A (Secular) Turkish Delight

Any general arguments against the safeguards provided to all religions by the maintenance of a secular public sphere should take into account whether it is better to live as a Christian in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Thanks to Turkey’s decidedly secular state (in a country where 95% of the inhabitants adhere to the Islamic faith, a large majority of whom practice this faith very piously), a Christian is uniquely free in Turkey, in comparison to most other Muslim countries in the Middle East, to live according to the precepts of his or her religion.

Turkey’s secular state is in the spotlight today as UK Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his support for Turkey’s bid at joining the European Union. Cameron rightly noted that without Turkey’s membership, the European Union would be “not stronger but weaker . . . not more secure but less . . . not richer but poorer”. Alluding to France’s role in putting obstacles in the path of Turkey’s membership bid, Cameron hit upon a salient element in the opposition to Turkey’s candidacy:

Those who wilfully misunderstand Islam, they see no difference between real Islam and the distorted version of the extremists. They think the problem is Islam itself. And they think the values of Islam can just never be compatible with the values of other religions, societies or cultures. . . .

All of these arguments are just plain wrong. And as a new government in Britain, I want us to be at the forefront of an international effort to defeat them.

Cameron seems to be right in identifying protectionist, nationalist and prejudicial motivations behind opposing Turkey’s EU membership. This is because, from a rational perspective, it seems that every European country should be eager to promote the Turkish model of a secular democracy established in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Put simply, this model deters the ascendacy of an Islamist state that does not provide any protections of religious freedom, such as seen in most of the rest of predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. However, we do not see this type of eager endorsement by European democracies happening on a large scale; the debates surrounding opposition to Turkey’s membership often refer to Europe’s Christian heritage and ethos and that Turkey does not share this tradition (despite, of course, the fact that the universal Christian Church was headquartered in Constantinople for an extended period in the early days and the Apostle Paul’s epistles to and ministry among the scattered primitive churches in the Greek cities of Western Turkey).

But Turkey’s secular state is patterned after the French principle of laïcité, which translates simply as “secularism”. In practice, it means the separation of church and state. This model is rigorously enforced in France itself.

In contrast to other Muslim countries in the Middle East, Turkey opted for a secular state in the 1920s when its new nation was founded out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. By secular state is simply meant that care was given to create a secular public sphere for the benefit of the people for the purpose of avoiding the establishment of an Islamist state — political organs cannot be used to establish or enforce religious doctrines of Islam. Citizens were not thereby forced to stop being Muslims or believing very piously in Islam. However, the effect of a laïcité approach is to restrict religious expression for those working as civil servants, in the government, or in state-run schools, particularly universities, where the students themselves, and not just the teachers, are subject to heightened restrictions on religious expression.

The famous and controversial issue in Turkey relating to restrictions on religious expression in the university setting is, of course, the ban on wearing Islamic headscarves by students attending state universities. In the context of Turkish laïcité, the ban was upheld when appealed in Turkish courts and then at the European Court of Human Rights in 2004 and again in 2006. In 2008, after the election of a party with Islamist tendencies in 2007, the Turkish Parliament amended the Turkish Constitution to loosen the laïcité principle enough to allow a woman to wear a headscarf in state-run universities. (To the American mind, this is eminently reasonable and, in fact, the established norm — more on that below.) But a few months later, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that removing the ban was against the founding principles of the Turkish Constitution, thus reinstating the ban.

Turkey is not a perfect country. A lot can be improved in Turkish society and politics, and in internal and external Turkish relations. Some of this is relevant to the debates about Turkish membership in the EU (e.g. treatment of certain ethnic minorities and of course the Maastricht and Copenhagen convergence criteria, which as we know are not being complied with by most current EU members either). But perhaps the laïcité principle is appropriate in Turkey as a means to provide a real secular public square in a predominantly Muslim country, which otherwise would perhaps succumb to the tendency to establish an Islamist state, implementing Islam as a religion through political channels through the force of the state. It should hopefully not be controversial to point out that this would be inimical to fundamental religious freedoms of all citizens as those who do not subscribe to Islam would be subjected to its precepts and perhaps disallowed from exercising their own religions, as is the case elsewhere in the Middle East.

