The Sad Story of Turkish Secularism: Do We See Light
at the End of the Tunnel?
By Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
Secularism won its first and greatest victory in the Muslim world
on Oct. 29, 1923, when in Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came to power
and systematically proceeded with his program of secularizing that
remarkable Islamic country.
Ataturk began by putting the administration of all religious affairs,
including religious education, under his government's control. Then
in 1924 he ordered the army and the civil servants to wear the European
style hats, instead of the Turkish cap, the fez. A little later,
a law completely banned the fez and obliged all male Turks to wear
hats. On Feb. 17, 1926 the laws of Shariah were replaced by what
was almost a verbatim translation of the Swiss code. On April 9,
1928, a clause in the Turkish Constitution which declared Islam
the country's religion was removed and teaching of Islam in schools
was banned. A decree in 1928 discarded the Arabic script in which
the Turkish language was previously written and imposed the Roman
script. Attempts were also made to remove Arabic and Persian words
from the Turkish language.
In 1935, Friday was replaced by Sunday as the weekly holiday.
The old Turkish titles such as "pasha" were abolished
and family names were introduced as in the West. As part of this
new enlightening tradition, Mustafa Kemal assumed the family name
of Ataturk and became Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, although some people,
who would, I imagine, be considered ignorant and backward by the
Kemalists, still call him Mustafa Kemal Pasha.
After the death of Ataturk the imposition of secularist order
was continued by his successors. But although Ataturk and his followers
were forceful in introducing European dress, day of rest and the
system of family names, they showed only faint and theoretic interest
in another European tradition: democracy and freedom of expression.
Ataturk practically ruled as a dictator and those who succeeded
him ruled under a one party system. Opposition was ruthlessly suppressed.
The justification given by the Kemalists for their un-democratic
ways was the usual excuse of dictatorial regimes: people were not
ready for democracy.
But the Turkish people were ready for democracy. In 1946 the Kemalist
government was obliged to recognize at least one opposition party:
the Democratic Party founded by Celal Bayar, which was defeated
in the first election but came to power in the next.
As Turkey became more genuinely democratic, its Islamic character
was able to assert itself a little more. The national assembly was
soon obliged to discuss the re-introduction of Islamic education
in schools. But the Kemalists were still too strong and Islamic
forces still too disorganized. The discussion in the national assembly
resulted only in the introduction of Islamic education for two years
in primary schools and that outside regular school hours.
Yet even now Turkey is far from being a real democracy. Over and
above the elected politicians there stand the Armed Forces, something
like the Monarchy in Britain. Just as in Britain it is illegal to
insult the Monarch, so in Turkey Article 159 makes it illegal to
make fun of the Turkish Armed Forces. Prohibition of insulting the
Armed Forces is not the only restriction on the democratic freedom
of expression. If any intellectual or journalist criticizes Ataturk,
he or she can be imprisoned for as many as 15 years. A copy of every
book printed has to be sent to special police. Expressing socialist
ideas can result in imprisonment and torture. Women writers could
be gang raped by the police, as happened in the case of Asiye Zaybek.
Women students or professors can be thrown out of university for
covering their heads.
Kemalism was a product of a sickness from which Turkish culture
was suffering at the turn of the century. Due to military defeats
and other factors, the Turkish culture had lost much of its self-respect
and vitality. Kemalism thrived on this condition and tried to cut
Turkey from its roots, of which it was ashamed. But cultures never
flourish by turning against their own roots, except by a free and
healthy process of self criticism. It is therefore not surprising
that despite eighty years of Kemalism, Turkey has not moved forward.
Bribery and other forms of corruption are the order of the day.
Economically, the country's condition is mediocre at best of times
and in technology it is behind many Muslim and Asian countries.
The way for Turkey to move forward was not to impose secularism
on its people, put European hats on their heads, rest on Sundays
and write their letters in Roman script. The way for Turkey and
for every Muslim country to move forward has always been, and will
always remain, to find, out of its Islamic past a vision of the
future and then to move with faith and courage to realize that vision.
The convincing victory of the Justice and Development Party in
last election may provide a glimmer of hope that this may have started.
But before we get our hopes too high let us keep in mind that although
the victorious party was founded by former members of a pro-Islamic
party, it has won its victory only after distancing itself from
its Islamic roots and promising that it will keep Turkey secular.
The pro-Islamic party itself was banned by the Turkish courts. Is
it any wonder that God is not hastening to send his help to us against
the aggression and oppression inflicted on Muslims by Israel, the
USA, and Britain?
Note: This article is copyright to © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. It
may be reproduced for da'wa purpose without making any changes.