Book Review: Democracy, Islam and Secularism in Turkey

Democracy, Islam and Secularism in Turkey edited by Ahmet Kuru and Alfred Stepan.  Published by Columbia University Press, New York.  Part of the Religion, Culture, and Political Life Series.  2012. 

This book is based on a series of conferences held between 2008 and 2010 on the politics of revising the secular but not sufficiently democratic 1982 Turkish constitution.  Among those engaged in the debate are the judiciary, the army, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and pro-democracy groups.  The Turkish AKP is described in the book as an Islamically inspired, conservative, and democratic party, like the German Christian Democratic Party. A complex factor of the discussions is the erosion of Kemalist ideology (a form of extreme secularism based on European interpretations) and its pre-eminence in Turkish political discourse. The prominent question that arises from the book is how the “Turkish Model could” truly inspire and influence the Middle East today? Another complexity is the erosion of Kemalist (a form of extreme secularism based on European interpretations) ideology’s pre-eminence in Turkish political discourse.

The book is a collection of a dozen thinkers about modern Turkish political history.  It starts with Karen Barkey of Columbia University discusses the realism in which the Ottoman administration handled minorities and the limits to Ottoman toleration.  Barkey reminds readers to keep in mind that the Ottoman system of governance  evolved in a pre-modern society.  The Ottomans separated religion as an institution, as a system of meanings connected to a community of faith, as a facilitator in the administration of empire, and finally as a system of beliefs for everyday practice.  The Millet System allowed certain freedoms but also persecuted minorities; it was allowed when the minority was integrated into the structure of the state and persecuted when unstructured or allied to enemies of the Ottoman state.  Barkey also discusses how the Ottomans exploited Sunni-Sufi, and Sunni-Shiite tensions to concentrate power in the Sultan’s hands at the expense of the clergy.  A crucial question arises as a result of all this political historical exploration: is there a usable past in Ottoman history for Turkey, or for the Arab Muslim world as a whole?  Barkey advocates that Turanism (Turkish nationalism) as a counter to Ottoman imperial society created a mono-lingual, mono-ethnic, and mono-religious society that exacerbated tensions.  Of course, the Ottoman state is in the eye of the beholder, and the Turanism assimilation policies were not accepted by all groups present: the Arabs, Kurds, and Armenians. 

M. Sukru Haniologu has a chapter entitled, “The Historical Roots of Kemalism.”  In my opinion, anything by Haniologu is worth reading, and his book, “Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography,” was among the few deep explanations into the political education and psychology of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal.  Kemal did not produce an ideology.  Rather, it was his disciples and followers who crafted the creed of Kemalism with a right-wing and left-wing variant.  The so-called, “Six Arrows,” of Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party were too vague and open to wide interpretations.  Ataturk’s magnum opus “The Speech,” would be unsuccessfully turned into a text, and even this contains land descriptions and tactics of the Turkish War of Independence.  Haniologu exposes the roots of Kemalist scientism and its approach to religion; it would be based on the German philosophy of Vulgarmaterialismus, a mix of materialism, scientism, and Social Darwinism.  Mustafa Kemal wanted a Turkish nationalism shaped by scientism, racial models, phrenology, and Social Darwinism, which may have been in fashion before World War II, but would be unacceptable for western democracies today.  We must understand the nature of secularism that evolved in Turkey in order to discover that even Americans would not find this model to its liking. 

Ergun Ozbudun of Istanbul’s Bilknet University claims that Turkish society is reasonably pluralistic, but this is not reflected in the nation’s political structure.  National culture is defined in such a way that there is no room for multi-culturalism.  The fourth chapter of the book compares the notion of laicism, or “laiklik,” in Turkish, as practiced in Turkey, Senegal and France.  Laicism is a form of secularism that has no tolerance of religion or God in the public space.  These three nations are grappling with the question of how much space religion should have in the public sphere.  Umit Cizre of Istanbul’s Sehir University discusses the new policy of engagement between the military, society, and the Islamist AKP.  This chapter allows the reader to understand the infamous Ergenakon Conspiracy that gripped Turkey these past several years. Was it a military coup?  Was it an AKP purge of the military?  More members of the United States military interested in NATO, Turkey, Europe and the Middle East need to wrap their minds in this conspiracy and what it portends to civil-military relations not only in Turkey, but also in the wider region.

CDR Aboul-Enein wishes to thank Ms. Dorothy Corley for her edits to this review.

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