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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Muslims Not Capable of Secular Government?

Throughout the conflict in Iraq, I've heard it claimed that Muslims aren't capable of a secular government - that their culture and religion would never permit it. Many people seem to forget or be unaware of Turkey. This is a nation that is about 95% Muslim, yet they have a completely secular government. The Turkish government goes even further than the U.S. government in not allowing religious dress in public buildings. This law has apparently been upheld in the European Court of Human Rights as "legitimate"[1]. Given France's recent move to disallow the Muslim head dress in public schools that's not surprising.

This brand of 'enforced secularism' is not something I find proper. In the U.S., anyone can wear the garments and symbols of their faith. The idea that the government could tell them not to would seem absurd and a violation of personal liberty to most Americans. The European system seems to take the perspective that the Government should be telling religious people 'you can't bring your religious stuff in here' and so on. Meanwhile, the approach of the U.S. government is that secular government is a government that is restricting itself - not restricting citizens. For instance, when the U.S. supreme court ruled against school prayer, the ruling was that government employees may not lead the students in prayer or use school property to conduct it. Students, however, are perfectly free to pray when and how they wish. The overall philosophy is a 'hands off' restriction on the government. In Europe, it seems to be more of a 'hands on' active secularizing of the people through intrusive restrictions. I find this harmful to personal liberty.

In any case, this more extreme European secularism is strongly in place in Turkey, and has been since 1923. According to a recent AP article, About two weeks ago, about 300,000 Turks (presumably many of them Muslim) staged a massive protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his pro-Islamic agenda. Today about 100,000 protested. The protesters claimed his faction wanted "to drag Turkey to the dark ages". They also disapprove of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, living in the palace while wearing traditional Muslim dress.

I would conditionally tend to think that both democracy and secular government are fully within the ability (and desire) of all human beings, including Muslims. However, when a nation doesn't have the past tradition of it like Turkey, it can be a long uphill climb. Ideally, not something that can (or should) be imposed from a foreign force, as is the attempted case in Iraq. But regardless of other immense problems with the Iraq war, I must at least say that claims Muslim populations are incapable, in principle, of secular government seem greatly inaccurate.


  1. A comment, in two parts. The first a comment on today's demonstration.

    Hey, I'm posting this from Istanbul and I've just come back, having tried to attend the rally in Istanbul today. The weather was good and the parents thought it would be risky, so off I went. And didn't make it any closer than 2 km from the main rally point due to the crowds.

    So this is a second-hand account, via the Turkish press. The police reported one million in attendance, rather more than the initial estimate of "tens of thousands". The BBC calls this, rather patronisingly, a demonstration by "the secular elite". Gosh. Never realised elites could be so large, nor that they all turned up at the meeting. :-P If 1 million fundies had turned up, would that have been termed "the fundamentalist elite"? :) Silly, really.

    Quite a few women in headscarves too. Which is as I expected.

    An interesting point about this meeting was that after the obligatory "Turkey is secular and will remain secular" slogans, the most popular was "Neither sharia nor coup". It seems that after eighty years of gestation, Turks have discovered the joy of expressive people power. :)

    What is more interesting is that, of course, Turkey has become less religious over the past four years under this Islamicist government than it was before. What people are demonstrating against, I think, is not the fact that Turkey is inching towards religious
    rule - which I consider to be less likely than this occurring in the US (covertly) - but that most people are tired of the ruling AKP's kneejerk reaction that headscarves are good.

    Anyway, it was fun and interesting although I couldn't attend. And I think the next one will be out of Istanbul, so I'll just have to follow that on TV. Looking forward to the Constitutional Court's ruling perhaps next week on the legality of the elections.

    And then, some time this year, we'll have general elections. AKP will do well - they've been excellent on the economy and the EU - but I don't see them getting as large a block of seats in the Assembly this time round. And so the taming of the Turkish Islamists will continue.

    The second part, my comments - bear with me - on your post.

    Turkish "laiklik" is not equivalent to US secularism. Nor is the French, since they probably invented the term laicité. Laicité means the non-interference of religion of Government. Whereas you correctly state that the in the US, it is the Government that has bound itself not to interfere in religion.

    Perhaps part of the difference might have arisen at some point in the past from the fact that a vocal portion of Americans were part of religious minorities in their ancient homelands. Neither the French Catholics nor the Turkish Sunnis faced or face similar problems. Therefore, for Americans, Government non-interference in religion (this being generally detrimental to minority religions) was seen as being important. Whereas in places like Turkey, the more important thing is that the majority religion should not intervene in politics, because if it does, the road to theocracy is much shorter than in a diverse population such as the US.

    Therefore, much like each country seeing its political forms develop over time largely in response to internal needs, so perhaps has the definition of secularism/laicité?

    As a Turk I remember my first visit to the States and being absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of religion in public life. :) While you find European-style laicité harmful to personal liberty, I find American-style secularism to be harmful to mental health. And as even your enlightened country has a policy of locking up the mentally unsound, may we perhaps be allowed to keep our excessively overtly religious folk out of Government offices? :-P

  2. Thank you Emre, for your post! Your perspective as a Turk has added much richness to this entry. I'd generally agree with your observations.

    However, I think that if we start to discriminate against religious people, then we are all vulnerable to being discriminated against as the various tides of history wax and wane.

    Equality among all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, or gender is a basic element of the modern society and key to the long term happiness of all.

    Although, as a secularist myself, I appreciate the source of your concerns about religious perversion of government. But we must have some degree of confidence that the most extreme forms of religious fundamentalism will, over time, prove to create enough suffering that they are relegated to the minority.

    In other words, we must have confidence and trust in democracy if we expect it to work. We must be willing to risk that we may not always get our way. Over time, as long as we make sure that basic human rights are protected and the people have a representative voice in government, people will generally not want to live under barbaric conditions and will act politically to move away from that condition.

    It is when rights are exclusive to certain groups, or democratic functions are impaired, that we must begin to worry. Unfortunately, I suspect your suggestion unwittingly moves in that direction. :)

  3. A person by the name of Nijjhar posted a very lengthy essay here on gnosticism as it pertains to Islam and Christianity. Sorry Nijjhar, no disrespect but I have deleted the comment due to: (1) length, (2) it was evangelizing theology rather than philosophy, (3) it wasn't directly relevant to the post at hand. However, I do thank you for reading and appreciate your thoughts. :)