Human Angle


Secularism in Turkey


by Prof. Dr. Özer OZANKAYA


What distinguishes modern Turkey among Muslim societies is that it has aspired to - and to a considerable extent achieved – secularism not only in politics but also in social and cultural life.


In the political sense, the chief motto of the Turkish Republic from day one was "Sovereignty belongs to the people without condition or reservation." (Egemenlik. kayıtsız şartsız milletindir). To national sovereignty, secularism was indispensable. On a practical level, one of the major sources of opposition to the sovereignty of the people everywhere has been religious oppression. This had been practised for centuries under the form of the theocratic state. In addition, the Republic was also based on the recognition that democracy is possible only in rational, scientific conditions as the criteria of scientific validity are exactly in the same nature as those of democratic legitimacy.


Science was fundamental to the whole Republican project and one of the golden rules underlined by the Republic’s founder, Atatürk, was that “The best guide in life is science” (Yaşamda en gerçek  yol-gösterici bilimdir). The concept of "science" here is one that pays due consideration to the principle of relativity. This is of primary importance for a democratic culture and can properly be conceived of only in a secular environment.


Science and secularism


The Atatürk reforms – which constitute the Turkish Renaissance and Enlightenment in the 20th century – owed much to the observation that the history of democracy has been the history of a struggle to demonstrate the relative character of all social institutions, moral precepts and therefore laws regulating human relations. As Francis Bacon declared at the emergence of the modern society, "He who starts out with absolute convictions is bound to fall soon into the darkest of doubts". Just as Lessing and Kant had insisted on the necessity of the freedom to question, demand proofs and test for oneself - without which no faith would be possible - so did the Republican regime in Turkey accept the perpetually changing nature of reality and the impossibility of any "complete" explanation or "system".


It follows that every aspect of public life should be open to free discussion and should never be subject to immutable, indisputable laws, whether of religious or other origin. This is the basis of legitimacy for all the fundamental social functions carried out by the government, the education system, the economy, the family and so on. This secular socio-political system considers illegitimate any program which seeks to regulate human relations according to religious laws.


In this way, secularism is the true guarantee of the principle of the sovereignty of the people. Legislative power is assigned uniquely to a national assembly subject to periodical re-election by the people. And no national assembly is authorized to pass unchangeable laws, under the sanction of immediately losing its legitimacy, as such legislation would constitute an act of usurpation of the people’s will.


Consequently, secularism creates a solid environment - an unshakeable foundation against all dogmatism and oppression whether religious or otherwise. In turn, the secular system allows the scientific mentality and democratic culture to flourish, permitting the individual human personality to unfold.


Secular state; secular society


It was on the grounds of these two parallel principles of scientific rationalism and national sovereignty that the Republican regime abolished the sultanate and caliphate, that the elected Grand National Assembly became the sole legislative authority, that women were soon given the right to vote and be elected, that subjects became citizens and that all citizens became equal before the law with the freedom - inter alia - to choose their own religion and to practise it or not to practise it.


It was only logical for Turkey to adopt multi-party democracy in 1946. Two earlier attempts had been made, but both had been exploited, chiefly in the name of religion, by antidemocratic, anti-secular groups who did not exclude the use of outright brutal force and   with significant Western support. By 1946, the educational and cultural level of the population had increased, a certain degree of industrialisation had been achieved and there were a significant number of intellectuals able to lead public opinion in the evaluation of public interest. The international environment was also supportive.


But secularism went beyond politics. In the name of the same rational principles, an effort was also made to secularise and democratise the social institutions of modern Turkey. Instead of being directed by religious codes, marriage was re-cast as a free voluntary association with equality of rights and obligations. Women received rights to divorce, and to an equal share of inheritance. Traditional forms of dress associated with religious precepts were discouraged. Literature and the plastic and performing arts were encouraged. In the economy, bans and taboos on economic activities of women were lifted. It was no longer considered profane to charge interest and wealth and prosperity - and therefore productive, efficient labour - came to be seen as desirable and necessary for both personal and national freedom and independence.


