In the introductory chapter of his book, Talal Asad quotes Charles Taylor’s definition of secularism, which explains the emergence of secularism as due to “the attempt to find the lowest denominator among the doctrines of conflicting religious sects” and “the attempt to define a political ethic independent of religious convictions altogether.” (p. 2) Besides, Saba Mahmood is in agreement with Asad on this widely known definition of secularism when he tells: “The assumption is that the state, by virtue of its declared neutrality toward specific religious truth claims, makes religious goals indifferent to the exercise of politics and, in doing so, ensures that religion is practiced without coercion, out of individual choice and personal assent.” (p. 324) Yet Mahmood offers another explanation of the understanding of secularism when he reminds that, “secularism has sought not so much to banish religion from the public domain but to reshape the form it takes, the subjectivities it endorses, and the epistemological claims it can make.” (p. 326) Mahmood draws on a Foucauldian perspective when he points out the “regulative” aspects of secularism rather than clarifying its nature as a common ground for all religious practices. Yet one should be reminded that secularism as a regulating practice doesn’t mean that it prohibits religions; rather it reproduces them and constitutes the ways they are practiced. In this respect, Mahmood quotes Asad who defines the religious regulations of the state as the exercise of “sovereign power” (p. 327). Consequently Mahmood concludes: “I want to suggest that the political solution offered by the doctrine of secularism resides not so much in the separation of state and religion or in the granting of religious freedoms, but in the kind of subjectivity that a secular culture authorizes…” (p. 328)
In the light of what Mahmood and Asad suggest, one can suggest that secularism and “authority” (of the state as the regulating power) are bounded with each other for the ways in which secularism is instrumentalized by the state in order for the subjectivities in culture to be reproduced. In that regard, following Gramsci’s use of the term, one can consider the intervention and the practice of state sovereignty via secularism as a component of an “active revolution” which aims to transform the social fabric as opposed to the “passive revolution”. Mahmood’s and Asad’s definitions of the widely cited meaning of secularism being “the common denominator” for religiously diverse group of people would illustrate a “passive” revolutionary act since this kind of secularist policy intends to reform the society by means of conforming to the norms of the social fabric and cultural norms, traditions, etc. while basing its policies on negotiation and consent.
In his book on “Passive Revolution”, Tuğal mentions AKP’s success in establishing “the marriage of Islam and secularism” in Turkey (p. 5). In Turkey, the term secularism has long been reproduced around the meaning of “anti-Islamism”. As an illustration of the term, one should be reminded of the speech Tayyip Erdogan delivered at 1994, saying; “Hem Müslüman hem laik olunmaz, ya Müslüman olacaksın ya laik.” I think the best way to illustrate the points discussed around these debates of secularism in Turkey would be by paying attention to some cartoons which provide hints about the perception of this dichotomy constituted by secularism on the one hand and Islam on the other in the public discourse:
In this cartoon, the former leader of CHP, Deniz Baykal who is known for his secular emphasis in politics as opposed to Islamic one is illustrated; the main theme consists of secularism being the equivalent for a distinct religion or it being the God, dogma of the religion. I suggest this particular perception of secularism being mostly associated with Atheism and with what Islam is not has its rationale to be found at the early period of Turkish Republican era during the times when an active revolution was undertaken. For example, Turkification of praying language (İbadet Dilinin Türkçeleştirilmesi) and regulations on clothing in general (Kılık Kıyafet Kanunu) and prohibition of women’s clothes (çarşaf) in particular, positioned Kemalism as the official state ideology and the people maintaining Islamic cultural practices in daily life in opposition and in conflict. Kemalism thus was perceived as the enemy of Islamic practices in public space. Moreover Kemalists did not only prohibit various Islamic cultural practices; they also intended to regulate and reshape the religion in Foucauldian manner as explained before. In this regard, I take one official reform draft report in high importance. This report was prepared at 1928 by a group of republicans leaded by Köprülüzade Fuat in the Faculty of Theology of Darülfünun. Historian Hüseyin Sadoğlu briefly summarizes the report of religious reform package which focus around the theme of the Islamic practices to be re-established:
“Beyannamenin başlangıç kısmında dinin, her şeyden once toplumsal bir kurum olduğu ifade edilmekte ve dolayısıya kendini zamanın gereklerine gore yenilemesinin kaçınılmazlığı dile getirilmekteydi.” As evident in this sentence, early republican Kemalist scholars didn’t aim to prohibit religion; although they were secular in the sense that their goal was to distinguish religion from state affairs, they considered the revision of religion crucial and required. And that religion was Islam of course. The report goes on as follows:
“Bu bağlamda komisyonun ibadet reformu konusundaki önerileri dört başlık altında toplanıyordu: İbadet şekli, ibadet dili, ibadetin niteliği ve ibadetin fikriyatı. İbadet şekli daha çok mabetlerin mekan düzenlemesini ve hijyen koşullarını ifade ediyordu. Yani bir yandan camiler oturulacak sıralar ve dolaplarla modern bir şekilde donatılmalı, diğer yandan cemaatin, temiz ayakkabılarla mabetlere girmesi teşvik edilmeliydi. İbadetlerin daha coşkulu bir şekilde yapılması için sözlü ve sözsüz müzik camilere girmeliydi. Bu yolda sesi düzgün muezzin ve imamlar yetiştirilmeli, ilahi niteliğinde çağdaş müziği icra edecek enstrümanlar Kabul edilmeliydi. Ibadetin fikriyatına gelince, İslam’ın gerçek niteliğinin kavranması için bilimsel yoldan incelenmesi ve uzun vadede bu reformu benimsemiş kadroların yetiştirilmesi dile getirilmişti.”
