Turkey’s “Problematic” Secular And Religious Cultures – Analysis


By Dr. Nazila Isgandarova

It is very easy in Turkey to be labeled by secularists or Kemalists as being anti-Atatürk or anti-secularist, and the first mental image that pops into mind regarding the accused is a conservative Muslim. However, the intensity of debates between the two groups suggests that Turkish political secular or religious culture did not progress much in the last decades. As Atilla Yayla wrote for Today’s Zaman, among other groups, which are suffering from stagnation or regression, the Kemalists are the worst performing of them all: “During the last 20 years, no prominent Kemalist intellectual, academic or columnist has emerged to bring vigor to the Kemalists or challenge their rival groups. Kemalist thought is gradually bleeding out, becoming archaic and anachronistic.”


Unfortunately, not only Turkey’s secularists but also anti-secularists try to lay the foundations of their claims to a higher authority. For Turkish secularists, this authority is solely Ataturk; for anti-secularists, it is Hadith, sayings or actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Anti-secularists accuse secularists of being anti-Islam; the secularists label secular and religious leaders as anti-Ataturk and see conservative Muslims as backward in many ways.

In their accusations against the anti-secularists in Turkey, secularists are right when they accuse the latter group in encouraging the stagnation of Islamic culture in Turkey. However, they forget that the majority of Muslims also admit that Muslims, unlike the past generations of Ibn Sina, Farabi, Ibn Khaldun, etc., are not progressive in terms of technology, science, education and theology. However, the main reason is not Islam itself but the culture of Muslims that was established by some radical elements in society which claim that what they do or demand is within the framework of Shariah (so-called divine law). These elements in Turkish society use Shariah as a tool to justify the roots of their claims in an ideal past. What these anti-secularists forget is that many Islamic practices changed as their context changed. For instance, many conservative Muslims in Turkey today give preference to solve their family issues within the modern family laws rather than Shariah, which is a remade product and material practice of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad. This is the traditional culture vs. the Prophet’s desired culture. The former is fixed and unchanged, but later is responsive to ideological, technological, etc. changes of time.

When Muslims lost the prophetic spirit and became satisfied with the stagnant Shariah instead of reviving it, they slowly lost the spirit of time and suffered from a mal du present, as Fatima Mernissi says. It means that Muslims lost the ability to survive the challenges of time and sought ways to flee from the present to the past.

Some Muslim scholars tried to diagnose and treat the so-called backwardness. Fazlur Rahman, for example, criticized the traditional Islamic legacy for its closing of the ijtihad doors and taqlid (blind imitation) for the decline of Muslims. For him, “Sunni Orthodoxy, which was claimed to be true or original Islam, has also a share in this underdevelopment because it made Ijma static and backward-looking.”

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, also realized it and started a revolution to reform Muslim society and make it competent relative to the West. His revolution was not against Islam but against the ignorance and backwardness of Muslims, which prevented them from progressing in many areas of life. Ataturk wanted to cure and heal the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe,” a nickname that had been used to describe the Ottoman empire which was experiencing a time of political, economic, spiritual and religious impoverishment starting from the 17th century. Ataturk tried to reform political, economic, social, etc. problems in Turkish society. His ideas gave fruit not only in political life but also in social and educational life, slowly but steadily. Of course, as in any political reform, it had mistakes, especially with the misunderstanding of his legacy by later generations, which accepted his reforms as an elimination of Islam in public under the religious reforms. However, modern Turkey owes Ataturk for renewal in many areas of Islam, including education and family life. We also owe him for his reconstruction of Islamic theology.

Some of Ataturk’s contemporaries interpreted it as a war against Islam in Turkey. Even today, some people argue that Ataturk’s legacy resulted in bank interest, family planning, a change in the roles of sexes in society, state tax vs. the collection of zakat, and so forth. For them, these reforms moved Muslims in Turkey away from Islam. Fazlur Rahman said these radical Muslims still call for bans against freedom on bank interest and family planning, revising the status of women (contra the modernist), reinstating the forced collection of zakat, and so forth – things that will most distinguish Muslims from the West. But the more they fight to distinguish themselves from the West, the more they are haunted by the West through repulsion.

These elements of Turkish society are paranoid of Western influence on Turkish Muslims, and the so-called secularists are also paranoid of Islamic revival in Turkey and are haunted by it. This must be a reason why secularists try to use Ataturk to attack conservative Muslims in Turkey. However, they again forget that Ataturk’s vision of Turkish society was to make it modern in technology, Turkish in identity, and Islamic in the realm of spirituality, religion and ethics. For example, Ataturk wanted Muslim women to be active in political, social, economic life, but so-called secularists are not so happy about it. This must be a reason for their aggressive attitude toward Merve Kavakçı, who became the first member of parliament with a headscarf in Turkey in 1999. They did not allow her to take her oath of office and banged their fists on tables and shouted “Get out.” Even the true secularists could not tolerate their behavior. Bülent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party and former Prime Minister, said: “Please put this woman in her place.” He then elaborated his words by pointing out: “No one can interfere with the dress code or the headscarf or the private life of a woman; however, this is not a private abode. It is the highest institution of the state. Those who work here have to abide by the laws and customs of the state. This is not a place to challenge the state.”

The action of those secularists, who claimed to be protectors of Ataturk’s principles but prevented Muslim women from studying in universities, working in government institutions, or being elected as party leaders or members of parliament in headscarves, demonstrated the backwardness of so-called Turkish secularism. Their behavior at that time was not different from those radical Muslims in Turkey who refused to send their daughters to public schools and universities in the name of Islam.

Nevertheless, both the so-called secular and anti-secular cultures in Turkey are not fixed and are subject to change. If some powerful groups try to fix secular and anti-secular cultures in Turkey, it will become a barrier before development in many fields, including education, family life, science, technology, etc. Turkish society needs freedom from all sorts of exploitations of secular and anti-secular propaganda in social, spiritual, economic, and political areas of life.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *