Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Turkish secularism breaches democracy - By Dr. Kirmanj Gundi

In its simplest form, secularism can be defined as an ideology, which separates religion from the state affairs. It guarantees the right to be free from religious rule and teaching. It is not against religion, but independent of it. Secularism doesn’t necessarily mean democracy, albeit it can be used as a step toward modernization, and establishing democratic institutions in which equality and equity is fairly observed within the social, political and economic context.

In 1846, for the first time, the British writer George Jacob Holyoake introduced the term “secularism” as a notion of “free thought,” to serve as a “frame of social contemplation.” Later, in his article, Secular Ethics, published in 1896, Holyoake defined secularism as follows:

Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: 1) The improvement of this life by material means, 2) That science is available providence of men, and 3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.

Basic characteristics of secularism are premised on a conceit of “goodness” where common human beings are granted equal opportunity to develop. Nonetheless, under many secular regimes including Turkey, secularism is perpetuated at the expense of basic democratic principles. Turkey as an Islamic country governed by radical secularism whose guardian is military institution and is against every religious accoutrement.

When Turkey’s parliament lifted the ban of “headscarf” to give women in Turkey an opportunity to exercise their God-given right and wear it if they so desired, the military and radical secularists attempted to vitiate the AKP government and accused President Gul and Prime Minister Ordagan of undermining the Turkish secularism. Giving back the right to citizens to exercise their natural rights is not a breach of secularism, but a modus operandi of a plural and multicultural democracy. It is true that secularism would be enervated if religious indoctrinations were embodied in the Constitution. But similarly, a rigid refusal to allow citizens the right to freely express their cultural and religious beliefs in public, as long as that expression of their beliefs does not violate the freedom of others, transforms ‘secularism’ into “radical secularism,” which creates a culture of intolerance. The legislative body that has denounced the headscarf ban has not meant to change the Turkish Constitution from secular to a theocratic system, but rather to encourage the democratization of Turkish society.

The recent action by the Turkish chief prosecutor against the AKP and current government to ban them from politics is another reminder to the world about how gravely the Turkish justice system is deficient of true justice and therefore lacks moral authority.

The Islamo-phobia that the Turkish Generals have created and used as a vindication to maintain their influence on the political decision-making process and excoriate liberal democracy is a breach of every democratic principle and can only weaken democratic elements. This prevents Turkey from achieving its dream of becoming a respected member of the European Union. For Turkey to embrace its goals, it must not only be seen as a secular state, but also accepted as a democratic nation who respects democratic practices. Only then can Turkish secularism complement a democratic society.

Democracy as a political philosophy is premised on the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, rule of law, freedom of religion, and civil control of the military. It is founded on pluralism and majority rule with the respect to the minority rights. Therefore, for Turkey to grow into a civil society, it must respect human rights, grant genuine civil liberties, and hold its citizens equal before the law.

Turkish radical secularists can no longer claim that they enjoy popular support by “pinning democratic labels upon themselves.” They must allow citizens of Turkey to exercise their democratic prerogatives. To do so, they need to overcome the narrow and exclusionary idea of “Turkishness,” and accept Turkey as a state with citizens, not “Turks,” but citizens from a mosaic of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, which are a legitimate part of the region’s history and its future – one that is made culturally rich and dynamic by virtue of a plural society. Turkey needs to reform its social, political and economic policies across the nation in order to prosper. It cannot live in peace with itself unless it recognizes its own multi-ethnic identity, and its ambition of becoming part of Europe can only remain a distant dream. Turkey must pull itself out of the cycle of fear and hate in order to have a more internal tranquility and better future with its neighbors.

Dr. Kirmanj Gundi is a professor at Department of Educational Administration and Leadership at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee.
References (2008). Agnosticism/Atheism, Secularism 101: Religion, Society, and Politics.

Holyoake, George J. (1896). Secular Ethics. Publication English Secularism.

Miller, Lisa (2008). In Defense of Secularism.
USINFO.STATE.GOV (Website, 2008). What Is Democracy?