All the Ottoman educational institutions, organised and run according to religious precepts and hierarchies, were abolished and a national secular education system was espoused which exalted rational, scientific thinking as the only valid and dependable model. This was reinforced through the development of a modern, written Turkish. Boys and girls received the same education in co-educational schools. Education and morality were based on modern principles and free ideas.


Challenges and resistance


The process of secularisation of the state and social order in Turkey may not be complete or perfect. But it formed - and forms - a logical whole. It made astonishing progress in a short space of time. And it constitutes the basis of today’s relatively modern and liberal society.


The process has often been challenged. Internal anti-democratic forces, misusing the freedoms provided by the democratic order, have lent support to the resurrection of medieval institutions and the accompanying mentality. Externally, these forces have received open and/or disguised support from the advanced industrial countries pursuing     selfish   interests.  The desire expressed from time to time in some Western political circles to see and present the Turkish Republic as a “moderate Islamist state” is a crying example of this selfish attitude against Turkish democracy and therefore the Turkish nation. Internal and external economic pressures have created conditions that facilitate anti-secular actions. At times the challenge has been levelled directly at the democratic political order itself. At other times, it has targeted the rationalisation and democratisation of society, as if this could be divorced from the rationalisation and democratisation of public order.


As a result of these challenges, the outlawed religious orders have reappeared, the number of women veiling themselves has increased again and the secular and scientific nature of the education system has been eroded. These are just a few examples. But in the final reckoning, the progress that has been made in the fields of scientific thinking, democratic rights and freedoms, national independence, the sovereignty of the people and industrial development - that is to say the progress of secular thinking and behaving - has long since reached the "point of no return". History cannot be reversed.






Science and the Democratic/Secular System

It is possible to elaborate in greater detail on the parallels between the rules of the secular, democratic state and the rules of scientific investigation.


The place of objectivity: The scientist must, in the words of Claude Bernard, "leave outside the door not only his overcoat but also his beliefs before entering into the laboratory". In the same way, in democracy, people should have free access to all facts concerning public life, and these should on no grounds be either disguised or falsified whether for the sake of a creed or doctrine or for any other reason. Loyalty to the facts is thus basic to both science and democracy.


The principle of the searching mind: Reality is always concrete: no theory or generalisation can be sufficient to cover all real life situations, which carry unique aspects of the places and times in which they occur. In other words there is neither universal problem nor universal solution. This holds true for democratic legitimacy as well. Life never follows theories; theory must follow life and make the necessary adjustments. Hence the best measure against any authoritarianism, religious or otherwise, is free and periodical general elections which signify the citizen's right to make up for the defective research and mistakes of evaluations made during the previous elections. It would therefore be illegitimate for any political body to attribute to the laws the character of unchangeability.


Scepticism or the questioning mind: Modem science is only possible thanks to the questioning mind. I remember a professor of physics beginning his lecture by asking his audience whether he should leave in the air the glass of water that he was holding in his hand. Then he answered his own question by saying "Perhaps I shouldn't, because it may drop!" In this way he tried to warn the audience against the error of "perfect and complete" knowledge. On the one hand, no man is infallible; on the other, reality is subject to perpetual change. So even the best-established knowledge and convictions have to be questioned from time to time.


Independent opinion: One of the preconditions of scientific validity is "the support of independent expert opinion". Scientific validity requires one to be ready to go through the most rigorous investigations, and to feel obliged to the people who demonstrate one’s mistakes or shortcomings. There is nothing of this sort in dogmatic thinking, whether religious or secular. Democratic legitimacy also contains the same principle, taking concrete shape in parliamentary debates, investigations and interpellations, and in the freedom of the press, the autonomy of universities and the independence of courts of justice. Without such mechanisms, the principle of political accountability can neither be conceived of nor implemented.


Clear definition of concepts: Another principle of scientific validity requires the use of well-defined concepts to prevent ambiguities and confusions. This has its counterpart among the principles of democratic legitimacy which require political parties and politicians to present to the people clear, well defined policy programs, free of demagogies. In this way they can be held responsible and accountable. Meanwhile, in order not to confuse the "popular will" with the “dictatorship of majority", the concept of "majority vote" itself should be clearly defined, so that the error of presenting it as the expression of homogenous interests, desires and opinions can be avoided, and the reason for the principle of periodical general elections can be properly understood.