Monday, June 20, 2005

Secularism: The Turkish Experience

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Omer Baristiran, December 2004
University of Pennsylvania
Excerpts from the Video Transcript
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Voiceover: The struggle to balance worldly desires and demands against the promises and hopes of life in the afterworld, defines the essence of secularism in modern day Turkey. Located on a pathway between cultures in Eurasia, Turkey claims to be the only secular country in the region with a 99 percent Muslim majority (Carkoglu).

Today, the 80 year old social experiment of the Turkish Republic is facing many challenges to build her own identity looking back to a rich history, while marching forward into contemporary times.

Aytunc Altindal, PhD: Turkey within the last 80 years doesn’t know where Turkey belongs to. So this brings another problem to Turks, which is the identity crisis.

Prof. Fuat Keyman: Turkish modernization experience has been successful in establishing modern institutions. That is to say it has been successful in establishing a nation state, bureaucracy, law.

Prof. Fuat Keyman: This success has turned into a failure when it imposes itself, its own ideology on society and assuming that by using certain state-based cultural reforms, they can transform society, they can educate society, they can change society.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: Turkish Republic was in a way successful but successful at a price and the price was a kind of amnesia a kind of trying to forget this past and this past comes back in different forms and I think Islam is one of them.

Prof. Faruk Birtek: What happened in Turkey is that civil society gets suspended in Turkey to establish civil society. Democracy gets suspended to establish democracy. These are the Turkish habits. Sort of, to do the real thing you do the unreal thing. Maybe that’s the way the Ottoman army marched you see, you take two steps forward and one step back but sometimes you take two steps back and one step forward and that is the hazards when you confuse your step.

Voiceover: The Turkish model similar to its counterpart shied away from allowing religious symbolism in the public sphere.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: The similarity between the Turkish and French one, although there are many differences of course, but I want to underline, highlight the similarity is in relation to the definition of the public sphere. A kind of public sphere which should be more neutral and as a neutral space, so that there would be no visibility for religious signs or ethnic differences.

Prof. Binnaz Toprak: The Turkish experience is very similar to the French experience. In other words, neither in Turkey nor in France could you ever see something like in God we trust on the French Frank or the Turkish Lira.

Prof. Fuat Keyman: On the one hand we actually resemble Turkey with the French case but on the other hand Turkey even goes beyond the French case in its state based attempt to get rid of the religion or to remove the religion from political affairs.

Prof. Faruk Birtek: It was perhaps the most bona fida the most representative of French revolution and the Third Republic. To the degree that perhaps even the French have given up on the radicalness of French revolution where the Turks have picked it up.

[Turning Point: 1980 Military Coup]

Prof. Faruk Birtek: What happened is that the military coup created alternative elites. By alternative I mean they were more expressions of traditional society, traditional populism and Islamic orient. So you have Islamic intellectuals coming about. Islamic politicians coming out and you eventually ended up with Islamic democracy as we have it in Turkey today.

So, in a way it is very strange, it allowed Islam to become a more important political force in Turkey contrary to the generals’ initial design and interest. So you have Islam playing a more important role yet it also democratized Islam when it became to participate in the process.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: And after 1983, therefore we go back in a way, of course in different terms, we go back to this debate on how to combine modernity with some kind of authenticity or singularity.

Voiceover: The nature of the relationship between politics and religion is subject to manipulation of religion by multiple political as well as social actors. This vulnerable equilibrium has become one of the major factors of polarization in the political sphere.

Prof. Ahmet Evin: The political culture in Turkey rests on an argument, win or lose, zero-sum game. So it is very important to take that into consideration, that gray area accommodation is not the immediate end of politics as we understand in the United States.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: So, in the Turkish case we have these two traditions. One more republican in the European sense, Republican secularist, or Jacobin as many social scientists refer in relation to the French case more state-authoritarian. And the second tradition, political tradition is more conservative and democrat.

Prof. Ahmet Evin: Any major ideological divide tends to continue and tends to fuel further disagreements in Turkish political culture. So secularism vs. religion is one of those.

Voiceover: In November of 2002, the conservative democrat AK Party won the national elections with 34 percent of the vote. This success granted the AK party government the majority of the seats in the parliament, while the left-wing Republican People’s Party became the minority oppositional party with 19 percent of the ballots. As no other party was able to pass the 10 percent minimum voting threshold, the current parliament has only two parties and a few independents.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: They won the elections because they were representative of the conservative or more liberal or democrat circles. People, who voted for them are not all Islamists, not even religious people.

Asst. Prof. Jenny White: So, it wasn’t just the poor, it wasn’t just the really rural conservative population, you would tend to associate with an Islamist movement but rather it was a new middle class and professional class.

