State/Church Separation in Turkey

Presented at The North Texas Church of Freethought October 3, 1999

Suppose you lived in a country where one of the ministers of the national government could proudly say that,

"[Our first President] was a humanist and international peacemaker. Few statesmen have served the cause of secularism and progress more successfully than he did. The ... nation, inspired by him, will not allow the religious fundamentalists, fanatics, and zealots to create an oppressive regime."

Would that be heaven on earth? Not quite. Rather, it would be the nation of Turkey, and the speaker would be Professor Talat S. Halman, Turkey's first Minister of Culture, who said this in New York in 1995.

Turkey has been in the news recently. There was the great earthquake there last month, of course. But there have been other earthquakes going on in this country. The Turkish government has been struggling against separatist Kurdish groups, for example. One of the Kurds' terrorist leaders was recently apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

But a larger and recurring struggle in Turkey is with fundamentalist Islamic factions. Not only separatist political groups, but theocratic religious parties have been so disruptive that the military has had to step in and disband them. There are Turkish Islamic Creationists who object to the teaching of evolution in the schools. Just this year there has been turmoil in the parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, over a member's insistence on wearing the traditional religious veil, or chador. Wearing religious garb is a form of speech, after all, an idea that is taken seriously in Turkey. And the government's official; stance is that of secularism and complete separation between state and church.

How can this be? Here, after all, is a country where 98 to 99% of people are Muslims. There are no cultural or historical traditions of state-church separation. Quite the contrary. In this part of the world, the heedless killing of infidels — anyone with religious beliefs different from your own - was the history and culture until about the 16th Century. In addition, whereas here in the United States we worry about the stealth tactics of religious political extremists, in Turkey the God-Nazis are much more numerous, better organized, and ruthlessly devoted to achieving political control.

So why isn't Turkey ruled by military despots exerting their control through religious institutions, like its neighbors Iraq and Syria? Alternatively, why isn't Turkey a theocratic tyranny run by Islamic mullahs, like another of its bordering neighbors, Iran? The clue is to be found in Professor Halmat's reference to Turkey's first President, as well as all over modern Turkey in the form of iconic pictures of this man: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk was born "Mustafa" in what is now Salonica, Greece, but what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1881. He is said to have been an accomplished student at the military schools of his day and was given the name "Kemal" by one his teachers, which means "perfection." But Mustafa Kemal was also a troublemaker. This was the time of the "Young Turks" who were critical of the Sultan and the Ottoman Empire's tyrannical ways. In 1908 they even managed to force a restoration of the constitution and parliament that had existed briefly in the 1870's. Mustafa wound up being banished to the role of a military attaché in Bulgaria. This is where he was when World War I broke out. Although he urged neutrality in that conflict, he was too far down in the hierarchy to exercise any influence. The Ottoman Empire subsequently found itself on the wrong side of that war, and, despite Mustafa's managing to repel the British invasion at Gallipoli in 1915, the country was eventually occupied by Allied forces.

At this point Mustafa was assigned the job of demobilizing the remaining army troops in the Black Sea region. Instead, he used his position and his celebrity status as a war hero to organize a new national army out of the resistance. This led in 1919 to the Turkish War for Independence, which ended in the Allies being driven out of the country in 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed the following year in July and, In October of 1923, the new Republic of Turkey was proclaimed with its capital in the city of Ankara. Mustafa Kemal was unanimously elected the country's first President.

In the fifteen years that followed, until his death in 1938, Mustafa Kemal instituted sweeping cultural and political changes in Turkey as part of an all-out effort to modernize the country. To begin with, he abolished the Caliphate and exiled the Sultan. He inaugurated the representative democracy that the "Young Turks" had long called for. But, more importantly, he instituted a complete separation of church and state and made secularism a bedrock principle of the new Republic. As Mustafa put it,

"The nation has placed its faith in the precept that all laws should be inspired by actual needs here on earth as a basic fact of national life."

