For a while now, everybody in Turkey is talking about a new constitution for the country. The nature of the constitution is being hotly debated. Last week, Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Ismail Kahraman’s statement that “secularism cannot feature in the new constitution” sparked a widespread debate.
It was a long-forgotten debate. It is good that the issue has once again come under discussion, as this will make it possible to get a proper answer to the question: “What is secularism?”
The best way to understand the misconceptions about secularism is to look back at Turkey’s history. Turkey is the only Muslim country that features the concept of “secularism” in its constitution. The concept of secularism is among “the articles (of the constitution of 1924) whose amendment cannot even be proposed.”
In fact, the Turkish constitution was amended in 1961 and 1982 and the concept of secularism was featured in both of them as a non-amendable provision. Turkey witnessed several military coups, yet the concept of secularism was again preserved by the constitution.
Especially after the 1970s, those who called themselves “secularists” started using this concept in a different sense. During the 1970s, our teenage girls were allowed to cover their heads in schools and universities but things started to change in the 1980s and they were forbidden to wear headscarves. In the 1990s, in addition to women not being allowed to wear headscarves in schools, universities, and government offices, Qur’an courses and religious vocational high schools were banned across the country. Pious individuals working in government offices, the army and administrative positions were identified and blacklisted. In 1997, the ruling right-wing government was toppled by a post-modern military coup. In 1999, a parliament member walking into the parliament wearing headscarf caused a nationwide crisis. All of these were supposedly done in the name of “preserving secularism.”
According to the advocates of this oppressive system, secularism meant “being anti-religious;” it was a means to suppress the religious masses rather than liberating the society. If the country was Muslim, it had to be perceived this way.
Even AKP’s coming into power by a overwhelming number of votes couldn’t entirely bridle this bizarre, oppressive mentality that had taken hold in Turkey. Remembered once more due to its anniversary in April 27, the e-memorandum of 2007 was a memorandum that was imposed upon the government by the army over the Internet because of the fact that the wife of the then presidential candidate Abdullah Gul was wearing a headscarf. Were it not for the statement made by the government in the same period strongly criticizing the memorandum and laying an emphasis on a stronger secularism, the present-day Turkey probably would not be different than it was in the past.
Every right-wing party that came into power would still be toppled by military coups and memorandums, and certain deep powers would still continue to oppress the religious masses and repress the Islamic geography under the emphasis of secularism; and this precious geography could never realize that secularism does not mean “atheism” as these people believe.
In Turkey, the true meaning of secularism could only be realized after the government’s response to the e-memorandum of 2007. Secularism means that the state adopts the same attitude toward all belief groups. In other words, regardless of one’s belief, both that person and their belief should be under state protection. The statements made by the President Erdogan to Mona Shazly during his visit to Egypt in 2011 summarize the subject best: “The secularist state structure does not ensure atheism; it ensures the freedom of religious belief.”
In our lives, especially in the Muslims countries, there will always be people who try to distort the meaning of secularism. It should always be kept in mind that these people wish to exploit the concept to promote their nefarious designs. Secularism means loving, respecting and caring for every person equally, regardless of their beliefs.
In secular Muslim countries, believers should comprehend and get across the true meaning of secularism better. They should not give way to those who exploit secularism as leverage against religion. Secularism should cease to be used as an instrument of oppressing believers, and become a symbol of the freedom religion provides. Otherwise, just as in the old Turkey, left-oriented deep states might usurp all the rights of believers, stigmatize the people of that country as “anti-system,” and even oppose the existence of right-wing governments through military coups and memorandums. They might deprive the believers of democracy, and impose a system that will provide democracy only catering to their needs. In a Muslim country, they might throw people in jail just for being Muslims, impeding their rights and freedoms. Therefore, Muslims should act with a mentality that will end these wrong practices. They should be able to demonstrate that the concept of secularism secures both their own freedoms as Muslims, and the freedoms of others. They should be able to get across the fact that true freedom can only be ensured by the concept of democracy in the Qur’an, not by the oppressive practices of left-oriented deep states.
Adnan Oktar's piece in Arab News & National Herald Tribune: