‘Secular’ vs. ‘conservative’ Muslims?

TurkeyScarvesIf you are following the events in Turkey, you may be having trouble following all of the religious labels. Again.

For those keeping score, Turkey is a “secular” Muslim state, inspired by the secularism of Europe (think French Revolution, even). The state is secular, but it is Muslim. Yet, more traditional forms of Islam are — as elsewhere — on the rise. This makes millions of Turks afraid or even angry.

How will mainstream journalists label these Muslims? You may have noticed that coverage of Turkey tends to ignore the big labels that we see in other parts of the world — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.”

So along comes the issue of scarves, which is an even hotter issue in Turkey than it is in other parts of Europe. The recent developments in this story seem rather direct. Here is the top of a story from last weekend in the Washington Post:

Turkey’s parliament … to end a more than 80-year-old ban on women wearing head scarves at universities, acknowledging the rising influence of conservative Islam in the most determinedly secular republic of the Muslim world.

Tens of thousands of secular Turks marched in the capital, Ankara, against lifting the ban. Many brandished portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923 with the goal of making it a Westernized, secular republic.

“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” the protesters chanted, swinging poles bearing the red flag of the Turkish republic. … Crucially, Turkey’s military made no immediate objection to the result. Turks long have regarded generals as the guardians of Ataturk’s secular vision for their country. In the past, generals have overthrown Islamic-oriented elected governments they saw as straying from his secular goal.

Did you follow that? Normally, “secular” is good and “conservative” is bad. But is “conservative” as bad as “fundamentalist” and, again, where is the line between these groups? In other words, you get the impression that there are Muslims to the right of the conservatives in Turkey. True?

The secularists seem to be worried that they are now a minority in their own nation, protected only by the “secular” Muslims in the military. Here we go again. As a rule, American journalists tend to look down on military leaders running nations, so is “secular” bad in this case?

Now, what about the scarves themselves? To add to the confusion, it appears that there are “conservative” scarves, which are not to be confused with more traditional Islamic forms of head coverings for women.

The government news agency stressed that the style of head scarf legalized … was not necessarily Islamic. Justice and Development Party officials have promised to interpret the measure as allowing only head scarves that are tied under the chin, a style seen as traditionally Turkish rather than Islamic. The party says it will not allow women to wear more rigidly Islamic attire — veils that cover all of the hair and neck or the face, or cloaks that cover the body — in public offices.

So what is the next question? Will Muslims who are to the right of the “conservatives” eventually be allowed to wear “Islamic” scarves instead of “Turkish” scarves?

The questions go on and on. You can see some of the same language issues in the New York Times report about the same vote. But it also adds that the divide is between “secular” Turks and “observant” Turks.

That clears things up. I feel better now.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    It seems the Turks are quite familiar with the “slippery slope” argument. It’s also interesting in how some places, what is really a minor matter takes on great symbolic significance.

  • Steve

    I’d picture conservative turks as the ones fighting to retain their secular tradition …

  • http://www.downeastpagan.com/ Ananta Androscoggin

    I realize not directly to the point, but just WHEN did Asia Minor become a part of geographical Europe?

    It’s a minor point that’s been bugging me lately.

  • Julia

    Are “secular” Turks atheists?

    Or are they proponants of keeping religion out of government?

    How can Turkey be simultaneously “secular” and “Muslim”?

    If Turkey is “secular”, then why can’t Christians have a seminary or build churches, but Muslims can?

    If Turkey is “secular”, then why does it have a Religion Minister?

    It seems that “secular” is a lot like “social justice” – its meaning changes according to who is speaking.

    Maybe “secular” means that clerics should be kept out of government, not religion per se?

  • Dave

    But is “conservative” as bad as “fundamentalist” and, again, where is the line between these groups? In other words, you get the impression that there are Muslims to the right of the conservatives in Turkey. True?

    Yes, that is the impression I get. “Observant” seems to refer to personal choice and “conservative” to a political posture in favor of the right to be observant in public life, while “fundamentalist” is reserved for insistence on Islamic law, with an implication of support for terrorism.

    Julia is correct that “secular” is a relative term, at least in the global setting. “Secular” Turkey has less religious freedom than “established-church” Britain.