Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Redefining Secularism? AKP Challenges Turks' Modern Religiosity

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 7 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rejects the accusation of being anti-secular, instead advancing its own interpretation of secularism. Opinion polls, however, indicate that the AKP’s views are representative of but a minority of the Turkish population. A clear majority appears to believe that secularism is in fact endangered, and there is only minority support for the kind of redefinition of secularism that is sought after by the moderate Islamists.

BACKGROUND: The question at the heart of the Turkish crisis is whether or not Islam and secularism – and ultimately democracy – can be reconciled, and if so how. Neither side in the ideological confrontation ravaging Turkey rejects the notion of such compatibility. But they do differ as to how secularism and Islam should be understood.

Leading representatives of the AKP have on several occasions called for a redefinition of the traditional, republican concept of secularism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year stated that the “state is to be secular, but individuals cannot be secular.” Former Speaker of Parliament Bülent Arinç openly called for a redefinition of secularism, adding that it was not a notion which has sprung from outside Turkish society.

In its written response to the closure case which was recently submitted to the constitutional court, the AKP repudiates the definition of secularism adhered to by the chief prosecutor and reiterates statements such as that of the prime minister about the relationship of the state and individuals, respectively, to secularism.

The AKP finds that the indictment rests on an interpretation of secularism presumed to be synonymous with a “civilized way of life and philosophy”, originating in the “uncompromising progressiveness of nineteenth century positivism.” A “modern understanding of secularism aims at securing the harmony between different religions and systems of belief”, the AKP retorts. “Rather than undermining secularism, we have in fact had it accepted by society”, the defense continues.

Indeed, two recent opinion polls indicate that secularism has largely been internalized by Turkish society – but not as understood by the moderate Islamists in power. Neither do the declarations of the AKP about the nature of the regime reassure a majority of the population. According to a poll conducted by A & G, a company renowned for having accurately predicted the results of several elections, notably the general elections of 2007, a total of 49,5 percent of respondents express concern about the AKP and secularism. 38,3 percent believe that the ruling party is set on undermining secularism, while 11,2 percent are somewhat worried. The percentage of those expressing concern have risen by ten points during the past year. It is positively correlated to the level of education of respondents. Among those with the highest education levels, 72 percent perceive the AKP as a threat to the secular system. In urban areas, 60 percent perceive such a threat.

A survey conducted by professor Hakan Yavuz at Bosphorus University in Istanbul in conjunction with the Open Society Institute in Turkey during the autumn of 2007 established that the “average Turk” does not share the AKP’s perception of secularism as a notion in need of redefinition. Thus, 44,9 percent adhered to the view that “secularism should be fully applied without any changes whatsoever.” Those desiring a redefinition amounted to only 12,3 percent. Indeed, not only does the idea that secularism should be reinterpreted fail to command any significant support, a majority instead appears to have opted for a redefinition of religiosity.
62,7 percent of Turks define themselves as “modern religious”, while 37,3 percent describe themselves as “traditional religious”. The differences between the two categories are striking. 83 percent of those in the first category believe it to be possible to adhere strictly to secular and democratic values, while only 17 percent among the traditionally religious subscribe to that view. 83 percent of the “modern religious” do not see the wearing of a headscarf, but rather moral conduct as a measure of religiosity. 79 percent of the “modern religious” accord the same value to the Turkish translations of the Koran as to the Arabic original (The Koran was first translated into Turkish at the instruction of Kemal Atatürk.) This again sets them apart from conservative believers, of whom only 21 percent accept the translation. These figures suggest that secularism has been internalized by a substantial majority of the population, and significantly that an Islamic “reformation” of a kind has taken place as a consequence of that internalization.

IMPLICATIONS: Süleyman Demirel, former president and long-time prime minister, recently told this author that it is a difficult enterprise to explain secularism to the people, the question being whether Islam can accommodate secularism at all, since state and religion, especially in the Muslim world, are like “Siamese twins”. “They have to be separated surgically, and in the course of such surgery either one of the twins or sometimes both fails to survive surgery”, Demirel reminded. “But up until recently, Turkey had succeeded”, the former president continued. The secular state had survived, and so had religion, as the survey above demonstrates.

However, the separation of the sacred and the temporal challenges both the traditional perception of the role of religion in society, as well as that of modern political Islamic movements. Until the founding of the Turkish republic, the Muslim world had not known of any state where social relations and the way of life were not ordered according to the divine law.  Even in countries such as Syria, which are perceived as “secular” in contrast to a Saudi Arabia or Iran, family and inheritance laws remain Islamic to this day.

