Leaving Islam




Turkey : A Case Study in Failure to Secularize

By Jacob Thomas

Kemal Ataturk was born in Salonika , in 1881. That city in northern Greece (known also as Macedonia ,) was still part of the Ottoman Empire . From his earliest days, he did not behave as a good Muslim; his mother often remarked about his lack of respect for “Allah’s Shadow on earth.” She was referring to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul , who was not only the Ruler of the empire, but acted as the Caliph of the worldwide Islamic Umma. Mustapha Kemal, as his full name was, enrolled in the army, and soon began to climb in the ranks of the officer corps.  

The Ottomans joined Germany and Austria against the Allies in WWI. When the war ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies, it appeared as if the Ottomans were going to lose not only their distant territories, but a good part of the Turkish heartland. Mustapha Kemal rallied the remnants of the Ottoman Army, and managed to defeat the Allies, and forced them to leave Turkey . He became the undisputed leader of the country, and earned the honorary title of “Ataturk,” i.e. the Father of the Turks!  

Ataturk had many ambitious plans for his country. He declared Turkey a republic, abolished the Caliphate in 1924, and invited Western scholars to re-write Turkish laws by secularizing them. Other changes followed in rapid succession: the Arabic-based Ottoman script was replaced by a Latin-based alphabet. Men were no longer permitted to wear the fez, and women were forbidden to wear the veil. However, we should not imagine that Turkey adopted a truly Western democratic model. This fact was made clear recently in an article published by the Italian online magazine Chiesa, dated March 22, 2006:  

“[…] in fact, Turkish secularism has little in common with the liberal, Enlightenment-inspired doctrine of the so-called separation between Church and state in the public arena. In Islam, whether fundamentalist or radical or moderate, there is no distinction between the religious and the political arena; the two realities interpenetrate each other. [...] In the Christian world, on the contrary, there are two powers, that of God and that of Caesar; these can be associated or separate, they can be in harmony or in conflict, as has often been the case in history – but they are always two powers, distinct from each other and autonomous in their respective areas of competence.”  

After the death of Ataturk in 1938, the secular tradition continued under the tutelage of the army. His successor, Ismet Inönü was a former officer in the Ottoman Army. He continued the policies of his predecessor. Certain basic Islamic traditions such as the Call of Prayer chanted in Arabic, had to be done in Turkish. And those devout Turks of Anatolia would no longer be permitted to go on the Hajj! Still, as the article in Chiesa put it

“But Turkish Islam, expelled from the public sphere, survives and prospers in civil society: in the numerous Sufi confraternities and in the pro-Islamic political movements that have emerged in recent decades. This complex Islamic movement includes various tendencies within itself, both the fundamentalist tendency inspired by the radical movements present in almost all the Islamic countries that preach jihad against the “atheist and corrupt” West and want shari’a to be the law of the state, and the moderate tendency that is eager for dialogue with modernity and interested in forming friendly relationships with the Western world. [...]”


Having explained the background of modern Turkey and the attempt of its leaders to secularize all aspects of Turkish culture, I submit the following thesis: The history of Turkey since 1918, serves as a Case Study in the Impossibility to Permanently Secularize Islam.   

Successive developments within the Turkish Republic , since the death of Ataturk in 1938, demonstrate that his great efforts to permanently change his country’s allegiance to Islam were not to be successful. Both he, and his immediate successors, failed to realize how deep-rooted Islam was, especially in the rural areas of Turkey . It would turn out that the citizens of Istanbul and Ankara , and other metropolitan centers near the Mediterranean, were unable to counter-balance the efforts of the faithful Muslims of Anatolia (central and eastern Turkey ) who sought to restore to Islam the privileged status it had enjoyed in the life of their country. The very democratic system that gave every citizen the right to vote eventually brought about the victory of a nascent Islamic party. This proved that more Turks preferred some version of the Ottoman Islamic tradition to prevail rather than the secularized ideology of Ataturk.  

I have been musing along these thoughts ever since the rise to power of an Islamist leader, Recep Tayyib Erdogan. Finally, an article in the Wall Street Journal of March 18, 2006, reminded me how urgent the subject has become. The title of the article was: After Ataturk.  The Interview with Mr. Erdogan had this sub-title: Talking Turkey with Ankara 's Islamist prime minister. It was conducted by Robert L. Pollock, a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. (Recep is pronounced: “Rejep.” The letter “c” in Turkish has the equivalence of “j” in English or French.)  

After exchanging some pleasantries, Mr. Erdogan remarked about a Turkish movie, “Valley of the Wolves – Iraq that Mr. Pollock had seen, and said, “They might ban you from re-entering the United States .” Now when the interviewer asked the Prime Minister whether he had seen the film, he did not answer directly but asked in return: “What did you think of the movie?” “To which I reply that it made me sad. While there are many things one might criticize about U.S. policy in Iraq the suggestion that U.S. troops are murdering and dismembering Iraqis to facilitate a Jewish organ-selling scheme isn't one of them.”  

next  > 





Articles Op-ed Authors Debates Leaving Islam FAQ
Comments Library Gallery Video Clips Books Sina's Challenge

  ©  copyright You may translate and publish the articles in this site only if you provide a link to the original page.