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Posted by on Aug 30, 2007 in At TMV | 3 comments

A New Kind of Secularism

It seems that Abdullah Gül has immediately created a debate (and set the tone of it) about what secularism exactly is or should be:

President Abdullah Gül described secularism as the rule of social harmony and a model that underpins freedom for different life styles, in his first speech following his election Tuesday.

Gül’s statement was welcomed by many as a new description of secularism, but on the other hand drew criticism from secularist circles.

“It was a nice speech. It was nice because it was openly protecting democracy, rule of law and secular characteristic of the republic,” Hasan Cemal, a columnist for daily Milliyet wrote.

Gül’s description of secularism broadens the official understanding of this core principle, which roughly is “the separation of state and religious affairs.” Although there is no description of secularism in the Constitution, article 24 provides for freedom of religion but at the same time restricts abuse of religion for political purposes.


“We know that Gül comes from an Islamic movement and is a religious man. But there are two points he should not underestimate,” said Ruşen Çakır, a political analyst who has closely followed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for years. “If he could become the president it is not only thanks to democracy but also secularism that paves the way even for religious persons to be able to climb to the highest point in the state. And secondly, secularism, which means that the state should be neutral toward all religions, is much more necessary for religious people than the non-Muslims or those who have a loose relation with Islam,” he said.

In the past, efforts by the conservatives to emphasize their own description of secularism created internal tensions in the country. Former Parliament Speaker Bülent Arınç openly said that there was a need to redefine secularism. He argued that secularism assures the freedom of all religious activities, in a move to demote its description to liberty of religion. Former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer had slammed Arınç’s effort to describe secularism in his own way.

In other words, it is a matter of interpretation, but one with quite big consequences. Does one consider secularism to be a great tool to protect non-believers from believers, or does one consider secularism to be a great tool to protect the religious from the irreligious?

Laicism – the kind of secularism Turkey has – is the former not the latter. Most people in Turkey were, at the creation of the Turkish Republic, conservative Muslims. Atatürk’s goal, then, was not to protect these conservative Muslims, but to protect the nation from too much political influence of them instead. If Gül now interpretes secularism to be primarily a means to protect the religious, we can count on some political problems in the near future.

Atilla Kart, a Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy and a member of the Constitutional Commission criticized Gül: “ül should have touched on the fact that religion has become a tool for political gain and that there are efforts to impose religious rule in state affairs. These are the missing points in his speech.” That is of course due to the fact that Gül is the one basically using religion for political purposes.

Professor of law and a former foreign minister, Mümtaz Soysal, rightfully said: “Gül did not underline the fact that secularism requires a full separation of state affairs from religious rules. Gül and like-minded circles consider secularism only as religious freedom.” And this is what many people feared: that Gül and Erdogan would (will) use Democratic freedom to push through Islamist reforms.

Is the situation dangerous at this point in time? No. Are secularists wise to pay close attention to every step Gül takes? Yes.

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