Re-assessing Turkey's faith and secularism battle

By Simon Barrow
April 22, 2008

The real struggle in Turkey is not between the religious and the non-religious, but between those who value pluralism and those who want the victory of their ideology.

Adrian Pabst, who is Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Nottingham, has written an analysis for The National which is full of wisdom. He declares:

[B]oth the secularists and the AKP need to abandon their intransigent positions in favour of compromise. The secularists can no longer pretend that Ataturk’s ideology is universal, neutral and tolerant. They must accept that a large part of the population does not share their secular creed and never will because it is seen as a threat to the free expression of religious faith.

The Kemalists are wrong to treat religion as a purely private phenomenon with no public import. They must recognise that all belief systems and social practices are political. They should look to the best traditions of secularism that separate state and mosque without divorcing religion from politics. In a modern Turkey that they purport to defend, rival values should be debated freely. Judicial or military intervention will merely push religion underground and contribute to the rise of fundamentalism — in that case, a repeat of Algeria’s bloody experience would be a distinct possibility.

For its part, the AKP cannot simply proceed with fundamental constitutional reforms that are seen as an assault on secularism. Erdogan and his allies are right to reconsider the legal provisions on insulting “Turkishness” that saw the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk prosecuted in 2007. Likewise, the AKP must tackle discriminatory policies against the Alevi, Kurds and Armenians and work towards their full integration into Turkish society.

The challenge for the AKP and its secularist opponents is to work together to create a pluralist state where people of all faiths and none can co-exist peacefully. Such a civic identity would not just enable Turkey to develop and modernise in line with its own traditions and values, but also send a powerful signal to the rest of the Middle East and beyond that Islam, democracy and pluralism are indeed compatible.

Adrian Pabst teaches religion, theology and politics at the University of Nottingham and he is also a Research Fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.

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