Turkish modernization and laicism

Turkish modernization and laicism

Most probably, for the first time man, in reliance with the thoughts of the Enlightenment and modernity that is based on its fundamental assumptions, has assumed the inherent right to interfere with religion.

At least the classical era of the Enlightenment period provides concrete examples of this. Said interference is still in effect in Turkey in an exaggerated form; this interference is embedded in the legal and educational system as well as daily culture. Strangely, this policy attracts support from politicians, scholars, writers and intellectuals. Serdar Turgut, at a time when he was serving as a columnist at the Hürriyet daily, responded to complaints from individuals regarding restrictions over religious freedom by stating that they had no option but to change their religion.
After pointing out this fundamental matter, it is possible to argue that the Turkish style of laicism is actually based on such a conceptual framework because of some historical reasons. I think this is closely related to the Turkish modernization project.

Turkish modernization is not a recent phenomenon; it did not come to the forefront with the arrival of a republican regime. It was formulated in the 19th century first. The Turkish modernization project designed by Mahmud II seemed to appear as the choice of the state; it was subsequently defined as Westernization and based on a non-religious concept. The three basic assumptions of the Turkish modernization project may be summarized as follows: It emerged as the preference of the state, and because of this, the state and state actors acquired a dominant position in the determination of its content. This also led to the ignorance of the democratic rights of the masses and the people. Maybe modernization was a requirement and a need, and maybe it is still able to respond to some important needs. But this is the case because the state makes its choice towards this end. Modernization was the choice of the administration in the Ottoman era and then it became the preference of the state.

      Secondly, modernization was viewed as purely a Westernization attempt, and this attempt sought to make sure that social life was adapted to the Western lifestyle. This was the primary assumption of Mahmud II. This is the leading factor that led to the perception of modernization as a modernization process. Modernization has always been seen as a form, a formal change and a combination of symbols.

Within the context of modernization policies, the state assumed a dominant position and mission to impose modernization by relying on this position.

Thirdly, modernization was seen as a non-religious process. Attributing the retreat of the Ottoman state in the fields of military, economy and politics to religion is the primary reason for the negative stance of the ruling elite vis-à-vis religion. The state elites viewed religion as contrary to development, progress and modernization. In consideration of this assumption, they sought to make religious scholars ineffective in the administration of the state and replace them with a new group of intellectuals. In other words, according to the jointly held conviction of state actors and intellectuals, religion was against development and modernization; for this reason, it should have been purged from not only public affairs but also from daily life.

At this point, a problem fairly different from the one encountered in the West should be recalled: In Islam, there is no clearly defined boundaries of a religious clergy and a church representing the body of God. Islamic theology rejects reference to an organized class of religious clergy and a body of religious leaders. Because it lacks a class of religious clerics that constitute the fundamentals of historical theocracy, the secularist claims have turned into a program to purge religion from social and individual life. The historical dichotomy that created laicism led the state to look for an enemy or opposition in the absence of two different and opposite actors (church and state); and in such a case, the state found its enemy in religion that it held responsible for underdevelopment and lack of progress. In conclusion, if laicism fails to acquire democratic content, the historical clash that Turkey has been going through for over a century will repeat itself in the Middle East, in case Turkey seeks to present itself as a model to this region.