Prof. Binnaz Toprak: When you look at what the movement has come to again that’s a very very interesting example of how the Islamic movement itself was quote unquote tamed let’s say by the democratic process, by the very logic of democracy.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: They moved let’s say from the margins of the political system to the what we call towards the center. Towards the center mean more consensual with other social actors and not being radical.

Voiceover: On 28th of February 1997 Prime Minister Erbakan agreed to sign a list of measures against the radical Islamic movement in Turkey at the National Security Meeting consisting of civil and military state officials headed by the president8. This meeting once again redefined the Turkish national secular identity for the third time in the history of the Republic and reinforced the notion of purely secular politic

Prof. Ahmet Evin: The military of course killed two birds with one stone. By virtue of making Mr. Erbakan signed this National Security Council resolution, the military was able to devalue Mr. Erbakan’s power and political effectiveness in the eyes of his very followers and that was basically the reversing trend of Islamism in Turkey.

Prof. Fuat Keyman: When we look at the period between 1997 where we have the 28th February intervention and today, if I go back to the learning process, I will actually argue that AKP and Islamic forces have been much more successful in learning what they can do, what they cannot do in Turkey.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: Instead of putting the headscarf issue on their agenda, they put European integration and that helped also on going beyond these cleavages and create a kind of larger consensus.

Prof. Ahmet Evin: Of all the politicians or political leaders in the past half-century in Turkey, they are the ones who are making an effort at least to tell the public that they are not contrary to the state elite that in fact they are willing and wishing to enter into debate in a common understanding of issues with the state elite.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: Radical Islamism is transformed to something more pluralistic. We can even consider the leader of the political party as an ex-Islamist. So in a way they took kind of a distance from the original, radical project of Islamism as a total project and something that should englobe the whole system and the power and the state and where as now they move into a kind of more mainstream, center conservative party.

Voiceover: While the political Islamic movement was becoming more and more moderate and mainstream, the rest of the political parties basing their policies on authoritarian secularism were separating themselves further apart from the Turkish society in the process.

Kenan Cayir, PhD: We are experiencing an evolution from Islamist sentiment towards Islam. If society is a stage where conflicts are displayed, the transition does not only depend on the Islamist sections. The change is only possible with the transformation of the more laic, secular groups as well as strong institutions.

Voiceover: How much does the zero-sum game in the political arena translate to the societal relations between people with secular, Islamic or alternative lifestyles?

Prof. Ahmet Evin: I don’t think that the majority of the Turkish people are basically divided one way of the other.

Prof. Yesim Arat: When you talked to the people involved talked to the people with headscarves you see that actually polarization is artificial, is superficial that it needs to be deconstructed because there has been so much self-definition of one through the other. The headscarved girls define themselves with reference to the values that so-called secularists, who are opposed to them, try to define themselves with.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: At the sociological level the wall between secularist elites and the middle classes and others Muslims or more religious people are getting thinner since 1980’s. It’s started since 1950’s but especially during the last two decades.

Voiceover: In February 1999, at the height of political division between secularist and Islamists, Prof. Binnaz Toprak co-authored a study “to analyze the relationship between religiosity on the one hand, and socio-political attitudes and behavior in Turkey, on the other” (Carkoglu).

Prof. Binnaz Toprak: That was a survey a colleague and I carried out in 1999 and many of the questions showed that religion in this country is understood in very tolerant terms.

Voiceover: With the introduction of the open market economy in Turkey, formerly marginalized social actors including people from more conservative backgrounds had the opportunity to take advantage of the more liberal economic system.

Prof. Binnaz Toprak: People gained social prestige through it. People gained wealth through it, especially in a country where government contracts are important.

Asst. Prof. Jenny White: So you had the development of more devout Muslim business people, who developed, became quite wealthy and started holding companies and so on.

Prof. Ahmet Evin: This was not in rivalry with the statist culture of the generals but as a matter of fact it was the reinforcement economically of a stable Turkey that was also developing economically.

Asst. Prof. Hakan Yavuz: Because the new agent of the social change in Turkey is very much bourgeoisie, not the military, not the politician. So what we are seeing is that Islam turned into a commodity.

Asst. Prof. Jenny White: The market did an extraordinary thing. It supported or rather it encouraged the commercialization of Islamic identity.

Asst. Prof. Hakan Yavuz: The market conditions pressured Islam to become one of the commodity to compete as a good with other diverse and different brand of Islam.

Omer Baristiran: How much are these headscarves?
Headscarved Vendor: That one is by Pierre Cardin and costs 50 US dollars.
Omer Baristiran: Are these popular? Is there a fashion for this?
Dad of the headscarved Vendor: Yes, [the headscarf fashion] evolved into an industry.