Accordingly, the religious courts and tribunals, the Islamic sharia and piety police, were eliminated. A new civil code was borrowed from the Swiss, and a new criminal code modeled after the Italian system were put into place. New laws governing the conduct of business based on German practices were adopted. Arabic writing was replaced by the Latin characters of the West and additional language reforms reduced the numbers of Arabic words in usage. The Islamic calendar was replaced with the Western system, including Sunday as the weekly holiday rather than the Islamic Friday. The fez for men and the head scarf for women were banned. And women were given an equal legal status with men, including the right to vote. The foreign policies of the new Turkey were also consistent with these enlightened reforms.

In 1934 the "surname law" was passed and Turks adopted last names for the first time. The Turkish Grand National Assembly gave Mustafa the name "Ataturk," which means "the father of the Turks." Ataturk's 15-year rule, his policies, and his political philosophy became known as "Kemalism," after the first additional name he used, or, alternatively, as "Ataturkism."

It is said by many — primarily Turkish nationalists — that the reforms instituted during Ataturk's Presidency were enthusiastically welcomed by all Turks. This is a bit hard to believe. The same sources tend to idolize Ataturk himself in ways that go beyond well-deserved admiration and gratitude. He is called, for example, an "immortal hero" and it is alleged that he never had a military failure when it is known that British forces routed the troops under his command in Palestine in 1918. Although Ataturk certainly seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent and insightful man, a brilliant military leader, and an enlightened political leader, it is difficult to see the real person and the real spirit of the times behind what is now recounted of Turkey's origins as a modern state.

But there are some hints of what the reality may really have been and now is in Turkey with respect to the issue of state-church separation. For one thing, it is not as absolute as it might appear. The entire culture of the country, after all, is infused with the Islamic religion. By law, Islam must be taught in the public schools, though only to Muslim children and not to children whose parents are not themselves Muslim. So Turkey is definitely a "Muslim Nation." Still, under the Ottoman Empire, a large proportion of the population was oppressed by high taxes and the tyrannical rule of the Sultan and his ruling class. And these burdens were associated with Islamic religious leaders who supported and enforced them. So, when Ataturk's new government placed secularism as its foundation stone, it may well have been welcomed. Women, especially, might have recognized what they had to gain from accepting this reform. They certainly did benefit from it.

But the history of Turkey since the time of Ataturk is also marked by the role of the police and the military in counterbalancing a tendency to return to past prejudices and practices. Ataturk did not allow opposition political parties, for example. During World War II, his friend and successor Ismet InönÜ kept Turkey neutral until early in 1945 when war was declared against Germany and Japan. When the USSR attempted to include Turkey in its sphere of influence behind the Iron Curtain, the country instead decided to accept American military and economic aid, eventually joining NATO in 1952. It was only at about this time that opposition political parties were permitted, as a result of which Ataturk's own group, the Republican People's Party, assumed minority status in opposition to the Democratic Party

These names may be deceptive for Americans. For the Republican party in Turkey at that time stood for statism, while the Democratic party advocated for more private and individual enterprise. At any rate, the Democratic Party's policies eventually led to economic dislocations and increasing political dissent led by the opposition Republican People's Party. This was met with repressive measures which exacerbated the situation — as they always do — so that the army finally staged a coup in 1960 and, the following year, instituted a new constitution.

But the new government proved to be weak and it was difficult for any of the many different factions to either gain control or form a stable coalition. One of the new parties, by the way, now openly clamored for a return to an Islamic state. It won't surprise Freethinkers that this group called itself the National Salvation Party. By 1980, political unrest had reached the point where the army staged another coup, imposed martial law, restricted the media, and jailed thousands of suspected terrorists. It was three years before new elections were held. But by 1993 Turkey had elected its first female Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller.

Through all these years, and still today, the issue of human rights abuses haunts Turkey. Arrests without charges, torture, and mysterious deaths of people in police custody have plagued this country. And, while it isn't clear that it has a great deal to do with state-church separation, it has something to do with it. In 1997, for example, the Turkish National Security Council, which is dominated by the military, issued a statement saying that, "It has been decided that in Turkey, secularism is not only a form of government but a way of life and the guarantee of democracy and social peace." Against a backdrop of human rights abuses that have drawn worldwide condemnation, this sort of statement appears positively enlightening. Are they connected?

