Prof. Dr. Suna Kili, Bogazici University
It is a well-known fact that radical changes of political and social transformations do not necessarily follow a unilinear line. At times and occasionally there may be attempts at complete or partial reversions to the old order. Turkey’s case is no exception to this general phenomenon. In contemporary Turkey radical change is still represented by the Kemalist reforms with direct implications for Turkish political life and Turkish constitutionalism in general and education in particular.
After the successful termination of the War of Independence (1919-1922), the task of the Kemalists was to transform Turkey into a modernized, industrialized, and secularized nation-state. They did not feel the need to maintain elements of traditional culture as has been the case with most nationalist leaders of developing countries. Religion was not used to mobilize the masses in Turkey as has been and is still the case in such countries as Iran and Libya. The Kemalist idea of a national community ran counter to the Islamic conception of a community which is essentially religious. For this reason education was not looked upon by the 1920 revolutionaries, the Kemalists, as a means of preserving traditional order but as a means of its total transformation because the inherent characteristics of Ottoman culture were viewed as impediments to nation building and to the assertion and development of Turkish culture.
The Kemalist reforms constituted a turn of history for the Turkish nation: they involved the liberation of the nation from foreign control and influence, religious control, and theocratic allegiance. These reforms were directed, in the main, to strengthening the now central authority, to nation-building, to secularization of the Turkish state and society, to realizing political participation, and to bringing about changes in the socio-economic structure of the country.
The Islamic establishment opposed efforts at modernity during the Ottoman Empire and took an adverse stand to the National Liberation Movement. These historical realities facilitated the integration of Turkish people around a secularist and nationalist platform during the Kemalist period. Hence during the Kemalist era Ottoman-Islamic legacy was replaced by a national, secular, and political culture and Islamists were drawn into political in activity. Since the advent of multi-party politics in 1946 and especially since the 1980’s Islam has made a comeback, but it is still not interested in a reconciliation with the forces of modernity. In essence, the Islamic idea of legitimacy negates both secular legitimacy and secular authority. As is widely noted and accepted, political modernization involves rationalization of authority, the replacement of a great many traditional, religious, and ethnic political authorities by a single secular and national political authority.
The religious right in contemporary Turkey is fragmented, but in these Islamic groups an aversion to Kemal Atatürk can be easily discerned: the modernizing, secularizing policies of the Kemalist era and Turkey’s westernization processes during his Presidency are viewed as having been contradictory to the interest of Islam and to have alienated the Turks from their Islamic-Ottoman heritage by bringing Turkey closer to the West. But in reality Turkey’s national identity has become increasingly linked with the West since the 19th century.
The essence of the matter is whether Turkey is to be the secular Turkish Republic or the Islamic Turkish Republic? There are now increased attempts at making a dispassionate and objective analysis of the role of Islam in Turkish society, but one cannot observe a commensurate satisfactory objectivity on the part of Islam towards its role in Turkish society. To begin with, Islamic groups continue to make statements and announce policies which are incompatible with the secular political culture of modern Turkey or with the requirements and performance of a modern democratic state: they generally negate the nation-state, some toy with the idea of Pan-Islamism, and still some opt for an exclusive alliance with the Moslem countries.
Furthermore, they have not abandoned their commitment to a religious-oriented educational system. Islam in Turkey has to accept the reality of the Ataturk Revolution and Ataturk principles which enjoy wide spread acceptance and which constitute the very essence of the Turkish Enlightenment.
Islam in Turkey needs a renaissance–a rebirth. It has to rethink its values and role in a modern society. And not for political and/or, tactical purposes, but in reality and in spirit it has to learn to live with other groups and organizations, and it has to decide whether it wants to be the protagonist of reaction or of enlightened conservatism. Their choice is likely to have a great impact upon the course of constitutional and political developments in Turkey.
Three important realities have to be borne in mind in assessing the role of Islam in the viability of secularism in
Turkey and they are the following: Firstly, Turkish people are endowed with certain qualities that have prepared them to read a modern content into Islam.
Their pragmatism, their pro-Islamic history and culture, their acceptance of Islam two centuries after its birth, and, their experiences as empire-builders with diverse cultures and nationalities may all have helped the Turks to acquire certain cultural traits which enable them to be more tolerant of other civilizations and to have a more flexible understanding of religion than other Moslem societies. During the height of the Ottoman Empire, there were ample examples of this flexibility be it the portrait painting of Mehmed the Conqueror or the Laws promulgated by Suleiman the Magnificent.
Secondly, since the 19th century Turkey has made concerted efforts towards modernity which introduced and enriched secularist thought in the country. Moreover, Turkey has an accumulated experience in constitutional government for over one hundred and fifty years. Furthermore, the Kemalists made a frontal attack on the remnants of the religious-based legal, political, and educational institutions. Turkey is the only secular Moslem state in the world and this is a natural culmination of all the aforementioned historical, political, and cultural realities.
Thirdly, the secularist and modernist Kemalist groups are still strong in Turkey and for that matter at present they are getting stronger by organizing themselves into widely-supported civilian organizations. And in this context the strong secularist and Kemalist commitment of the Turkish military must also be noted.
Now and ultimately the solution to the frictions between the Islamic and modernist groups in Turkey is not to be sought in the area of clash between these groups. Democracy is the solution. Tolerance for change, openness to dialogue and diversity, recognition and acceptance of the exigencies of modernity, enrichment of a pluralistic way of life, and the strengthening of constitutional democracy would constitute the main elements of this solution. But if we do read Turkish history correctly and If we do understand the developments in Turkish political culture fully, we can unequivocally state that the secularist, modernist ethos of the Turkish Republic shall continue and shall be paramount.