Asst. Prof. Jenny White: This Islam as a social, political force became more visible more public but at the same time became more moderate.

Prof. Faruk Birtek: The Islamic traditional society found its expression in democratic discourse and democratic habit. So a very strange thing happens today. The Muslim population is much more democratic than the secular, laic, westernized population. They become inseparable. Islam of the Turkish way becomes inseparable from a radical need of populist democratic sentiment.

Voiceover: The evolution of a more moderate Islam and its proper placement in the public lives of Turkish people brings new responsibilities not only for the Turkish state officials but the society as a whole to continue to move towards a more tolerant sociopolitical environment.

Prof. Fuat Keyman: I think the solution is in Turkish case lies more in process of democratization and its consolidation mainly than direct focus on the institutional aspect of the regulation of religious affairs.

Voiceover: One of the effective ways for consolidation of democracy as well as secularism is through civil dialog among the Turkish society.

Prof. Ali Yasar Saribay: If we use the English terms, I distinguish between togetherness and coexistence. Togetherness or living together requires certain responsibilities towards each other. Thus, it forces us to understand the other side and build relationships within a tolerant space.

Voiceover: In addition, moderated settings such as academic meetings and conferences helped to establish a mutual understanding among the people with different point of views. The yearly Abant Platform which started in 1998 is a representative example. In 2004, for the first time the conference was organized outside of Turkey. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC co-hosted the event with the attendance of a representative international academic community.

Asst. Prof. Jenny White: People of all of these different persuasions, people of different stripes get together and discuss a particular issue. Like for instance, the relationship between state and religion that would be one theme for instance.

Prof. Ali Yasar Saribay: The Abant Platform meeting is important. Even though the platform consisted of participants with really diverse opinions, it has confirmed that we can talk and reach an agreement without clashing.

Voiceover: The Abant Platform is a crucial civil society effort to preserve and expand the societal dialog as it generates channels of self-criticism and reflection in the process. For instance, the participants of the Abant Platform wrote a joined declaration at end of each meeting on the discussed topics.

Asst. Prof. Jenny White: They were forced to come to a joined statement that they wouldn’t necessarily agree with but they could live with. And that process I think repeated over and over exposes people to alternative points of view and makes them engage with this other point of view, makes them deal with it. And I think that leads to a process of moderation overall, combined with what else is going on in the society where people are just sort of talking about these things.

Voiceover: One of the initial organizers of the Abant Platform, now the current State Minister Prof. Mehmet Aydin thinks that there is still room for more voices in the discussions on issues such as secularism, Islam and democracy.

State Minister Prof. Mehmet Aydin: Each time I invited them, social democrats, the other parties which might be called on the left but again they did not want to come to Abant Platform, because it was too free for them. It was too open where everything is being discussed and so on. Where as they think that some of the things at least ought not to be discussed at all, taken for granted.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: I think what we need today is a kind of revisiting secularism. Maybe opening up secularism not reducing it on the contrary opening up its definitions. Maybe saving it more from the state authority and opening up towards a more, -I don’t know we have to think about it- to public sphere and civil society in that sense. I mean it would be great if it becomes a reference and a common reference a common value for both Turkey’s- that means both secularist and religious Turkey.

Voiceover: This historical analysis in turn offers valuable perspectives not only for a specific region of the world but to the humanity at large. For instance, Prof. Nilufer Gole draws attention to the observation that Europe can derive relevant lessons from theTurkish experience with secularism for a pluralistic European Union future.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: Europe will be defined in relation to these two issues. Muslims within the Europe, that is the headscarf issue but Muslims who are waiting at the frontier of Europe that is Turkey. So Turkish candidacy on the one hand and headscarf issue on the other hand I would say are defining more and more French politics but also German, the whole Europe.

Voiceover: On the global scale, Europe itself is being challenged to define an innovative open-minded European identity with Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, while Turkey is seeking to construct an open society and a tolerant state system in harmony with each other on issues such as secularism and religious rights at home.

Prof. Ahmet Evin: This change and this expansion gives us a way to image a new Turkey in a new Europe.

Voiceover: It is to be seen whether lessons drawn from the Turkish case study with secularism will in fact become a common reference for other peoples of the world.

Prof. Nilufer Gole: On the one hand you have United States with terrorism and Europe with Muslim migrants and Islam in many different configurations and in the middle of which Turkey a very small actor in that at that world level but playing a very important significant game for the history of all of us. Can we go beyond these clashes? Can we show that Islam and values of modernity, democracy, rationality, equality of sexes can go together or not? I think Turkey is the best candidate. I call it Islam with smiling face, with a human face
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1 comment:

Armando Mahnke said...

Hello! Super work performed. Top PAGE, further so!

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