Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) in 1917. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan triumphed in a closely contested election in May, ensuring another five years in power and extending his two-decade-long reign over Turkey. As he edged out his opponent, Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, 52 per cent to 48 per cent, in the first ever presidential runoff in the country’s history, Erdoğan reaffirmed his control over a Turkey that is more divided than ever.

There are many reasons why the opposition missed out on arguably its best opportunity to oust Erdoğan in recent years, including the regime’s use of the state machinery to influence election results. However, a major cause behind Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat was his abandonment of the Turkish secularism that was rooted in the founding principles of the republic.

Turkey, and the CHP, were both founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, based on the ideology he propounded, which has since become known as Kemalism. The latter is best illustrated in his thirty-six-hour-long speech, Nutuk, delivered to the party’s second congress in 1927. Kemalism is often summarised using six bullet points, and depicted as six arrows on the CHP’s flag. One of these is laicism. 

Atatürk took up the task of creating a Turkish republic from the remnants of a long-decaying Ottoman Empire, where Islamic dogma had reigned supreme and was, indeed, a critical contributor to the realm’s downfall – despite the way that Ottoman sultans intermittently toyed with a skewed enforcement of religious pluralism as a means of exercising arbitrary rule over a multiethnic and multireligious realm. Their privileging of Muslim elite over non-Muslim populations, or Sunni over Shia majority regions, eventually created separate, non-Muslim nation states in Eastern Europe and sectarian fault lines within Islam across the Middle East.

Therefore, where secularisation would have been a practical remedy to the religionist quagmire in Turkey, the sheer extent of the Islamist inertia necessitated a state more assertive in its separation from religion. Hence laiklik, the Turkish brand of laicism that echoes French laïcité, was as much an existential requirement for Turkey to loosen its Islamist stranglehold, as it was a reflection of Atatürk’s own modernist worldview.

Yet when the CHP presented a bill endorsing the hijab in public institutions in October last year, Kılıçdaroğlu effectively surrendered his party’s secularist legacy. Turkey’s ban on religious and anti-religious manifestations in state institutions, the bedrock of laicism, had already been lifted a decade ago. Hence this provision of exclusive protection for sexist Islamic headgear was nothing but a comprehensive capitulation to Islamisation, and was clearly intended to win votes.

The CHP’s endorsement of the hijab was also an extension of the frequently regurgitated misinterpretation of laicism as an exclusively ‘anti-Islam’ phenomenon, which has been especially echoed in criticisms of France. The CHP appear to have conveniently forgetten that laiklik was, like French laïcité, equally applicable to all religious displays, such as the Christian cross. The CHP’s prioritisation of the protection of Islamic symbols, while the Turkish government has been busy demolishing, or converting, churches, including Hagia Sophia, represents a categorical abandonment of Atatürk’s vision.

It is not the departure from an individual’s guidelines, no matter how critical their position in any people’s history, that makes the renunciation of ideals damaging for a nation. In fact, the idolisation of Atatürk, which included a sweeping ban on criticising him, has helped foster the Islamist opposition in a country where laiklik has long been collectively treated as one man’s decree and not as the empirically provable foundation of Turkish progress. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have managed to successfully channel the religionist backlash, merging Islamist parties under one big umbrella that has now ruled over Turkey for over 20 years.

Many have deemed Kılıçdaroğlu’s legislative endorsement of the hijab a political necessity, since he was leading a wide coalition which included many parties that wanted to demonstrate their support for the Islamic garb. Supporting the hijab could be said to be especially necessary on a political level, given how hotly debated the issue has been in recent years. And yet Kılıçdaroğlu has admirably defended LGBT rights in Turkey, albeit without overtly supporting them, thereby categorically contradicting the beliefs of the same Islamist stakeholders. The CHP’s support for the hijab, including within the party’s own ranks, stems not from realpolitik, nor from an exhaustive endorsement of Islamic injunctions, but simply from its succumbing to the Islamisation of Turkish nationalism. The AKP have long used Islamic headgear as the unofficial flag of this movement.

