Save Turkish secularism!

Millions of Turks are deeply concerned that their country could become an Islamic state. Turkish citizens have demonstrated in three immense pro-secularist rallies: 500,000 people demonstrated in Ankara, almost a million in Istanbul, and a million and a half in Izmir.

These rallies show that while there is widespread popular support for an Islamic state in Turkey, there is also widespread support for Kemalism, the philosophy of Turkish secularism devised by Kemal Ataturk, who abolished the caliphate in 1924 and instituted restrictions on various Islamic observances, secularized marriage law, and above all monitored mosques and regulated preaching within them, making sure that the tenets of political Islam were not taught. Consequently the chief opposition to Kemalism has always been religious, as it is now.

Because most of the participants in these pro-secularist rallies are nominally Muslims, they illuminate the way forward for opposition to Islamic Sharia rule in Islamic societies. Onur Oymen of the secularist Republican People’s Party recently declared: “You can’t have democracy without secularism. The notion of moderate Islam to check radical Islam is nonsense. This idea being promoted by certain countries should be abandoned.”

At first glance Oymen’s distinction between secularism and moderate Islam may seem to be a distinction without a difference. Wouldn’t a secular government in Turkey, and a movement in favor of that secularism, be essentially a movement of moderate Islam?

However, identification as a Muslim is one thing, and acceptance of the principles of political Islam is quite another. Around the world today jihadists are targeting peaceful Muslims in their recruitment efforts, and presenting themselves as the exponents of “true” and “pure” Islam, including – as the title of a widely-circulated publication had it — jihad, “the forgotten obligation.” Part of this presentation centers on a reassertion of political Islam. Cultural Muslims who have no desire to live in an Islamic state nonetheless have been able to formulate no response on Islamic grounds to the jihadist challenge. The only response that has ever gained traction in the Islamic world has been not just a de facto laying-aside of Islam’s political and social character, but a self-conscious elimination of that character – and Ataturk’s Turkey has been the site of the greatest success of this approach. Ataturk realized that there would be a recrudescence and reassertion of political Islam whenever there was a revival of religious fervor. Thus Kemalism presented itself not as “moderate Islam,” nor as an Islamic construct at all, but as an explicit rejection of political Islam in favor of secularism. That is, it was never presented as an Islamic construct or justified by Islamic teachings, but was an explicit rejection of certain traditional aspects of Islam.

Ataturk became the first political figure ever in the Islamic world to reject — avowedly and without apology — political Islam in favor of a Western model of the separation of the religion from the state. While this would not forever prevent — as recent events in Turkey clearly show — a reassertion of political Islam, it would give the state greater ability to resist this reassertion, while a state that was nominally an Islamic one or that paid even lip service to Sharia in its Constitution would not have that ability. So Turkish secularism is predicated not on moderate Islam, but on premises that are not Islamic at all. And Oymen knows that any modification of Turkish law to change that will simply open the door to a full reassertion of Sharia — Islamic law — in Turkey.

It’s a principle with a much wider application than Turkey alone: for peaceful Muslims to prevail over the proponents of jihad and Sharia, they must be prepared not just to ignore, but to reject explicitly, the elements of Sharia that are at variance with accepted norms of human rights and with government that does not establish a state religion. Only then will they have a chance of defending those rights and standing up against the theological and societal challenge of jihadism. That is not just the Turks, but all free people, have a stake in the survival of Turkish secularism.