The Ambiguity of Turkish Secularism by Edip Asaf Bekaroglu

Turkey defines itself, like most nations, as a miraculous and exceptional state. This uniqueness discourse inspires Turkish people to imagine themselves and their nation as superior and special compared with other nations of the Muslim world. Being a secular democracy is the first and foremost characteristic of this uniqueness; and this discourse cuts across all political and ideological divisions, and is shared alike by seculars, conservatives, liberals, nationalists, socialists and communists in Turkey. One of the most significant expressions of this discourse came from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the prime minister of Turkey and the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). After a trip to post-Arab Spring Egypt in September 2011, Erdoğan declared: ‘in Turkey constitutional secularism is defined as the state remaining equidistant to all religions…I recommend a secular constitution for Egypt. Do not fear secularism because it does not mean being an enemy of religion. I hope the new regime in Egypt will be secular.’

Nevertheless, there have been ongoing debates about the degree of secularism in Turkey or the kinds of secularisms marking certain historical periods. It is common among liberals or religious Muslims to consider the Turkish experience as a replica of la laicité en France in terms of not being tolerant to religion in the public sphere. Leftists and Alawis, on the other hand, accuse the Turkish state of having deficiencies in its model of secularism because of attaching a particular importance to Sunni Islam to define Turkish national identity. A broader question would be whether Turkish secularism is oriented more towards controlling religion for the sake of the state or separating it from the state for the sake of both. Lately, however, historical categorisations have been more popular. By taking the religiously conservative AKP government as a turning point, Turkish secularism is categorised into two periods: authoritarian (or republican) secularism close  to the French model that marks the pre-2002 period and inclusive (or conservative) secularism  in line with the Anglo-American model that has risen with AKP  rule. Post-2002 Turkey is also regarded as a post-secular era, implying the end of authoritarian Turkish secularism.

I argue that Turkish secularism is too ambiguous to fit these conceptualisations, categorisations or models. This is not to say that they simplify the reality, but rather they distort it.