Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Secularism and Theocracy in Turkey

Written by johnleemk on 11:12:07 am May 11, 2007.
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The ruling party in Turkey recently nominated its Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, for the presidency of Turkey. His election has been blocked by secularist opposition in the Turkish Parliament, and the country's constitutional court recently annulled Gul's election, leading to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call snap Parliamentary polls.

Meanwhile, a million people took to the streets in Istanbul to protest Gul's nomination. At the same time, the staunchly secular Turkish military subtly threatened to intervene if Gul were elected.

Why all the fuss? Because Gul's wife wears a headscarf. Secularists interpret this, along with Gul's history of association with Islamists — including the ruling party — as suggesting that Gul would roll back Turkey's strong secularist laws.

The problem with Turkey seems to be that it veers between two extreme approaches, one verging on atheism, and the other all-out Islamism. There does not seem to be any compromise in permitting non-governmental displays of Islam in the public sphere while refusing to go down the route of theocracy.

For instance, wearing the headscarf is banned in many places in Turkey. One cause of the backlash against Gul has been the fact that his wife wears a headscarf.

The thinking seems to be that if the headscarf is permitted, it is but one step on the slippery slope down to coercion in forcing all women to wear the headscarf.

There has also been very emotional backlash against Gul's wife and her decision to wear the headscarf, with some finding it unthinkable to have a first lady wearing the headscarf at public functions and greeting foreign dignitaries. But what is the problem with a public display of faith? How does it violate the barrier between mosque and state?

Are government officials supposed to be atheist in name, not attending prayers at a mosque or professing a Muslim faith? If a Muslim women wants to wear the headscarf, why stop her?

In the first place, banning the headscarf makes Turkish secularists little better than their Islamist opponents. Both seek to coerce people; one wants them to do something, while the other wants them not to do something. Little thought is given to what the people want to do.

The headscarf issue is just one issue; a survey of Turks quoted in the May 14 issue of Time suggests that only 14% believe it is possible to practice Islam freely in Turkey.

The problem, though, is that the Turks have forced themselves into a false dichotomy between atheism and Islamism, instead of turning to the moderation of secularism, which preaches neutrality and impartiality in the public sphere.

There is actually good cause to view Gul, Erdogan and others of their party with suspicion. Far from being moderates, there is evidence to suggest that they are also potential theocrats.

In 2006, Erdogan nominated an economist specialising in Islamic banking, without any knowledge of interest rates, to head the country's central bank; his nomination was vetoed by the current secularist president. The ruling party has also attempted to ban adultery, and there are numerous reports that local governments controlled by the party are attempting to introduce Islamic legislation by piecemeal — for instance, starting with separating the sexes at public swimming pools or banning public drinking.

The Turks then have good reason to be skeptical of people like Gul. But at the same time, it's time they stopped veering towards atheism in government as well. If the country's first lady can't make a personal decision about her faith, they might as well ban public officials from practicing religion altogether.

There is a third way — but this third way does not seem to have been accepted by many in Turkey. The Turks continue to force themselves into a false dichotomy between atheism and Islamism, and are the poorer for it.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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