‘Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey’, By Ahmet T. Kuru and Alfred Stepan

‘Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey’, By Ahmet T. Kuru and Alfred Stepan

‘Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey’ features eight essays born out of two major conferences at Columbia University. Editors Kuru and Stepan address key questions in exploring the concept of state-religion relations in the context of Turkey’s evolving democracy: What place does religion have in public life? Does it even need to be addressed, and, if so, how can it be accommodated?

Let it be said once more: Turkey has changed a lot in recent years, especially over the course of the past decade. Alongside the nation’s economic growth, its society has witnessed significant transformations that have affected the way it views itself, as well as the way the world sees it.

What the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has brought about is not simply policies that encourage the generation of wealth or more proactive steps in diplomacy. Turkey is undergoing a philosophical shift. Things are changing in a way that does not just make people feel better about themselves as Turks or as citizens of Turkey; rather, they are being made to re-evaluate the very basis of the Turkish state — what it means, where it has been, where it is headed. And that is not always an easy task, especially given étatisme’s importance as a tenet in the foundation and organization of the Republic of Turkey. Questioning the heretofore unquestionable can provoke powerful challenges.

Ahmet Kuru and Alfred Stepan take on one aspect of those challenges in the volume they have edited, “Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey,” featuring eight essays born out of two major conferences at Columbia University in 2008 and 2009, with additional meetings and follow-up discussions among the editors and contributors. The key questions of the book tackle the concept of “church-state” relations in the context of modern democracy: What place does religion have in public life? Does it even need to be addressed, and, if so, how can it be accommodated? Of course, the conversation of the book is anchored in the AK Party’s legacy and, with that in mind, potential future developments in the country.

A running theme in the essays is the comparison of Turkey with other states. First of all, it is put side-by-side with itself, or rather, with the Ottoman socio-political model of the past. Karen Barkey of Columbia University reviews the “imperial accommodation of religion.” She argues that a formal “toleration” existed that depended on the demographics of Ottoman society while also being informed by Islam. Of course, as Barkey admits, that same toleration has gained a notorious reputation today due to the massacres and deportations of Armenians and other Christians as the Ottoman Empire drew to a close, but there still remains, she claims, a “usable past” to draw from the Ottoman experience.

Barkey recalls the imperial story; its beginnings with Osman in the Anatolian heartland, and the expansion into Europe and, later, the Middle East. It is important to note the order of that series, as it turns out that the demographics of the early days of the empire strongly favored the Christian population — it wasn’t until the conquest of Arab lands that there was a balance between the major religions. Although Islam was made part and parcel of the state (indeed, the sultan was at the same time caliph) it was subordinate to the state, Barkey claims. It was this kind of “accommodation” that made possible the management of the vast diversity of the Ottoman Empire. That management ultimately extended also to the well-known, if little-understood “millet” system.

“Thus the components of the Ottoman style of management of diversity were based on the particular historical circumstances of emergence, the establishment of a robust yet flexible relationship between politics and religion, and a system of organizing diversity that was adaptable yet specialized to the needs of various communities and the state,” she says (p. 24). Unfortunately, as Barkey herself laments, the Young Turks regime, extending into the first decades of the republic, did away with all that. With organized inter-ethnic strife, and strong breaks with the past through fundamental language, religion, and education reform, “the best practices of the Ottomans” were eliminated. Instead, Barkey writes: “The decision to build a ‘Turkish nation’ as a counterweight to the old Ottoman imperial society meant the construction of a mono-lingual, mono-ethnic, and (as much as possible) mono-religious society characterized by loyalty to the Turkish state” (p. 26).

This model has been propagated in Turkey ever since. Even with the philosophical shifts in political attitudes with the AK Party’s prominence these last 10 years, Turkey has not budged as a “nation-state” in many ways, according to Barkey. She cites, for example, how groups such as Alevis have been less than encouraged by recent changes, or how the aftermath of the murder of Hrant Dink indicated reluctance on the part of Turkey’s leadership to act in wider, perhaps more meaningful, ways. This kind of political and social inertia is to be expected after all the decades of stricter, Kemalist rule, but it has not applied, as Barkey points out, to such cases as the headscarf debate. The “usable past” of Ottoman society, for the moment anyway, remains largely stuck in the past.

But for the more immediate present, the editors themselves build on the nuances among three secular states — Turkey, France and Senegal — in another contribution, perhaps the “keynote essay” of the volume. All three countries take laïcité very seriously, going so far as to codify the concept in fundamental laws and documents. Yet each takes on the philosophy and practice of the laic state with a different twist, and it is those differences that are so telling.

Kuru and Stepan, first of all, distinguish between the concepts they describe as assertive secularism and passive secularism. “Assertive secularism requires the state to play an assertive role to exclude religion from the public sphere. […] Passive secularism, conversely, demands the state to play a passive role by allowing public visibility of religion” (p. 96). The first, “separationist” approach is characteristic of Turkey and France, while the second includes the US, as well Senegal, which is described as having a “respect all, support all” (authors’ italics) model.

The devil is in the details, they say; in this case, it is more that God is in the details. Where are those details for Turkey, France and Senegal? Kuru and Stepan point out the attitude of the state with regard to four fields: the regulation of the major religious group, the regulation of minor religious groups, religious education, and religious dress. Of course, the headscarf debate dominates this last category, and serves well to illustrate how Kuru and Stepan place states on a laic “continuum,” rather than in more rigid rubrics.

