Secularism refers to:
- The separation of the religious orders from the state
- Neutrality of the state in religious matters
- Equal treatment by the state of different religions, and
- Religion being a matter of the private sphere which is strictly separated from the public sphere
The above parameters were described by Michael Heng, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) East Asian Institute.
Heng writes that the American Constitution is the product of the first concerted and conscious effort to incorporate secularism into the basic legal document governing the political life of a state (Kevin Tan, 2009, ‘Secularism and the Constitution: Striking the Right Balance’ ).
“Inspired by its success, other states soon followed. In Asia, the American Constitution was the main source of inspiration for the state constitutions of the newly independent nation-states after the Second World War. India was the most prominent example, with the Nehru-Gandhi consensus seen as a political achievement.
‘Elsewhere in Asia, there were a range of variations in handling the separation of state and religion. Turkey and China adopted a narrow interpretation of secularism: the state assumed the power to regulate religious matters, though this position has softened over the years,” he continues.
A discussion on secularism in Turkey is provided by Professor Recep Senturk, a research fellow at the Center for Islamic Studies in Istanbul.
In a paper titled ‘State and Religion in Turkey: Which Secularism?‘, Prof. Senturk writes that ideologically speaking, secularization in Turkey meant transition from Islamic fiqh to Western social sciences.
He adds that Turkey had witnessed three military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 and that each coup d’etat produced a new constitution.
However since the November of 2008 when Prof. Senturk presented his paper, the Turkish constitution has been amended yet again. In a referendum held on the 30th anniversary of the bloody 1980 military takeover, the Turks voted to modify their constitution to reverse the restrictive Kemalist strictures.
One common practice in secular states is that prayers are not allowed to be made compulsory in schools. During the early decades of the Turkish republic, Islamic religious education was not provided at all in school.
The ideology of Kemalism – named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Father of Modern Turkey who was installed as the republic’s first president in 1923 after the formal abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate a year earlier – renders the practice of secularism even stricter.
Following is a checklist of some of the features of secularism in Turkey before Recep Erdogan’s Islamist government modified the Turkish constitution:
- The caliphate was abolished
- Shariah was abolished
- Ulama were outlawed and their honoured position in society replaced by secular academicians and intellectuals
Turkey was once the only Muslim country without ulama
In bullet points (below), some passages excerpted from Prof. Senturk’s paper on what kind of secularism in Turkey:
- Turkish secularism is confusing to outside observers, in particular to the Europeans, and poses a problem in its integration into the European Union.
- The only parallel that can be found in the world to Turkish secularism is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Chinese-style secularism where the state controls religion. The present (2008) political tensions in Turkey should be analyzed in the light of this phenomenon.
- The persistent lack of clarity on the meaning of secularism is reflected in the successive Turkish constitutions. The Republic of Turkey was declared in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) following its defeat in the First World War against European powers. The first Turkish Constitution, which was accepted in 1924, stated that “the religion of the state is Islam.” This article was removed from the Constitution in 1934. Laicism entered the Turkish Constitution for the first time in 1937, a year prior to the death of Ataturk (1881-1938). It has been kept in the later constitutions of 1961 and 1982.
- The silence of the Turkish Constitution on the meaning of laicism has been the source of great tension and controversy among politicians, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and the general public. The still pressing question is how to understand laicism: Is it freedom of religion and separation of the state and religion? Is it total state control over religion? Is it atheism and de-establishment of religion? The liberals argue that secularism is separation of religion and state and the guarantee of freedom of religion. Yet for the advocates of authoritarianism, secularism is the state control over religion.
- Presently, Turkey has a social consensus on adopting secularism by all strands in the political spectrum, but each political group has a different a sometimes opposing concept of secularism.
The revolutionary policies which aimed at secularizing Turkish culture, political structure and soceity focused in particular on the following areas:
State structure: The Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph who was the leader of all Muslims. The Caliphate was abolished and the last Caliph was exiled to Europe. The sovereignty was no longer with the Sultan-Caliph but it was said to be transferred to the people of Turkey as represented by the Grand National Assembly. Yet, Turkey was ruled by a single-party regime from 1923 until 1950. The sovereignty of the people was not allowed; instead, the ruling elite acted “for people but despite people.”
Law: Islamic law (shariah) was abolished and secular codes from Western countries were adopted.
Education: Education was standardized using a secularist perspective and put under the monopoly of the state by the Unification of Education Law. According to this law, only the secular state could give education, including religious education. This caused great concern within the non-Muslim minorities, whose schools came under the control of the Ministry of Education. Islamic religious education was not given at all during the early decades of the Republic.
Religious groups: Sufi brotherhoods were banned and the Sufi lodges were outlawed as bastions of reactionaries. Sufism was seen as an obstacle before modernization because it did not promote rationalism and scientific progress. It was criticized for promoting laziness and inertia.
Pious foundations (awqaf): Pious foundations in the Ottoman Empire had funded seminaries, mosques, hospitals and Sufi lodges among other religious and charitable institutions. They were forned by civil society outside the control of the state. A special ministry, Ministry of Foundations, had managed them. They were all closed down and their property was nationalized under the newly founded Directorate of Foundations.
Holiday: The holiday was shifted from Friday (an Islamic holiday) to Saturday (traditionally the Jewish day for holiday) and Sunday (a Christian holiday) following the Western countries.
Calendar: The Gregorian calendar was adopted instead of the Islamic calendar, the Hijra calendar.
Script: The Latin script was adopted instead of the Arabic script.
Dress code: Traditional Islamic and Turkish attire, were outlawed and they were replaced by Western dress; in particular the hat was made obligatory to wear. This was known as the Hat Revolution.
Clergy: The ulama order, which means religious scholars and clergy were outlawed as their knowledge was seen as obsolete and contradictory with modern science. This period could he compared to the period of anti-clericalism in France. The modern secular academicians and intellectuals were expected to take the place of the ulama. The clergy (imam and mufti) were turned into civil servants. Turkey became the only Muslim country without the ulama.
Civil society: Civil society groups. in particular religious ones, were outlawed and religion was made a part of state bureaucracy. The Presidency of Religions Affair, was established to offer religious services, control mosques and publish religious books. Traditionally, the mosques and the clergy had been funded by charitable civil Groups, in particular pious foundations.
At that time, secularization was not seen as an option but as a necessity. The goal of these reforms was to make the Turkish state, society and culture a Western one. This was seen as the only way to save the nation from the backwardness and darkness of the Middle Ages. The purpose was to shiftl Turkey from the domain of Islamic civilization to the domain of Western civilization — a goal that has yet to be achieved completely.
The existing regulations and practices of secularism in Turkey have been criticized by both secularist and religious segments in Turkish society. The criticism of each side is based on different arguments which derive from a particular interpretation of secularism. This goes back to the lack of clarity and consensus as to what is meant by secularism.
Some secularist critics and members of minority religious groups argue that the Turkish state’s support for and regulation of Sunni religious institutions — including mandatory religious education for children deemed by the state to be Muslims — amount to de facto violations of secularism.
Non-Muslim children are exempted from the compulsory religious education. Yet the Alevi* children are also required to attend these lessons. Some of the Alevis are not happy that their children learn the Sunni interpretation of Islam.
*Alevi: a religious group combining Shia with Sufi elements