The latest hullabaloo over an academic appointment in Turkey got me thinking. What’s secularism for? Is it a good in itself? Or is it a means to ensuring greater freedom in public life?
Yunus Söylet was appointed rector of Istanbul Univesity and the secularists are unhappy. Why? Because the President likes him and what Gül likes they don’t, as a matter of principle. Because he has links to the ruling AK Party and the ruling AK Party is flirting a bit too much with religion. Because the current government have made political (read religious) appointments wherever and whenever they could and now having Gül in the presidential palace makes that so much easier. And secularists worry. But there is little that doesn’t worry the secularists.
Islamists worry the secularists. But the mildly pious worry the secularists too. The AKP government worries the secularists, as does Turkey’s traditionalist periphery. Traditional ways of life worry the secularists, but so do the EU’s demands for greater freedom of religion and expression. Secularists fear granting these demands would weaken secularism. But what is secularism about, if not freedom?
Still, the secularists protect what they value. Don’t we all?
But Turkey’s secularists have the army on their side, an army that has in the past ‘forced people to be free’ in one way or another. Now, you might say that the army siding with the secularists is better than the army siding with the Islamists, but I’d still rather the army didn’t side with anyone at all on this one. Because when you are debating the nature and boundaries of freedom and one side has guns, the debate is pretty much dead before it starts, even if the guns are with the good guys. Even if the guns are not used.
Secularism is a good thing, I hear you say. Protecting a good thing is a good thing, I hear you say. But is it?
What good is a good thing if it doesn’t do what it’s good for?
Turkey’s secularism translates to freedom from religion in public life. And that is fine by me. But it is not fine by many Turks. To each their own, you may say, only not in Turkey where religion has to be private. So a veiled woman has the choice of staying at home, removing her veil or negotiating public disapproval and legal bans on wearing the headscarf in public places. Because a veiled student, a veiled lawyer, a veiled teacher is a challenge to the secular republic and the modernisation project. But is she? Or is she the surest sign that Turkey is a modern, secular state within which a girl (veiled or not) is not locked up at home but free to choose, to study, to practice a profession? Only she isn’t. Not if she chooses to wear a veil. And the secularists do not want to relax the rules because they fear they may set a dangerous precedent. Today you allow headscarves in public buildings, tomorrow you move back to an Islamic calendar and next thing you know you’ll be banning alcohol and women won’t be able to drive any more, they say. To the secularists, any relaxation to the constitutional provisions banning religion from public life could push Turkey down a slippery slope towards theocracy. So they are taking no chances.
But isn’t democracy about taking chances?
A democracy may vote itself out of existence. That’s a risk you must take if you are to have a democracy. If you protect yourself against that, you’ve killed your democracy before the reactionaries even had a chance to think about it.
So what’s secularism for, if a veiled girl is not given a chance to be all that secularism allows her to be? What’s secularism for, if the pious are bundled with religious reactionaries?
What’s secularism for, if it can’t make religion less, not more, controversial?