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Turkish Delight

August 5th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Tex

Western eyes tend to scrutinize Turkey as one of the few truly secular states in the Middle East; even though Turks themselves would like to think of themselves as more European than Middle Eastern—and certainly NOT Arab. With the recent Turkish elections, many have harbored fears that the secular stronghold in Turkey may become increasingly more vulnerable to abuse by those who would see religion given a more prominent place in the public square. Concerns were voiced that the democratic system may ultimately destroy itself much the way it has in the Gaza Strip, with the democratic election of Hamas—a decidedly non-democratic regime.

However, Joshua Treviño over at the National Review argues that Turkey, and the world, are a better place with the re-election of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamic Justice Party over more secular, nationalistic, opponents:

The baleful effects of [secular] nationalism are on display today. Religious freedom is severely restricted, and the country has a history of outright prohibition of missionary activity. As previously noted, the Turkish state actively seeks to eliminate the patriarch, senior bishop of the world’s Orthodox Christians, […] The slow ending of an ancient Christian institution may seem, in the modern media narrative, an ambition of Islamists, and perhaps it is: but the responsibility here is squarely on Turkey’s Kemalist heritage, and its legacy of nationalist paranoia.”

Mustafa Kemal, more widely known as Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks”), is quite literally the founder of modern-day Turkey, the father of Turkish nationalism, and is responsible for a wide-range of radical reforms meant to separate the country from its Islamic, Arab, and even Ottoman ties. He is noted for, among other things:

    • changing the Turkish alphabet from Arabic script to Latin letters
    • banning the wearing of the fez (traditional male headgear) in public places, as well as strongly “encouraged” the adoption of Western style clothing and fashion in order to distance the Turkish national identity from anything more traditional and religious
    • banning the use of ethnic terms such as Kurd, Circassian, and Laz
    • expelling many Greeks in 1923 in an attempt to create a homogenous Turkish identity, and paving the way for the later pogrom in Istanbul in the 1950s

    Respected historian Bernard Lewis, in his concise The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, calls Atatürk “the master of social symbolism” and points out that he “was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional male headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.”

    The secularism of modern Turkey is founded on an intolerance at least as systemic, toxic, and unrelenting as that of the most devoted Islamicist. It is this sort of heavy-handed secular reformation of a nation that is more dangerous to Turkey and to its friends in the West than even an explicitly Islamic society. For example, both Egypt and Jordan are, by their constitutions, Islamic nations yet they have avoided many of the more heinous crimes usually associated with the prototypical Islamic regime.

    The danger of the unbending imposition of secular values on Turkey lies in two places. In the first place, it supports an authoritarian and autocratic style of government that is antithetical to the democratic principles that undergird other avowedly secular nations, like the U.S. The secularism of the United States is not imposed on the people through an abolition of ethnic, religious, and traditional modes of expression. Rather, it exists through the somewhat tenuous embrace of all these modes of expression and identity as equally permissible under the rule of law—a rule exercised by the common assent of the members of religiously and ethnically diverse groups. In other words, the pluralism of the United States gives rise to its secularism, rather than being enforced through a deliberate homogenization of society.

    Second, the imposition of secular values on a society with strong religious sentiments only invites a backlash and revolt by those whose religion explicitly rejects secular and worldly notions. Strong religious claims and values are more effectively neutralized by accepting them as one among many equal and competing claims—in other words, by relativizing them. They are hardly ever permanently neutralized through direct opposition, since direct confrontation invites rebellion, promotes a sense of martyrdom among the religious community, and fosters solidarity and a combative “us against them” mentality that will gain strength through opposition and can only be conquered by complete eradication.

    Like Treviño, I agree that certain risks and threats to secular democracy are inherent in the election to power of any religiously motivated party; however we ought to take delight in the fact that the current government is much safer than the alternative menace posed by strident secularism.