This project has never been actualized but it is crucial in the sense that it displays the “imagination” of Kemalists who identify themselves with secularism being the separation of religion and state affairs. The church-like mosque models of the reformists on the other hand project an aim of Westernization, while it tends to regulate and transform the religious practices in the name of secularism. Kemalists claimed that they were reforming/modernizing Islam in the light of positivism in order for people to comprehend “Islam’s real character” (İslam’ın gerçek niteliği). As Asad underlines, modernity was a project and one of its crucial components was secularism (p.13). Yet what they proposed as the real character of Islam was offending the people living with Islamic cultural practices. These policies of secularism and reformation in Islam on the basis of Westernization, Modernization and Turkification throughout the early republican period resulted in the emergence of the dichotomy of Muslim vs. secular which is either associated with a Westernized identity or is accused of having established a new religion out of religiousness and anti-Islamism, a new God in the name of secularism as depicted in the cartoon above. From the earlier generations to the latter ones, this dichotomy was inherited and discussions of secularism (“Laiklik tartışması”) have long been debated in the public space and in the media continuously; Islamists condemning secularism on the one hand and secularists linking Islamists to what Mahmood explains as “backwardness and underdevelopment, which in turn are the breeding ground for social and political problems of all sorts.” (p. 333) Eventually, the term “laik” has been one of the most crucial indicators of individual’s identity, as visualized in the following cartoon:
In this cartoon, “laik” as an indicator of individual identity has been associated with “gender”; it is as if being a “laik” is equivalent of being a male or a female in terms of identity manifestation. The society is fragmented into two camps of “Laikler” on the one hand and “dindarlar” on the other, due to the authoritative policies of early republican Kemalists who were undertaking an “active revolution” for the purposes of transforming the culture all of a sudden. Throughout the Refah Partisi period, it was the secularists declaring “laiklik elden gidiyor!” instead of the Islamists who were suggesting the contrary since the early republican period: “İslam elden gidiyor!” With AKP coming to power with a “passive revolution” in Turkey following Tuğal’s formulation of the process, it seems that the debates around the terms secular vs. Islamist or Muslim came to an end. Is AKP the defender of secularism? If yes, do their formulation of secularism conform to the first definition that Asad and Mahmood provides, that is secularism being the common denominator of religiously diverse groups of people? Or is it the case that AKP is applying regulating policies in order to maintain control over particular religious groups, similar to Kemalists intended? Surely, one cannot guarantee that AKP mediates between different religious segments; it would not be wrong to reveal that AKP is in favor of Sunni Muslim identity. Can AKP, which is conducting Sunni Islamic policies in terms of religion, be considered exactly as the reconciler of the Muslim vs. secular dichotomy? Tuğal argued that with AKP coming to power by a passive revolution, “the regime was Islamized but did not become Islamic.” (p. 250) Is it truly possible that an “Islamized” regime can maintain secularism as a “common denominator”?
Asad, Talal, “Introduction” (pp.1-20) in Formations of the Secular,2003
Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermenutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation”, Public Culture, 2006 18(2): 323-247
Tugal, Cihan. Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge, Stanford University Press, 2009.
Hüseyin Sadoğlu. “Türkiye’de Ulusçuluk ve Dil Politikaları”, Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2003.