Laicism’s definition changes in Turkey
2020 was a difficult year for everyone. The two avalanches in the eastern province of Van and a major earthquake in the western province of Izmir aside, the COVID-19 pandemic altered our lives so remarkably that we could not adapt to the “new normal” – embodied by face masks and social distancing. We could not even mourn those who lost their lives. As the vaccine against the coronavirus becomes more widely available, we dream of reuniting with our friends and loved ones.
The Hagia Sophia’s reinstatement as a mosque, which I was immensely proud to attend, was the best thing that happened in 2020. That step, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described as the “crown jewel” of last year, has been identified as a disaster by the Sözcü newspaper – an extraordinary attack on our society’s values.
In recent years, Islamophobia in Europe has repeatedly made headlines due to attacks and restrictions on Muslims. The French government has shut down mosques and forces imams to accept so-called religious reforms. We have been saying that imposing the “national religion” is a revival of Jacobin secularism and an impediment to freedom.
How deeply rooted Islamophobia is in predominantly Muslim countries like Turkey, however, seems to go unnoticed. Unhappy that a political party that meets Islamic demands within the limits of democracy is in power, the ultra-secularist opposition occasionally goes further than European racists in their attacks on Muslim values. Sözcü’s scandalous act, much like the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) heavyweight and former Cabinet Minister Fikri Sağlar’s call to combat hijabi judges, is an embodiment of Islamophobia.
The CHP’s chairperson, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, attempted damage control in anticipation of Sağlar’s comments hurting the movement by saying that “whether or not an individual wears the headscarf is their own business. My job is to respect their choice. I do not accept, nor do I condone, this kind of discrimination.”
Sağlar responded by issuing another statement in defense of discrimination. Accusing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of “exploiting religious beliefs,” he described the headscarf as “the polarizing and divisive symbol of the ideology of political Islam, which is backed by imperialism and capitalism.”
In doing so, the CHP heavyweight recited the Kemalists’ repressive, crudely positivist and anti-Islamic slogans. The ruling party, he said, was reactionary and opposed to the republic’s values. Those outdated Kemalist arguments cannot be undone by Kılıçdaroğlu’s vague criticism. Indeed, Erdoğan remarked that the main opposition party could not conceal its “racist traits” by displaying some hijabi members alongside their chairperson.
The CHP leadership must engage in a more comprehensive confrontation with Islamophobia among Turkey’s secularists. The country cannot be governed with Sağlar’s obsolete notion of secularism – let alone French-style, rigid laicism.
The principle of secularism must be defined even more loosely than the Anglosaxon approach in a Muslim society. Turkey’s opposition figures must not ignore our society’s transformation under AK Party governments.
Politicians with conservative backgrounds confronted and reinvented themselves. They accepted the diversity of lifestyles and effectively became guarantors of that diversity.
Obviously, individuals and groups continue to endure the “mundane” pressures of secular life. Those challenges manifest themselves in many everyday debates.
Yet, the idea that the state ought to discipline citizens and their lifestyles has long been abandoned. Normalization, from the headscarf to religious instruction, is an attempt to meet the democratic demands of a predominantly Muslim society.
Again, the AK Party government has been fighting against secularist-separatist terrorist organizations like the PKK/YPG as much as terrorist groups like Daesh and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) that seek to legitimize themselves with religion.
It seems that Turkey’s main opposition party needs to walk a long path before it subscribes to an approach to state-religion relations that suits the modern world and our society.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on January 7, 2021.