The Threat Is Secular Fundamentalism

Mustafa Akyol
International Herald Tribune
May 4, 2007
Original Article

ISTANBUL:

It is no secret that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to democracy, freedom and security in today's world, especially in the Middle East. Yet the same values can be threatened by secular fundamentalists, too. Turkey's self-styled la´citÚ, a much more radical version of the French secular system, is a case in point.

The American model of secularism guarantees individual religious liberty. The Turkish model, however, guarantees the state's right to dominate religion and suppress religious practice in any way it deems necessary.

This devolves from the veneration of the state as an end in itself, an entity to which all other values may - and must - be sacrificed.

Mingled with this is the hostility felt by the Turkish secularist elite toward religion generally. Influenced by the European anti-religious movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it views religion as a pre-modern myth, one that must be extinguished for modernity to blossom.

The outcome of this mindset is an authoritarian strategy: Political power is to remain in the hands of the secularist elite. Thus the "secular republic" equals the "republic of seculars" - not the republic of all citizens.

Moreover, the secular elite holds itself responsible for preventing religion from flourishing; it is the proper role of the state, they believe, to suppress religious communities, restrict religious education and ban visible signs of observance such as the head scarf.

The secularist program functioned smoothly in the second quarter of the 20th century, during which Turkey lived under a euphemistic "single party regime." But after World War II, the secularist elite was forced to accept a disagreeable inconvenience - democracy.

Since 1950, almost every election has been won by center-right parties, which have advocated relative religious freedom. More recently, Islamist parties have risen in popularity.

A liberal offshoot of these parties, the Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish initials as the AK party, came to power in 2002 by rejecting its Islamist past and defining itself as "conservative."

The AK party's evolution is an interesting story. Islamic circles in Turkey have long hoped for a return to the glorious Ottoman and Islamic past in order to rid themselves of the ruling autocracy, which they regarded as the West's evil gift.

However, since the 1980s, thanks to their growing interaction with the rest of the world, they have come to realize something significant: The West is better than the Westernizers.

Noting that Western democracies give their citizens the very religious freedoms Turkey has denied its own, Muslims of the AK party have rerouted their search for freedom. Rather than trying to Islamize the state, they have decided to liberalize it. That's why in today's Turkey the AK party is the main proponent of the effort to join the European Union, democratization, free markets and individual liberties.

For the same reason, there are many secular liberals (including some atheists and agnostics) who sympathize with the AK party government led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Interestingly, this has led the party's secularist opponents to embrace fierce anti-Westernism. Most ultra-secular pundits speculate about "the alliance between moderate Islam and American imperialism" - and they despise both.

In recent rallies in Ankara and Istanbul, secularist protesters denounced Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the AK party's candidate for president, with a pun: "We want no ABD-ullah as president," their posters read. "ABD" is the Turkish equivalent of "USA." In other words, they were calling Gul "USA-ullah."

This anti-Western, anti-religious and anti-liberal ideology lies beneath the current ultra-secularist hype in Turkey.

Adherents accuse the AK party government of using salami tactics to usher in "sharia rule," but the evidence for this is hardly convincing.

They point to the endorsement of peaceful religious practices, the appointment of observant people to the bureaucracy (which has been a bastion of secularists) and the possibility that the country's first lady might wear the hated head scarf.

The Turkish military issued a harsh warning about the threat to secularism on April 27, pointing to the shocking evidence of rising religious fanaticism: Two groups of schoolgirls had been sighted covering their heads and singing a hymn praising the Prophet Muhammad. Needless to say, had this highly alarming spectacle taken place in the free world, no one would have raised an eyebrow.

It is true that Turkey's Islamic circles need further modernization, but studies show that they are already on that track. And whatever Turkey's problems, it should never retreat from democracy. The Western world should support the country's efforts in that direction.

The ultimate solution, of course, will come when we Turks understand that all citizens - whether they wear a head scarf, cross or miniskirt - are equals. Our over-susceptible republic will be much more secure and relieved when it treats them as such.

Mustafa Akyol is the deputy editor of the Istanbul-based Turkish Daily News.