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May 21, 2013, Tuesday

Does secularization modernize societies? (1)

These days, when there are attempts being made to draft a new constitution for Turkey, there are not enough public debates regarding the most fundamental of issues. Certain segments of society, agencies and groups have announced their views regarding the new constitution, but it is still unclear on which points there have been compromises and agreements and which points remain issues of conflict. There is also no clarity on how these points of compromise or conflict will be reflected in the new constitution.

Secularism is one of the main points of contention. There is widespread confusion regarding this issue and it remains a significant point of dispute. I need to stress that secularism does not always translate into freedom of religion and choice. Let alone protecting religion, it actually imposes restrictions on it. Thanks to “modernity,” based on the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and its basic presumptions, modern man found the right in himself, probably for the first time in history, to meddle in religion. The heyday of the Age of Enlightenment provides concrete examples of this. The French style of secularism, which Turkey uses as a reference, is still ill with this desire to meddle in religion. This is why France still intervenes in such affairs as women's attire, including headscarves, veils and burkas, and Germany still makes the issue of halal food a matter of contention.

This meddling in religious life through politics in Turkey is still rampant and this policy is hailed by some men of science, intellectuals and columnists. This policy tops a list of issues that have served as a source of trouble for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in its 10 years in power. In recent years, for example, prominent writer Serdar Turgut, addressing people who had complained about the restrictions on the freedom of religion and conscience, wrote in his column in the Hürriyet daily that they have “no remedy other than to find another religion.”

The fact that the idea or need for modernization came about from a choice by the Ottoman state has not only given the state and state forces an upper hand but also led to the infringement on a fundamental democratic right, that is to say, on taking into consideration the views of the people. In the special philosophical and political atmosphere of the 19th century, modernization was a need, and it still meets some needs today, but this is because the state finds it appropriate this way. In the Ottoman Empire, modernization was the choice of the palace; it later became the choice of the state. In Muslim societies, modernization has never taken place with the approval or will of the people.

Historical events doubtlessly played a great role in the formation of the conceptual framework called modernization. The replacement of the concept of Shariah with ideology and of the sultan with the state represents a deep fracture in the Turkish political culture and political experience. Secularism, modernization and the tension between the state and society stem from this.

Previous articles of the columnist