Secularism in Turkey: Stronger than ever? by Turan Kayaoğlu*

April 10, 2012, Tuesday/ 18:06:00

Massive uproar in Turkey over the government’s role in religious education shows that despite fears the nation is on the verge of abandoning its secular past, a version of secularism has actually gained traction in Turkey, even among pro-Islamic conservative elites.

The controversy began last month when an opposition deputy from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed a lawsuit against a new regulation aiming to level the playing field for students of the Turkish imam-hatip schools (a type of secondary school with a religious curriculum along with the standard curriculum) in university exams. Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan -- an imam-hatip graduate -- responded to the lawsuit on Jan. 31, stating that his government wants to “raise a religious youth.” Within a week, Turkish secularists and conservatives alike had hurled a barrage of criticism at the prime minister, accusing him of abandoning secularism and dangerously meddling with religion.

For secularists, Erdoğan’s statement was a revelation of his true colors. The leader of the CHP called him a “religion-monger,” and the staunchly secular teachers union Eğitim-Sen claimed Erdoğan had, for the first time, publicly admitted his hidden agenda. Criticism also proved rampant in academic circles, which put forth a petition within 24 hours of Erdoğan’s statement.  Signed by over 2,000 individuals, it reads: “[O]f Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi’i, religious and nonreligious, atheist and agnostic backgrounds, all joined with a firm belief in secularism, [we] find your recent remarks about raising a religious and conservative youth most alarming and dangerous.”

Disturbed, liberals accused Erdoğan of ignoring popular demands for democratic pluralism and freedom of conscience. As one prominent commentator asked in the secular daily Milliyet, “What can I do if I don’t want my child to be raised as religious and conservative?” Liberals argue that a state policy to raise a religious youth is undemocratic as well as impractical because millions of Turkish people have for decades embraced a secular lifestyle. Some even worried that “the race for piety will be [Turkey’s] end,” as journalist Mehmet Ali Birand articulated in Hürriyet.

An undemocratic state policy

Each of these statements reflects liberal beliefs, which argue that a state policy to raise a religious youth is undemocratic, to say nothing of impractical because millions of Turkish people have embraced secular lifestyles for decades. Perhaps the most biting criticisms of Erdoğan’s remark were accusations of hypocrisy based on the contrast between his statement on Jan. 31 and one he made on Egyptian TV last September, when he stated: “As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, I am a Muslim but not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular regime.” This quote, representative of Erdoğan’s long-standing political tendency toward secularism, renders his recent statement seemingly contradictory.

While opposition from secular and liberal corners was expected, more surprising was similar opposition from pro-Islamic media. In the pro-government Bugün daily, columnist Gülay Göktürk noted, “These words did not befit Erdoğan at all.” She continued, “No one has the right to convert this society into a religious one, or the opposite.” Similarly, also in the pro-government Yeni Şafak, columnist Özlem Albayrak rationalized Erdoğan’s statement as “Erdoğan meant he wants to preserve the imam-hatip schools in our society, and nothing more” because, she continued, a state project to raise a religious youth has no place in a secular and democratic society. In Zaman, the leading conservative daily, commentator Tamer Cetin asserted that because of the diversity of religious interpretations, focus should be on common ethical values, not religious ones. Furthermore, regular columnist Mümtaz’er Türköne said raising a religious youth is actually dangerous for religion, as formal and public indoctrination would cheapen a religion which requires intimate and private connection to God. All argued that religious education should be left to civil society and parents’ demands.

‘Leave education

to society’

Zaman’s leading-Islamist columnist Ali Bulaç also argued that in the absence of religion, the Enlightenment’s positivist-liberal-secular values would continue to dominate the school curriculum. Yet like the others, he did not yield to the idea of the state raising a religious youth; he advocated a libertarian policy: leave the education to society.

This overwhelming consensus among elites reflects a broader trend in Turkey, whereby religious segments of Turkish society have increasingly accepted secularism throughout the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which Erdoğan heads. According to a study conducted by the left-leaning Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), despite the relatively stable level of religiosity in Turkey, the percentage of people who want a religious state had actually plummeted from 25 percent in 1996 to 9 percent in 2006. And a recent poll conducted by Konsensus Research concluded that only 34 percent approved of Erdoğan’s statement.

Indeed, while Turkey’s religious communities are deeply interested in raising a religious generation and society, they actually object to this becoming a state policy. For these religious groups, secularism, then, appears not to be secularization of behavior or the society, but that of state law and policy, such that state involvement in religious education is conditioned on parents’ choices. Their overwhelming preference for civil society to supply religious-based education indicates that pro-Islamic conservatives have grown to accept the separation of state and religion. At a time when the Arab Spring has brought Islamists to power, Turkish religious groups’ embrace of secularism when a pro-Islamic party was in power shows a growing consensus around secularism in Turkey.

This secular consensus in Turkey’s public sphere forced Erdoğan to make a rare political retreat. On Feb. 6, he accused critics of misinterpreting his statement and reaffirmed a commitment to liberty and democracy. He further asserted that his government would not impose any policy against the people’s wishes. Turks will continue to discuss what kind of secularism they want, but only a few will question if they want it; for the majority, the consensus is undeniable: The government’s role in religion should be limited.

*Turan Kayaoğlu is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center -- Qatar University in Doha, Qatar. He is an associate professor of International Relations at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

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