Sunday, 29 July 2007

Secularism and its discontents

It is a cliché to say that Turkey is the bridge between East and West but it is undeniably true. To be shaped by a collision of the Islamic and the Western is both a great blessing and a dreadful curse. The richness and variety of Turkey’s culture would not be possible were it not able to draw on these very different civilisations. But if it did not sit between civilisations then Turkey might have been spared the divisions and tensions that have marked its history.

None of these divisions is more painful than the conflict between Turkey’s Islamists and the secular nationalists. This is a conflict that needs to be followed far beyond Turkey’s borders because it challenges many of our assumptions about religion and politics. We tend to associate secularism with freedom, democracy and tolerance. The experience of Turkey shows that there can also be a dark side to secularism which we must not ignore.

Like so much else, the roots of this conflict lie in the aftermath of World War I. Before the war, Turkey had been at the head of a great empire that stretched across the Middle East ruled by the Sultan based in Istanbul. Now it had been defeated and its empire occupied. It was against this desperate backdrop that a group of nationalist army officers, known as the Young Turks, were able to seize power from the royal family. The leader of these revolutionaries was the famous war hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Young Turks attributed Turkey’s defeat to what they believed to be its backwardness and believed that rapid modernisation to be the only way to secure the nation’s future. To this end they launched a program of westernisation which transformed Turkey’s government, schools and even its language. The new government took a dim view of Islam and did everything in their power to reduce its influence and harass its adherents.

It is important to remember that all this westernisation and secularisation did not mean democratisation. There was only one party in Ataturk’s Turkey and he became a virtual dictator. Minorities such as the Kurds and Armenians faced repression by nationalist governments which saw them as a threat to the integrity of Turkey. The wearing of the headscarf in public buildings was banned, effectively excluding devout Muslim women from attending University and taking government jobs.

Nor did the secularist’s malign influence die with Ataturk. Subsequent attempts to move Turkey towards democracy have been frustrated by the militaries willingness to stage coups against any government it believed to be insufficiently devoted to secularism.

All this history makes Turkey’s present government rather surprising. It is committed to democracy, economically liberal and Islamist. It has achieved a lot during its first term: the economy is booming, the political role of the army has been curtailed and the position of the Kurds improved. Even on Women’s rights, an area where an Islamist government might be expected to fall down there has been progress: ghastly laws that allowed rapists to escape charge if they married their victims have been repealed. There have been blotches on its record, most notably an ill-conceived attempt to ban adultery, but the on the whole it has been positive influence.

Driving much of this reform has been the governments attempt to take Turkey into the European Union. This has been opposed by the secular opposition which knows that membership of the EU would end once and for all the political influence of their allies in the military. The irony of the ideological descendants of Ataturk, the great westerniser, opposing membership of the EU is a bitter one.

The deeply unpleasant nature of the secularists and the generally progressive policies of the Islamists show us clearly that there is nothing fundamentally liberal about secularism. It is a force for good if it means government leaving spiritual matters to individuals. If, however, it becomes about government trying to force atheism on its people then it is as oppressive as a theocracy and liberals should treat it the same way.

1 comment:

Tim Skinner said...

I have been thinking along the same lines for a while. There is tendency I note amongst atheists I know, to assume that the separation of religion and state is the same as a secular state. Whilst the government shouldn't have religious motivations, this definitely does not mean that religion should be oppressed or perhaps just as shamefully, ignored.

I think there are some prominent examples of secularisation in even the UK having a bad influence. This may seem trivial but the joke that is the commercialisation of every religious festival stands out - why do we receive Christmas catalogues in August?