In the comparison made, Senegal scores as the least restrictive among the three states; they rank Turkey the most assertive, with France falling somewhere in between. In another interesting metric, Kuru and Stepan compare the official holidays of the three countries. Senegal once again showcases the greatest degree of freedom and institutionalized tolerance, including more minority religious holidays on its list — two more, indeed than those celebrated by its majority-Muslim population.

As with the Ottoman account of the previous essay, the “continuum” of laïcité comes with a story. Kuru and Stepan invoke the legacies of monarcho-clerical complexes — the marriage of the ruling establishment with the religious hierarchy that preceded the revolutions toward republican and democratic rule. Both France and Turkey suffered from inflexible arrangements under king and sultan, respectively. The new regimes thus bent over backward in separating established religion from the civic life of the state. Senegal, as a former colony, did not share in that same heritage, and so found itself in much more accommodating circumstances, especially given the fact that the colonial regime was not restrictive, together with the prominence of Christian leaders in Senegalese society.

The authors point out that Islam itself does not automatically preclude secularism, as some would have it. “The Turkish Constitutional Court echoed the perception of some Turkish and Western essentialists when it argued that an assertive secularism was required in a Muslim-majority society because ‘Islam, unlike Christianity, had peculiar characteristics.’ Yet the Senegalese case indicates that a Muslim society can coexist with secularism, even if the latter is not assertive. Furthermore, passive secularism in Senegal has produced much less state-society tension than has assertive secularism in Turkey. Assertive secularism historically created and still creates restrictions for public religions (Islam, Catholicism, or any other public religion). That is why certain groups have opposed it in France and Turkey. In Senegal, passive secularism did not result in such restrictions and did not face similar opposition. But religions, including Islam, are all ‘multivocal.’ An ‘assertive’ interpretation of Islam that insists on state-religion amalgamation would not be compatible with any version of secularism” (pp. 115-116).

The volume includes additional pieces by academics based in the US and Turkey, including a discussion on Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and an exposition of his ideas as the outcome of late Ottoman intellectual debates; the role of the military as a political player and, specifically, its relationship with the AK Party; and an account of Turkey’s EU prospects during the tenure of the AK Party.

Perhaps the most telling comments are presented by Ergun Özbudun of Bilkent University, who contributes two pieces to the volume. He argues that, “although Turkish society is reasonably pluralistic, this is not sufficiently recognized by or reflected in the political structure of the country […] [mainly because of] the ‘founding philosophy’ of the Turkish Republic, some features of which are incompatible with the development of a truly pluralistic political system” (p. 61). Özbudun adds later that, “The most fundamental problem facing the present-day Turkish democracy is to reconcile […] social pluralism with an authoritarian state tradition that seeks to impose an artificial homogeneity, even uniformity, on the society” (p. 70). These observations bookend the key consideration of the collection: The problems in Turkey today are not merely passing or recurrent social or economic issues such as dealing with poverty, or healthcare, or education, but rather they are a manifestation of profound, rudimentary aspects of the state itself that are being brought out into the open, perhaps more plainly than at any other time since the founding of the republic.

What is the institutional framework that would tackle such a challenging scenario? It is, of course, the constitution. Kuru and Stepan start the introduction to the book by mentioning (and criticizing) the 1982 constitution, and noting that a fundamental law is essential for the country, particularly given the impact it could have with the AK Party’s hold on power and with Turkey’s potential membership in the EU. For his part, Özbudun discusses in his second essay the problems with Turkey’s constitution and how the rule of law has been skewed one way or another with various rulings by the Constitutional Court since the body’s establishment in 1961. By Özbudun’s estimation, “the court continue[s] to stick to its sui generis positivist or assertive notion of secularism with probably no parallel in any Western democracy […] [with decisions] based on political, rather than juridical, considerations, […] amounting to an extreme example of juristocracy” (p. 161).

It is this “juristocracy” that is another obstacle to add to the list. Adding to this the paper by Ümit Cizre of İstanbul Şehir University on the role of the armed forces in the country, the reader is given to understand that, beyond rethinking the principle elements that make up society and politics in Turkey, it is also the country’s political culture — the way things are done now, and in the future — that are at stake in the state’s re-ordering as foreseen and advocated by the book.

Beyond a new constitution that would be the formal lynchpin of such a re-ordering, Stepan and Kuru point out in the introduction that, “what is at issue for many observers is whether the AKP, which is seen as an Islamically inspired, conservative, and democratic party can, like the Christian Democratic Party in Germany before it, maintain some of its roots in religion, but build a welcome addition to the existing models of European democracy” (p. 1).

The whole book wraps up with just such a consideration of a “new Turkish model,” one “based on the combination of moderate Islamism, liberal reforms, and democratic consolidation” (p. 189). Stathis N. Kalyvas of Yale University traces and compares the story of the AK Party with the rise and consolidation of the Christian Democrat experience in Europe. Although there are many parallels, there are also some key differences, in addition to some of Turkey’s peculiarities that may also make it less than likely that the shifts in Turkey could be replicated elsewhere in the Muslim world. But that assessment is a little difficult to make with confidence given the Arab Spring and ongoing changes in many Muslim-majority countries.

Ultimately, the book’s showcase argument remains that it is certainly possible to have a socially conservative yet economically liberal set of policies that are viable, internally consistent, and internationally acceptable, and that just such a set of circumstances are taking place in Turkey today under the leadership of the AK Party. Özbudun describes the AK Party on more than one occasion as “moderate Islamists,” being equivalent to “conservative democrats.” With that in mind, “Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey” could not be a more apt title for the volume.