As the Erdoğan regime has rekindled Turkey’s Ottoman past, using modesty codes as a way of Islamising society, and suppressing non-Muslim emblems as a way of Islamising politics, it has also used a newly found neo-Ottoman soft power to Islamise its diplomacy. Where global Muslims were traditionally drawn to glamorous Turkish soaps depicting lifestyles often violently punishable in their countries, in recent years they have been infatuated by shows narrating fictionalised renditions of Ottoman conquests. After undertaking the Islamisation of Turkey, Erdoğan aspired to position himself as the leader of the Muslim world, boosted by reminders of the Ottoman caliphate and its power over Islam’s holiest sites in the Arabian Peninsula for four centuries.

This is why Erdoğan has been the first to claim a ‘Muslim genocide’ in France over satirical caricatures of Muhammad. By doing so, he seems to be hoping to undermine laicism in France, as he already has in Turkey. Similarly, he has threatened to cut ties with Muslim or Arab states maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, even though Turkey has recognised the latter since 1949. A similar paradox can also be seen in the way that Erdoğan is still pursuing Turkey’s stalled application for EU membership, while simultaneously aligning the country more closely with the Islamic states that he is wooing. And yet it is precisely Turkey’s alignment with the Islamic states that might have actually cost the country its best opportunity to consolidate its position as leader of the Muslim world.

The lessons from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire were not limited to the Atatürk-led Turkey, but also extended to other parts of the empire, as well as the broader Muslim world, as states in these regions gained their freedom after World War II. In the Arab world, a secular nationalism emerged, albeit under the control of dictatorial rulers, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Some were swayed by the western powers that colonised the area: French laïcité, for instance, influenced Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. By the 1970s, which saw the rise of the socialist and Arab nationalist Baath party in Syria and Iraq, Arab secularism had become synonymous with absolutist regimes. The monarchy in Iran, led by the Pahlavi dynasty, and the republic of Afghanistan briefly proclaimed by Daoud Khan, also demonstrated the way in which secularism was adopted by autocracies in the wider Muslim world. From Algeria to Afghanistan, military regimes became protectors of secularisation because they wanted to quell populist Islamist parties and groups. In Turkey, too, the army was the defender of secularism.

When the region imploded into the Saudi-Iran proxy wars in the 1980s and the jihadist radicalisation that followed, in Turkey, the army stepped in, taking charge of the country following the 1980 coup d’état. Turkey’s membership of NATO helped protect it from the jihadist spillover, because NATO gave it support to resist jihadist infiltration and to fight against the Islamic state, while military rule prevented the Islamisation of the country. Unfortunately, just because secularism was implemented by the army, this only reinforced laiklik as a coerced ideology and further emboldened its Islamist opponents with their long-festering grievances.

Despite this, as jihadism wreaked havoc with the Muslim world at the turn of the millennium, it was Turkey that remained the bastion of Muslim secularism. Its proximity to the West, and its aspirations to join the EU, ensured that freedoms and human rights were provided with much better safeguards, in addition to the long tradition of uncompromising separation between mosque and state. As a result, Turkey remained the constantly cited inspiration for Muslim states that wanted to undo Islamist radicalisation. This became even more evident after 9/11, as jihadism spread around the world, leading to counter-efforts to defuse militant Islamism and reform Islam. Turkey was in the pole position to lead the much needed secularisation of the Muslim world; this would have been bolstered by the country’s transformation into a truly liberal and secular democracy. However, it was at this point that Turkey, under Erdoğan and the AKP, opted instead for Islamisation.  

As a result, the baton for Muslim modernisation has once again been taken up by a few totalitarian Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia. These kingdoms are largely responsible for the global explosion of radical Islam, the economic interests of which now align with selective progressivism centered on the support of these Arab monarchies. The failure to undertake a populist secularisation movement within the Muslim world, compounded by the failure of the Arab Spring, means that Islam, and its deployment at state, regional, or global levels, currently remains under the control of autocrats. And the ideological surrender of the CHP underlines the point that Turkey, formerly a model of secularism in the Muslim world, has conclusively capitulated to Islamisation.

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1 comment
  1. A great article that explains why Turkey has not been able to build on the Secularist state that Kemal Atatürk founded.

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