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When secularism collapses

It’s commonplace to note that secularism and secularity are not the same worldwide. Secular politics and secular society means somewhat different things in France and the UK, never mind India or Turkey or the USA.

Still, there are commonalities, and I think social scientists who speak of secularizing trends in the modern world draw a decent broad-brush picture of a process driven by technological and economic changes. But there is also a political aspect of secularization. For example, increasing opportunities for broad-based education and increased literacy rates have religious consequences. We should expect rising fundamentalism, as religious masses gain more direct access to sacred texts. As the old religious elites lose power, there are also openings for more secular changes. But mass education, and breaking the power of established clergies, happen as a result of political struggles, not some inescapable reflection of underlying economic structures. Secularization has a political history.

I also have an interest in the flip side of that observation: it should be possible to reverse secularization by political means. In the US, observers who worry about Religious Right attempts to re-Christianize American institutions are right to worry, I think. Indians who oppose Hindutva, Pakistanis who want to go back to a less aggressively Islamic character for Pakistan, and secularists worldwide who see religious politics as the curse of our generation have a point. It’s not difficult to find examples of reversals in the degree of secularism of the legal regime or political climate of a country.

But how many examples do we have of a much more serious reversal in secularity, indeed, of a collapse of secularism? I guess France after the revolution has examples of the restoration of official Catholicism. I don’t know enough about French history to say whether “collapse of secularism” would apply to such episodes; I suspect it would be overblown. Then there is the Iranian revolution of 1979, which established a theocracy. But I think “collapse of secularism” may be overdoing it here as well. The Iranian case might be better described as a failure of a particular regime’s forced secularization attempt.

I would like to suggest that the recent history of the Republic of Turkey comes closer to the description of a collapse of secularism, though the process has been long (decades) and still has not run its course.

Turkey is still routinely described as a secular state, and as the Muslim country that has become most Westernized and secularized. This can be misleading. The segment of the Turkish population that is secular in a social and lifestyle sense has always been small, largely confined to a elite stratum. It has been larger and more powerful when compared to other populous Muslim countries, but that is not saying much. And even in legal and governmental terms, Turkish secularism has been incomplete and ambiguous. Islam has not been the official religion of the Republic, but religion and state have never been separate. The Sunni clergy in Turkey are, and always have been, government employees. The Turkish state has attempted to control and tame Islam, through a powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs charged with promoting an official version of Islam that is intended to support modernization efforts. And the Turkish state has never been neutral toward the religion of its citizens. High government and military officials have always been Muslims, with no exceptions.

All that said, the peculiar Turkish version of secularism still served to create a degree of governmental distance to religion, and even sustained a good deal of social space where many Turks, especially among elites, could live as modernized, nominal Muslims, or even had almost nothing to do with religion. For many secularized, nonobservant Turks, Islam became akin to an ethnic label. It was something you vaguely belonged to due to birth and history, but it was not necessarily a matter for passionate faith and commitment. You believed in God and darkened the door of a mosque for funerals only. And in an environment of urban anonymity, you could get away with not even doing that. In these senses, “Turkey is a secular state” or “Turks lead more secular lives than Arabs or Iranians” were, once, accurate enough as broad-brush statements.

Today, this is much more doubtful. The country has been, and continues to be, re-Islamized. Culturally, educationally, in the realm of political legitimization, Islam is riding high. More people are more observant more visibly. Moderate Islamists have controlled the government, and enjoyed strong democratically-based support, on and off in the 1990s and continually since 2002. They are now institutionally entrenched. Civil society also has a more Islamic coloration, not to mention the mass media and many powerful corporations. Various religious sects, such as the Fethullah Gülen movement, are very influential in all aspects of public life, including the police forces.

Only the military holds out as a secularist power. But the Turkish military’s ability to influence politics is more limited today—which, if you hold to democratic ideals, is a good thing. The military even shows signs that its customary resistance to infiltration by sects such as that of Gülen is breaking down.

So today, I have great difficulty in describing Turkey as a secular state or a secularized society. I don’t see how such labels could possibly fit any longer. Flawed and incomplete though it was, Turkey once enjoyed a measure of secularism, and throughout my adult life, I have been watching its slow collapse with every passing year. Turkey is, now, a Muslim country first and foremost, in practically all aspects of public life. Yes, it is very different from Saudi Arabia, and I expect it always will be very different from that and other examples of theocratic rule. But that just points out a failing of the secularist political imagination. Secularism and theocracy are not the only alternatives. It is possible to be a deeply religious, nonsecular country, with more-or-less democratic politics, where religion conditions law and legitimates policy without a clerical class in control of government or economic life. Turkey in the present day is ever closer to being an example of such an unsecular, even desecularized country.

And when historians and social scientists look at the story of how secularism collapsed in Turkey, I expect that they will give politics its due, along with broader postmodern social changes. Turkish varieties of Islam have been politically successful. They have preserved piety against long-term secularist pressures to confine Islam to the mosque. They have re-Islamized Turkish society from below, successfully mobilizing rural and newly urbanized populations against older secular elites. They have successfully organized civil institutions in education and in the productive economy, and taken over or at least infiltrated many governmental bodies.

Turkish secularists today have to recognize that it is over—they have been defeated. They have been reduced to hoping for a military coup. From the outside, they look like a discredited, antidemocratic elite trying to hang on to their old privileges. That perception is, I think, largely accurate. Turkish secularists now have to think about how they might live, perhaps as an enclave, within a society with a distinctly and unapologetically Islamic character. Or they can emigrate.

Personally, it does not matter greatly to me. I left Turkey 22 years ago, and have long come to terms with political defeat. Indeed, I have become much more ambivalent, compared to my youth, about secularism—certainly the Turkish variety of top-down, imposed secularism. Even as an object lesson that may say something connecting to my current political worries about secular life in the United States, Turkey might be too distant and too dissimilar. But this, perhaps, I can say with some confidence: secularism is a political matter. Those of us who enjoy a more secular way of life in the Western world have to defend it, politically. It is very much possible to be out-organized, out-funded, even out-thought by people who think our lives should be organized among much more explicitly religious lines.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think that the distinction between religious and secular societies presents a false dilemma. The relevant distinction is between societies which uphold freedom of thought and freedom of consciousness, and societies which don’t. As long as one trusts in basic human intelligence one will be confident that free people will find their way to truth. Historically speaking I see no evidence that secular societies are any better than religious societies in upholding such freedoms, and quite frankly New Atheism’s making noises that parents should be prohibited to teach religion to their children (teaching religion is a form of child abuse you see) looks quite ugly in this respect.

    As for Turkey I think that, all things considered, it has been remarkable successful in creating a well balanced society and is making a good job upholding such liberties. I personally admire Erdogan (and wish Greece had a prime minister of his mettle). I find that it’s secularists in Turkey who are sometimes overreacting, and that it’s religious people there who insist on basic freedoms – for example I really don’t see why women should not wear headscarves if they so wish – as many of them clearly do. Surely it is a civilized thing if religious people respect and give room to non-religious people, and the other way around.


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