Now in Turkey there is a party called — again, it won't surprise Freethinkers — the Virtue Party. Its principals and supporters openly demand the scrapping of state secularism and its practical effects such as dress codes that bar religious garb in certain public places. Coincidentally, bombs and other terrorist attacks have been directed at those who disagree with these demands. But the Virtue Party holds 144 of the 550 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. "This is a struggle for democracy," a party official said.

This year, a newly elected member of the assembly stated her intention to wear the chador during parliamentary proceedings. "The headscarf is my personal choice in my personal life," she stated. But there were noisy objections to this "personal choice" because of its being an obvious religious statement in favor of Islam within the halls of government.

A complicating factor is that, in Turkey, people vote for parties and not people. This increases the ability of the political parties to function cohesively and to exert discipline in their own ranks.

Under these circumstances, it is likely that heavy-handed military and police actions and complaints about human rights abuses that are their natural result, are related to the issue of state-church separation. For Turkey has been and is now confronting a dilemma that is scarcely recognized in the United States, which is the inherent conflict between secularism and democracy.

On the one hand, as we know, absolute separation of church and state is vitally important. There cannot be religious liberty without government secularism. On the other hand, free speech, including religious speech — which is included within the notion of religious liberty — is equally necessary for democratic institutions.

So what should be done about a political party that advocates theocracy? What should be done about officials of the government, which stands for all the people, who insist on wearing religious garments and symbols that say, in effect, "I stand only for people who share my religious beliefs?" What should be done about people who run for political office on claims that deliberately hide or minimize their intent to legislate, enforce, and/or interpret laws that fit their own religious beliefs at the expense of those of others?

In the United States these problems are ignored as being minor, if not the deluded fears of the paranoid. When they do come up, they tend, by and large, to be addressed properly. But perhaps that is only because they can be addressed properly. We can count on two fingers, for example, the number of Christian fundamentalist terrorists who remain at large, both of them responsible for murdering people who worked at abortion clinics.

Right here in the Metroplex, in Arlington, we had a case of one lone policeman who insisted on wearing a Christian cross on his uniform. His superiors wisely refused to permit this, on the grounds that it was a state-church separation violation and that it challenged and undermined the whole point of policeman wearing uniforms. Despite loud outcries from some that the policeman's religious liberties and civil liberties were being violated and that he was being forced to renounce (!) his religion and offend God (as if God ever said he wanted people to wear little crosses or WWJD's or whatever!), the decision, thankfully stood.

We also have access to a lot of information in the United States when it comes to election time. Although it may seem that we never learn the full story about the follies and misbehaviors of candidates for political office until after we elect them, the David Dukes and the Pat Robertsons and the Louis Farrakhans are known to us. While people like them do have power and influence, and they would certainly have more if political parties got the votes and could decide who to put into Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court, it is very unlikely that they would be elected to high office.

Finally, we have one thing more that allows us the luxury of enjoying both secularism and democracy without the difficulties faced by the Turkish people who are struggling to keep these two principles from destroying each other and their fragile country. We have, not just one religion, but many. To paraphrase Voltaire, who was speaking of 18th Century England, when there is only one religion, there is danger of despotism. If there are two, they will cut each other's throats. But when there are many, they must live together in peace and happiness.

It is difficult — perhaps impossible — to say what should happen, could happen, or might happen, much less what will happen in Turkey in the coming years as Islamic fundamentalism becomes stronger and more emboldened. But whether its people struggle on as they have, or become subject to a Mullah-ruled theocracy like Iran, or something else happens, it is well to consider something that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself said. Something may have been lost in the translation, since it is not especially poetic to our ears, but the idea remains a powerful one that is applicable whenever we think about what state-church separation means in practical terms. Ataturk said that:

"Mankind is a single body and each nation is a part of that body. We should never say, 'What does it matter to me if some part of the world is ailing?' If there is such an illness, we must concern ourselves with it as though we had the same illness.

The illness that is of most concern to us, of course, is that of superstition.

"If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two, they would cut each other's throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."

- Voltaire (1694-1778), French philosopher, author. Letters on England, Letter 6, "On the Presbyterians" (1732).