Wednesday, 04 June 2008

Where Did the Secular Republic Fail?

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 8 of the Turkey Analyst)

The ideological confrontation between Islamism and secularism in Turkey is fed by contradictory interpretations of republican history. The enterprise of secularism is either understood as having oppressed religion or as having been insufficiently true to its Enlightenment heritage. How republican history is interpreted will ultimately shape the future course of Turkey.

BACKGROUND: Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan caused an uproar at home with his statement last week before the foreign relations committee of the European parliament that Muslims in Turkey are oppressed. The allegation not only infuriated secular commentators, but was also met with heavy criticism within the ranks of the ruling AKP. One exasperated AKP deputy exclaimed that he had had enough with the political exploitation of religious sentiments. Köksal Toptan, speaker of the parliament and himself a deputy of the AKP (though his background is in the more secular centre-right and not in Islamist circles), remarked that Muslims have no problems whatsoever fulfilling their religious obligations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, supported the claim of the foreign minister, saying that Muslims in fact do have problems.

Concurrently, a different perspective on the state of religion in Turkey was provided by Serif Mardin, the doyen of Turkish sociology. “The mosque, the imam, and the books read by the imam, have defeated the school and the teacher, the structure that represents the modernizing republic”, Mardin recently declared. Serif Mardin is internationally recognized for his studies of the historical roots of the Islamic movement in Turkey, but is viewed with suspicion by die-hard secular Turkish intellectuals, who more or less accuse him of being a crypto-Islamist. In fact, Mardin represents a kind of intellectual liberalism that inevitably falls between the polarized positions of the Turkish political debate.

Serif Mardin has, however, more than any other secular intellectual contributed to a growing awareness about the danger posed by mounting religious conservatism. Last year, he coined the term “community pressure” (Mahalle baskisi) to describe a sociological reality which could eventually suffocate secular life-style. Since he is not known as a strident secularist, his analysis and predictions carried all the more weight. A year later, Mardin expresses dissatisfaction with being “used” as a tool in the political debate. Once again stirring discussion among political commentators, he now proclaims the victory of Islam over the republic. Religion is victorious because “the republic has not given the question of what is good, right and aesthetic any deeper consideration. That is the deficiency of Kemalism. In the community, on the other hand, there is such a philosophy, Islamic thinking. Islam has thus filled a void.”

What lends originality to Mardin’s analysis is the implication that Kemalism has been unsuccessful, not because it has been applied with uncompromising vigor and insensitivity to popularly held beliefs, but because republican ideology has remained philosophically arid, being insufficiently connected to and fecundated by the heritage of Enlightenment. “While an innumerable amount of text has been produced in the west since the days of Immanuel Kant, the republic has nothing of the kind, no philosophy of ethics, to display”, Mardin reminds.

The critics of Kemalism in Turkey as well as in the west have otherwise accused it of Jacobinism and echoed the indictment of Samuel Huntington, according to which Kemal Atatürk’s revolution was predestined to defeat since it challenged what is supposed to be the “natural” order of things in a Muslim environment. Serif Mardin implies not that the republic was doomed by nature, but rather that it doomed itself to defeat by failing to develop intellectually in the line of Enlightenment tradition. Prominent historian Ilber Ortayli, director of the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul, concurs: “The republic has not succeeded in producing a republican individual. That was up to the school system to accomplish. Atatürk created examples to be followed, but his successors did not continue on the path laid out by him. If they had, the educational system would have nurtured a republican type”, Ortayli says.

Assertions about the failure of republican secularism should however be qualified. Islamic conservatism is undeniably on the rise. Still, the successes of the Turkish republican model stand out in its environment: Women constitute 30 percent of the workforce, 40 percent of the university professors are women, the legislation is secular, and secularism is actually espoused by a majority of the population. That is no mean feat in a Muslim country. But secularization and westernization has been realized largely in spiteof state policies the last decades; it is arguably more the result of the societal impetus given by the early generations of the republic. Indeed, the teacher has long since ceased to be a symbol of republican modernization, defeated not so much by the imam as abandoned to traditionalism by the republic itself.

