices voting unanimously to hear the case, the signs are strong that the court will rule to shut down the party and ban 71 members, including Erdogan and perhaps even Gul, from politics. The claim is that this party, with its roots in political Islam, is undermining the secular nature of the state.

Since the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, secularism has been the official state ideology. Championed by the national founder and hero Atatürk, secularism has been embraced especially by Turkish elites and the institutions of the courts and the military. Over the years they have coercively ensured that secularism remains the official ideology through various court rulings and even, on occasion, military coups. Another religiously inspired party, for example, emerged in the early 1980s and was shut down fifteen years later for violating the secular principles of the republic. This history now threatens to repeat itself.

Although very much a national crisis, the global echoes are unmistakable. The indictment charges Mr. Erdogan and his governing party with responsibility for shifting perceptions of Turkey. Because of him, states the indictment, Turkey is now viewed as a “moderate Islamic republic,” and suggests that this is now the official view of the United States. The indictment continues by charging that this way of identifying Turkey is simply wrong because it completely ignores the “fact that Turkey is a secular democratic state.”

The nestling of the national and global discourses on religion and secularism underscores how important it is to get a handle on what these terms mean in various locations. Although we easily recognize that religion is a category that includes many variants (even to the point of implosion), we tend to be quite oblivious to the variations in secularism. This is not surprising since the category positions itself as universal and helps to foster the impression that while religions are different, the secular is that which is common. And given the limited knowledge that most Americans have about the rest of the world, it is especially easy to think that secularism in Turkey must mean the same thing as secularism in the United States. It doesn’t. But thinking from our perspective does makes it impossible for us to understand what is happening in Turkey today, and in the global politics of religion more generally.

Americans tend to think of seculardemocracy as one word. They just go together, we think, you can’t have one without the other. Operating with this mindset, one can easily see how charges that an Islamic party poses a threat to the viability of the secular democratic state would ring true. But a closer look at the history and forms of secularism in Turkey reveals that it has been a “top-down” ideology, enforced by the power of elites, courts, and military. In the national project to create a modern nation-state the founders and their heirs placed more weight on the advancement of secularism than on the advancement of democracy. This authoritarian version of secularism, then, cannot automatically be understood as the more democratic option in the current crisis. This is important to keep in mind as we are tempted to imagine that religion is necessarily dogmatic and authoritarian, and secularism the epitome of freedom and rationality.

Given our history, Americans also tend to assume that secularism is a form of social organization that creates a proverbial wall of separation between church and state, as much to protect religion from any interference by the state as to avoid the establishment of any single religion. In Turkey, however, secularism as the official state ideology has been accompanied by the state cultivation of a particular form of moderate Islam. The Diyanet (one of the largest state agencies, employing 80,000 people) is charged with managing a broad range of activities related to religion, overseeing mosques, preparing the Friday sermons, and writing Islamic legal reports and opinions, as Cemal Karakas reports. Secularism in Turkey, in other words, is linked to a particular form of Sunni Islam. It is deeply misleading to assume that the religiously-rooted Justice and Welfare party is somehow bringing religion into the orbit of the secular state for the first time. Religion is already there, though a form that is cultivated, supported, and managed by the state.

Built into the rhetoric contrasting a “moderate Islamic republic” and a “secular democratic state” is the assumption that religion and secularism are antithetical, insulated, and locked in a zero-sum game. This very static and oppositional picture leads us to think that the choices are clear cut and that the trajectory of secular democracy is necessarily moving away from religion. This crude binary blinds us to the far messier interface of secularizing trends and religion.

We will never be able to acknowledge, and respect, this reality in other parts of the world until we can see it in our own history. This is why it is so important that Americans come to see how deeply religion—especially Protestant Christian assumptions and sensibilities—have shaped secularism in American life, past and present. De Tocqueville, often touted as the most astute interpreter of American democracy, saw this very clearly. Christianity doesn’t intervene directly in government, but even so he noted it “reigns by universal consent.” The religious inflections in our mission to spread secular democracy and rights around the world, so prominent in President Bush’s speeches, often seem evident to everyone but Americans. This is not some aberration. It is evidence of the long tradition of the religiously based secularism that has shaped American democratic life.

The global politics of religion have made it increasingly urgent that Americans become more aware of the varieties of secularism, at home and around the world. Misunderstanding the complexities of our own history concerning the relations of religion and secularism pushes us to imagine that there is a single model that could or should work for all countries. As political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd clearly shows, hanging onto this single model leads us to “delegitimize non-Western movements working toward different formations of democracy and secularism.” Insisting upon the radical disjunction of religion and the secular abroad—which effaces the more complicated blend employed here in the United States—fosters misunderstanding and ill will at best and underwrites American imperialism at its worst.