Friday, August 19, 2011

America's Preference for Turkish Secularism and its Implications

by Richard Peres, published by Star Acik Gorus, end of April, 2011 in Turkish

The words “secular” and “secularism” do not exist in the American constitution. For Americans, “secular” means not having anything to do with religion; “secularism” is a system that does not mix religion and the state. Moreover, Americans are not familiar with the French concept of “laicism” adopted by Turkey almost 90 years ago. America was founded by people of various religions and denominations who fled religious persecution in Europe. For this reason, the first amendment to the US constitution enacted in 1791 was very clear and direct without qualification: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Period. All Americans know this by heart. You have a right to believe in what you want, how you want, when you want and to dress according to your beliefs. The state’s role in religion in the US is zero, nothing – no role whatsoever. Obviously, there is no Directorate of Religious Affairs, no rules about what to wear, and no restrictions concerning the visibility of religion in public, even though the country is mainly Christian and religion plays a part in the rhetoric of politicians. In addition, the US military plays no political role in protecting any ideological concepts or values (like secularism) or even “internal” enemies of any kind. Thus American secularism stands in stark contrast to Turkish secularism which controls religion, restricts religious freedom, and provides insurmountable barriers to education, politics, education and employment.

However, it is interesting to note that by and large Americans do not object to Turkish secularism, are generally comfortable with it, and many support it. Why is this the case? What are the implications of this relaxed attitude for Turkey’s relationship with the US and, specifically, for the AK Party’s relationship with American policy makers? How does it affect the AK Party’s efforts for democratization, including civilian control of the military and more religious freedoms in Turkey?

During a year of living and writing in Turkey about human rights issues and restrictions on religious freedoms I always wondered why my American liberal friends do not share my passion, or even interest. On the other hand, stories in the media about possible restrictions on journalists’ rights of expression clearly resonate with them and the West. The European Parliament asked Prime Minister Erdogan about journalists, and likewise the US Ambassador commented first on this subject just after arriving in Turkey, all of which get covered by the American press. A recent article on Turkish foreign policy by MSNBC, which I recently criticized in Today’s Zaman, completely misreads the issues in the upcoming elections and directly relates Turkish secularism to democracy, thanks to an interview with a CHP member, who viewed democracy as threatened by the AK Party. The article barely mentions the military’s four coups during the last 60 years and leaves out CHP’s nomination of Engenekon suspects as deputies for the upcoming general elections.

Islam as the exception to religious freedoms

The US’s only Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, recently said during a visit to Turkey that it’s more difficult being a Muslim in America than being black. Statistics about discrimination complaints in America support this. American Muslims file many times more complaints than others compared to their presence in the population. We all know about last summer’s demonstrations in the US’s most liberal city, New York, over the building of an Islamic Center and many other instances of Islamaphobia.

And yet, even Mr. Ellison will not criticize Turkey’s “French” secularism, saying very diplomatically that it is “Turkey’s choice.” In fact, he says that “Turkey is the best example of how Islam and democracy can co-exist.” Past US diplomats have taken the same position not to get involved in religious conflicts in Turkey, especially during the February 28th coup process when the secular-religious split emerged more sharply than ever. Mr. Ellison noted that Americans know nothing about Islam. He could have added that they know little about Turkey and Turkey’s democracy problems. .

By raising the ignorance issue, Ellison touches on the second dimension of the American attitude toward Turkish secularism, which is viewing it as a prerequisite to democracy. Few Americans are inclined to argue with this view. Perhaps it’s because Turkey is a buffer state between the West and the “always-suspicious” Muslim world. The public and policy makers are either oblivious to the anti-democratic downside of Turkish secularism, or simply aren’t much bothered by it, even though it is the number one factor restricting and distorting democracy. Similarly it is not bothered by the Turkish military’s self-proclaimed role of protector of Turkish secularism. The recent Wikileaks cables from Turkey from 2007 portray the US as more worried about Tayyip Erdogan’s religious views in spite of his efforts of democratization.


The implications of the US attitude may be serious for the AK Party’s democratization efforts particularly as they risk provoking the secular bloc. NGO committees, like those from TUSIAD and most recently TESEV, are making significant recommendations to change Turkey’s constitution. These changes strike at the heart of Turkish secularism and its protection by the military. A rights-based constitution could lead to battles over major issues regarding religion in the public sphere – ranging from state employment of headscarved women, their participation in the Parliament, to even perhaps challenges to the Religious Directorate. Would the US keep supporting the AK Party as crises develop? The US has never jumped in to get involved in debates over religious freedoms in the past, it seems illogical that they would start now.

This brings us to a second major concern, the notion of a possible fifth military intervention. In view of the advances made over the last few years it seems unfathomable to many. But if one occurred with the support of Turkey’s considerable secular bloc – parts of the media, judiciary, state institutions and opposition parties --what would the United States and Europe do? It was only four years ago that the military threatened the AKP government with an e-memo. What if it carried out its threats? Given Turkey’s important position in the world, wouldn’t the US administration opt to not interfere, favoring stability over democracy as it has so many times in the past?

For Turkey, there are reasons to believe that the US and Europe would respond the way they did initially to the uprisings in the Middle East and favor stability at all costs. Any perception of an “Islamic threat” in Turkey, regardless of its not being based on reality and facts, and regardless of the democratic intentions of its government, could permanently endanger the AK Party government. The American public would not be upset because, after all, it has little empathy for an Islam-friendly government. They will not want to get involved in an “internal matter.” Certainly President Obama understands and sympathizes with the issue, given his exceptional multi-racial and religious background and intelligence. But the American public is another matter.

The AKP needs to communicate better

To prevent this situation, assuming it continues with its democratic reforms, the AKP needs to improve its “PR” and pay particular attention to demonstrating to the West the need for democratic reforms that counter Turkey’s aggressive secularism and do so in understandable and compelling terms. It must help redefine the Turkish state as devoid of ideology and promote secularism along the lines of individual rights while clearly supporting and demonstrating the state’s not being involved in matters pertaining to religion religious sects, beliefs and lifestyles. At the same time, it needs to convey the importance of genuine democratic civilian control of the military as a prerequisite of democracy – extending its leadership role in the region. These efforts will require an increased focus on expressing, explaining and communicating Turkey’s democratic course as it moves beyond the 2011 elections.

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