Turkish republican secularism was indeed, as the AKP points out, inspired by nineteenth century positivism. The Kemalist revolution postulated that religious dogmatism obstructed free and rational thought. It restricted religion to the private realm, to the conscience and to the shrine. Islamic conservatives, and lately also many liberals in both Turkey and the west, have accused this enterprise of being undemocratic. Yet, the curbing of the all-encompassing reach of religion is arguably what has given birth to a modern religiosity at peace with freedom and democracy. This has been the case in the West, and subsequently in Turkey with a scope that is unique in the Muslim world. Implicit in the AKP’s objective of redefining secularism, in its opposition to “uncompromising progressiveness”, is ultimately an estrangement from that kind of reformed religiosity.

Paradoxically, while fostering religious reformation at the societal level, the republic has itself become gradually “sanctified”. The history of republican Turkey is actually two different histories: Concurrently with the internalization of secularism – understood as the privatization of religion – by a majority, the state has over time gone more religious, its bureaucracy heavily invested with Islamic brotherhoods such as the Fethullah Gülen movement, ever expanding the scope of religious instruction and building more mosques than any other state in the Muslim world.

Süleyman Demirel, as prime minister during the 1970s, was primarily responsible for giving impetus to the expansion of the religious schools, stating at that time that Turkey “needed doctors, lawyers and other professionals acquainted with the teachings of the Koran”. Demirel continued to criticize the secularism of the Atatürk era up until the 1990s. Today, Demirel appears somewhat remorseful. In a recent conversation, the president defended his track record of accommodating Muslim demands with the need to fend off the challenge of radical Islam, at the time represented by Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist party leader. Demirel recalled how he during the 1960s and 1970s used to respond to those citizens who argued that religious freedom was restricted: “I used to ask, is there anything or anybody preventing you from professing your faith, from praying, from fasting, from giving alms, from going to the pilgrimage, that is, from fulfilling your religious obligations as a Muslim? What else do you want, I would ask.”

The traditional attitude of this more or less secular conservatism, once represented by politicians like Demirel, and which balanced the demands of religion and secularism, clearly does not satisfy the AKP. Nihat Ergün, deputy leader of the AKP group in parliament, pointedly dismissed Demirel’s assertion about religious freedom not having been restricted: “That discourse spoke to my father. It does not address my wishes”, Ergün told this author.

Professor Hakan Yavuz of Bosphorus University maintains that the AKP actually clings to a dated version of secularism when the party defends it as a state principle, not having any bearing on individuals. The secular republic has indeed demanded that every newborn is denominated by religion, in practice making adhesion to Islam, be it nominal, a prerequisite for any state position. It is not so much the way in which official state ideology has been implemented since the 1950s that is challenged by the AKP, as the evolution of the self-understanding of a population of which a majority identifies itself as a modern religious, and of which only a small minority desires secularism to be reinterpreted to mean something other than a modernity inherited from positivism. “The AKP fails to recognize how much it hurts citizens when secularism as a civil right is offended against”, professor Yavuz says. That right, to freedom from religious interference, is infringed upon when conformity to religious norms becomes a prerequisite for government jobs or contracts, as is increasingly the case today, and when restaurants stop serving alcohol or close altogether during the month of fasting. “The problem (with the AKP’s interpretation of secularism) is that religiosity is conceived of as the normal state, other attitudes and lifestyles being something to be at best tolerated”, concludes Yavuz.

CONCLUSIONS: Demirel is blunter: “What they want is to make everybody pray.” This statement, when pronounced by a politician who was once renowned – in secularist eyes even notorious – as a champion of religion, is remarkable. But it goes to the heart of the matter: why make a reinterpretation of secularism an issue in the name of “religious freedom”, when the right to be a Muslim – in the private sense – has in fact never been restrained? The obvious explanation is that however moderate, the Islamists of the AKP have not internalized the consequence of secularism, the modernization of religion.

Indeed, making religion solely a private matter, as opposed to a matter of public conformity, represents a conceptual leap in the Islamic context. Turkish society has to a large extent succeeded in making that leap. The AKP, or its successors, will have to make their peace with that evolution.

Read 11164 times

Visit also





Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


Sign up for upcoming events, latest news and articles from the CACI Analyst