The laïcité principle is not appropriate in the United States or in the United Kingdom (or perhaps in many other countries), but that does not mean that a rigorously secular public sphere (that nevertheless does not infringe on citizens’ private religious beliefs) is inappropriate in some situations, such as in Turkey — and perhaps elsewhere throughout the Middle East it could be a guiding principle to help those countries become more just to their citizenry. But in the United States, religion and politics/public life are related in a different and more accommodating way such that the extreme of laïcité is not called for. This is thanks in large part to our intellectual inheritance of the moral philosophy of the English Enlightenment (worked out by Hobbes, Hume, Locke and their seventeenth century peers) in our founding institutions. The thinkers involved in this movement broadly sought to outline a system of moral philosophy that did not derive strictly from religion but rather that tied in to more general principles and could therefore be more widely applicable than in the narrow contours of specific creedal frameworks.

The American founders were shaped by this English intellectual inheritance in crafting the institutions of government that would best fit in the context of American liberty and beliefs. An accommodating toleration, stemming straight from Locke and transmitted via continual waves of emigration, was central to this project. As de Tocqueville noted in his observations in the 1830s, the unique co-existence of religion and liberty in the American system was a defining characteristic of the young American republican democracy. (Of course, at the same time during the 1830s that de Tocqueville was collecting his notes from his 1831 visit to America to write his landmark book about Democracy in America, Mormons were being driven about the country, from state to state, experiencing a very real deprivation of their liberty because of their religious beliefs — Mormons should be in a unique position to recognize and value the protections offered by a robust institutional separation of church and state, as is now theoretically found in the American system with the incorporation of the First Amendment against the states).

Given this foundation of American republican democracy in a moral system that subtly unites the possibility of religion with real liberty, laïcité is neither necessary nor appropriate in the American polity. But this does not mean that it is not appropriate in other contexts. Context really matters. Societies that do not benefit from the same conflux of Enlightenment-era moral philosophy and Lockean religious toleration will perhaps find themselves needing to shore up the line against elements seeking to establish or impose theocratic political institutions, subjecting citizens of other religions or of no religion to the religious doctrines of a specific group. This is injurious to real liberty.

In the United States, however, relevant protestations are not out of place in cases where perhaps too much emphasis is put on getting religion out of the public eye — a symptom of laïcité. Getting religion out of the public eye was never meant to be part of the American project. But neither was subjecting American citizens of one religion or of no religion to the religious doctrines of a religion to which they do not subscribe, as is done in many Middle Eastern states that do not employ Turkey’s secular model. So, for instance, school prayer in public schools can be properly restricted in the United States because inevitably the Evangelical creedalist majority in a Texas town will prevent the Mormon child from praying or participating in the prayer (or, in another location, the Mormon majority will in some way negatively impact a Baptist child’s prayer or ability to participate in the prayer). But a politician or the President can and should be perfectly comfortable talking about religious experience or perspectives as he or she goes about the daily work of negotiating legislation or speaking with constituencies (this would be prohibited by laïcité). The individual’s religious principles will guide him or her in every action, which includes legislation. American democracy accommodates this obvious point. The Lockean liberty, and the moral philosophy of the English Enlightenment more broadly, that animated the Founders — which were both concepts thoroughly infused with principles of (Lockean) religious toleration — were themselves an outgrowth of the unique co-existence of religion and liberty identified by de Tocqueville in American democracy.

* * *

For Turkey’s membership bid to the EU, everyone is a winner: the European Union reaches out to the Muslim world by incorporating into its polity a predominantly Muslim country with a rigorously secular public sphere that prevents the establishment of an Islamist state, even if large numbers of the populace might ultimately want that; the Muslim world sees Turkey as a model of a democracy constituted of faithful Muslims who are living their religion and yet still taken seriously as an economic and political partner (rather than a Banana Republic Regime merely tolerated for its natural resources). Europe is enriched culturally and demographically with the presence of millions of adherents of Islam, and the Middle East has further reason to take Turkish laïcité seriously as a pathway to opportunity.

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