We, the people of Turkish origin living outside Turkey, are often asked the question “Is Turkey secular?”
For years, I have always given the same answer: “Let us first agree on what we understand by the word secular, and then I will explain whether it is or not”.
Indeed, in both of the contexts that I use this word—namely France and Turkey—the concept is contaminated. It is used for very different and sometimes contradictory norms, policies and situations. Is it a system, a way of being? Or is it a belief in itself? Some clarification is needed.
The possibility of Turkey becoming secular remains vitally important, as it can set an example for the compatibility of a Muslim society with a secular political system.
Of course, the concept of secularism has a dynamic character that has changed in different ways over time. The secularism of 1924, when the caliphate was abolished, is not the same as the secularism of Turkey today, which has been ruled by an Islamist party for more than 20 years. Nor is secularism perceived in terms of the “secular nature of laws” the same as the secularism that shapes behaviors in daily life.
The concept of “secularism” in Turkey should be analyzed in its three contradictory aspects.
- Political secularism: This includes the state’s approach to religious issues, especially those of the dominant religion, Sunni Islam. Political secularism can also be interpreted in an ideological sense. In this case, it is the discourse and actions of political movements, and their relationship with religion.
- Legal secularism: This is the constitutional and legal framework interpreted by the legislative and judicial branches, which have been dominated by political Islam in the last two decades.
- Social secularism: This is a social condition that can be characterized as secular. Whether social standards of behavior are Islamic or not, this context is included in the debate on secularism in Turkey. Visibly religious behavior (dress, food, drink, language…) of individuals or groups – especially those seen as “Islamist” – can also be seen as contrary to secularism.
In short, the question is: can and should the individual be secular?
Regarding political secularism, the answer is simple.
Turkey is a not secular country, neither as a political system nor in terms of political discourse. The state has an official religion, Sunni Islam. The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is one of the most important ideological instruments, whose power and scope has been growing and expanding since 1980.
Before 1980, when the state was interested in a secularizing, Diyanet served this end. After 1980, however, it was transformed toward its current religious orientation, when the state began to see Sunni Islam as the strongest obstacle to communism.
Beginning in the late 1990s, when political Islam gradually seized power, Diyanet became the most important tool for reversing secularization. It became a megaphone through which the state’s message to the public was conveyed, not only on religion, but also on every issue from taxes to earthquakes, health to security.
In this process, Islamic political discourse became normalized and took center stage. The prayer rug and the “besmele” (basmala, or reciting bismillah) became the common objects of politics.
From a political point of view, therefore, Turkey is not secular. It never was, but it is even less so now.
In legal terms, the question of whether Turkey is secular or not is a bit more complicated. Even though the state is not separate from religion and the official religion has been imposed in education since 1983, the legislature has not enshrined religious impositions in law since at least 1937. More precisely, the law has not sought its legitimacy in Sunni Islam since 1937.
During the AKP rule, an attempt was made to weaken this situation in three different ways: the Penal Code, the Code of Obligations and the Civil Code. The AKP failed in the first two and achieved partial success in the third, thanks in particular to the resistance of civil society.
In the Penal Code, the issue was the re-criminalization of adultery. And this bill was introduced in 2004, right after the AKP came to power. Under the old Penal Code No. 765, the act of adultery was criminalized, and articles No. 440-444 provided for imprisonment for the husband and wife for this offense.
However, since these regulations violated the principle of equality, they were amended in accordance with Article 10 of the 1982 Constitution, which states that “Women and men have equal rights.”
Since coming to power, the AKP has twice attempted to re-criminalize adultery. The attempt in 2011 was just rhetoric, but there was a serious attempt to include adultery in the new Penal Code in 2004. The initiative was abandoned after the European Union announced that the re-criminalization of adultery could affect Turkey’s full membership negotiations with the EU.
In 2013 and 2020, the AKP again tried to demonize interest rates through the prism of religious interpretation, and interventions were duly carried out both in the market and in the Central Bank.
In 2013, in a draft law on Obligations and Trade, Erdogan’s party argued that there was an “interest lobby which should be banned” under the guise of “consumer protection.” But despite all efforts of the one-man regime, this ban could not be imposed thanks to the pressures of the market. In other words, the market is still “secular,” despite 20 years of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule.
The area where the Islamist government has made progress in the legal field is the civil code, which is the soft spot of the religious-secular law relationship.
Since the adoption of Civil Code in 1926, which is by and large a translation of the 1912 Swiss Civil Code, imams and muftis could not perform marriages. At the very least, an “imam marriage” could only be performed after a civil marriage and was not officially recognized.
This regulation was not changed with the adoption of the new Civil Code in 2002. However, in 2017, citing the “overburdened municipalities”, the government introduced a new regulation allowing muftis to perform civil marriages at the same time as religious marriages.
Due to the dominant position of the government in legal circles and the media, this new regulation did not arouse resistance from civil society, except for some marginal discussions within secular circles.
This means that if the Islamist coalition of AKP/MHP, and its new partners HÜDAPAR and Yeniden Refah Party, remains in power after the elections in May 14, the legislature and the executive will be completely in the hands of a fundamentalist group, and the legal secularism that has been so far barely preserved will be consigned to history.
This article was originally published in Turkish by Radar Gazete.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press