Ismet Berkan, editor-in-chief of the liberal daily Radikal, argues that the philosophical shortcomings of the republic to which Serif Mardin refers are due to the policies of the centre-right (which has held power for most part of the republican, multi-party era). The development of secular notions of good and right, of secular ethics, has been impeded by the deficiencies of the educational system. Berkan mentions the practice of centre-right governments to remove philosophy from the school curriculum. He also reminds of how the right-wing military regime of the 1980s united religion (i.e. Islam) and ethics as a single subject in the curriculum. The change was even written into the constitution, underlining the importance ascribed by the military junta to what amounted to a statement that there is no secular ethics.

IMPLICATIONS: With the steady expansion of state-funded imam-schools and of private schools funded by Islamic brotherhoods such as the Fethullah Gülen movement, the cultural conservatism that impregnates the educational system has been further reinforced. According to recent statistics, religious education is indeed the only education available in large parts of Turkey. Although it is mandatory, only 56 percent of the children attend the secondary level of education, due to the lack of schools and teachers. However, 70 percent of those left out of the school system are enrolled in Quranic courses.

While worried secularists have paid much attention to the growth of the religious schools since the 1970s, there has been considerably less interest taken in the state of the ordinary education, a fact lamented by liberal columnist and academic Haluk Sahin: “It is the weakness of the education in science that constitutes the real problem”, Sahin says. “Turkey has become a society where it takes courage to defend the very essence of modern science, the theory of evolution, which is being called into doubt even in secular schools. An opinion that opposes science has formed in Turkey. While there are raising demands that religious beliefs should be included in the curriculum and equated with scientific knowledge, rational probing of the domain of faith is strongly opposed.”

It may be argued, though, that neither faith nor rationality is in fact victorious. Ahmet Hakan, a columnist in Hürriyet with a background in the Islamist movement, holds that the imam as well as the teacher has been defeated. The outer signs of religiosity, such as the Islamic headscarf, conceal a void, Hakan writes. What matters is material enrichment, not religion. Actually, the ideology of the Nakshibendi movement, with which the AKP is closely connected, explicitly weds Islam and capitalism, viewing material enrichment as an act of faith, as an accomplishment of God’s will. But the ostentatious materialism displayed by the newly ascendant pious bourgeoisie is also giving rise to divisions and debate within Islamist circles. More traditional Islamists hardly subscribe to Serif Mardin’s view that religion, as it evolves in the hands of a materialistic, religious upper class, will furnish society with any deeper consideration about what is “good, right and aesthetic”.

Secular commentators in turn question Mardin’s assumption about the intellectual depth of Islamic philosophy as opposed to the shallowness of republican ideology. They recall that critical thinking had been purged from the Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire already in the 16th century. “The republic, while trying to create something new, inherited its lack of philosophy from the Islamic tradition”, Cüneyt Ülsever wrote in Hürriyet. Critics of republican secularism tend to overlook the fact that Atatürk himself was well versed in, and of course inspired by, Enlightenment philosophy. His successors, on the other hand, never fully assumed that intellectual heritage, whether out of fear that it would provoke a religious reaction or because they failed to appreciate the meaning of the philosophical change brought about by the founding of the secular republic. As Serif Mardin points out, “The Kemalists themselves have not properly understood Atatürk, let alone being able to explain Kemalism and secularism and have them embraced by society.” Kemalism has become a catchword of the officialdom of the state, emptied of much of its original meaning. Indeed, the term does not serve as any useful guide to Turkish political and ideological realities; its use obscures more than it clarifies the republican political history of the last seventy years.

CONCLUSIONS: The perception of the history of the republic, whether it is interpreted as an exercise to implant principles of Enlightenment, supposedly doomed to failure, or is understood as being characterized by the lack of any consistently enlightened policies, will determine future secular responses to religious conservatism.

The transformation of the former leader of a centre-right that used to seek legitimacy in Islamic references is perhaps a telling sign: Once a champion of religion, former president and prime minister Süleyman Demirel now epitomizes strident secularism: “We did not find this republic on the street; we are not going to abandon it to anybody”, Demirel recently told this author. The classical republican relationship to religious conservatism seems to have reached its limits, at least in the mind of one former politician sharing the responsibility for the republic’s abandonment of its original Enlightenment mission.

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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.


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