Turkey: Can a Unique Democracy be Accepted?

According to Charles Kurzman secularism is a “concept in many Muslim communities, where it is associated with atheism and Western cultural imperialism” (Kurzman, 615). Kurzman summarizes the idea present amongst Muslims that secularism as a uniquely European ideology that has come about because of European dominance of the Middle East during the nineteenth century. Although I will not argue against the notion that secularism is a “Western” ideal, I will argue that Turkey, a country split between its strict secular Kemalist ideology and its Islamist identity, is negatively affected by the perception that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible with each other.

First, it is important to note that Turkish secularism reflects French secularism, or laicite. This is different from Anglo- or American secularism. For a long period of time in Turkey, secularism was enforced very strictly to keep religion out of the public sphere, the government, and its institutions, very much like the French model. In the United States, secularism is meant to keep the government out of religion, a policy that Thomas Jefferson defined as the “separation of church and state.” While for years the Turkish government has followed the strict French model, recently with the dominance of the AKP in Turkey there has been a shift in policy toward making secularism less radical. In Ayla Göl’s article, “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” she addresses the question of the AKP’s policy shift head on:

Muslim identity is not merely religious, but is an historical political marker and part of collective identity. Meanwhile, the AKP’s policies demonstrated that the public visibility of Islam usually functioned through ambivalence, which allowed a crossover between Islam and modernity and between secular and religious practices and identities. (Göl, 808)

Muslim identity is an essential part of Turkish culture that needs to be addressed in the country. While many fear that the AKP is “Islamizing” and threating Kemalist ideals, it is extremely important to note that the suffocation of Islam in Turkey, has detrimental effects the majority of its people who associate themselves very closely with Islam. For example, for years Turkish women were barred from wearing headscarves in public places, including public universities. The AKP has in fact, through its model of democracy and secularism based on Western principles, made a democratic leap, which allows Turkish people to express their religion. Recently, we see how this leap has the Turkish government focusing more on protecting religion rather then discarding it, a model that our very own country, the United States, is based on.turkiye-eu

Prior to rise of Ataturk and his radical secularist Turkish reformation, the Ottoman Empire governed with Islamic Sharia law, which dominated its judicial system. As secularist ideals, science, and Western philosophy began to infiltrate the Empire, Muslim writers, like that of Musa Kazim began to write in defense of Islamic religion in reaction to these new ideals. While Kazim’s writings may be dated (1908), his message resonates in modern day Turkey, with the implication that Islam and its institutions can evolve over time. He states, “the literature shows that all of the ‘ulama’ in every era wrote books in accordance with the needs of the day…We must also reform the theological books in accordance with the needs of our era (Kazim, 180).” Like Kazim’s approach to Islam, Turkey has also slowly accustomed itself to changing over time, in that its policies are becoming more lenient toward Islam as an identity in the country, not as a threat. Kazim’s writings are important because they defend the Islamic culture that Turkey inherently has, which is something that needs to be resonated in present day Turkey, even if the West or the European Union uses this Islamphobia as a basis for not fully recognizing Turkey in the EU, highlighting the pro-Christian/Protestant ethic that infects the EU.

This fear is most clearly highlighted in Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, in which he argues that people’s cultural and religious identities will inherently be the biggest problem our world will face post-Cold War. In his analysis he has a pro-Western ideology:

…common experiences of European history-feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they (the West) are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east…The peoples to the east and south…are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by shaping events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. (Huntington, 30-31)

With this statement, Huntington puts Muslim countries under a category of being inherently undemocratic. Throughout his paper he continues to use this hypothesis by using Turkey as a case study stating that “the most obvious and prototypical torn country is Turkey” (Huntington, 40). By establishing that Turkey is a torn country, it gives to the assumption that Turkey cannot be fully democratic because of its Islamist majority, thus making it undemocratic (Dixon, 44). This view does much harm to Turkey and further negates big strides that the country has made in order to become a more democratic nation, such as its efforts to allow more religious freedoms that were previously strictly prohibited.

In conclusion, scholarly articles, like that of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and simple encyclopedic definitions that Charles Kuzman gives us, leave Turkey to be characterized as a Muslim country that cannot fully be democratic or “Western.” These Eurocentric views that infect our writings and our vocabulary negate the culture of other civilizations like that of Turkey. If Turkish secularism removes religion from the public-sphere it “creates an undemocratic and oppositional state-society relationship” (Somer, 585). There is nothing wrong in trying to replicate another country’s democratic system, but it’s extremely important to realize that one’s own culture, like that of religion in Turkey, gives the people of that country identity. As the West keeps pushing for uniformity, more problems will occur in Turkey unless they begin to recognize the differences that make them so unique and important to this global world, which we have seen in the past years.



  1. Musa Kazim “The Principles of Consultation and Liberty in Islam and Reform and Review of Religious Writings,” in Modernist Islam: a Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (New York: Oxford U P, 2002) 175-180.
  2. Ayla Göl “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4 (2009), pp. 795-810.
  3. Charles Kurzman, “Islamic Secularism” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World.  Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 614-615.
  4. Kjell Nilsson-Maki. Turkey-EU. October 10, 2005. http://www.cartoonstock.com/cartoonview.asp?catref=knin120.
  5. Murat Somer. “Is Turkish Secularism Antireligious, Reformist, Separationist, Integrationist, or Simply Undemocratic?” Journal of Church and State. Berna Turam. New York: Palgrave, 2013. 585-597.
  6. Samuel P. Huntington. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs72 (3). Council on Foreign Relations, 1993. 22–49.
  7. Jeffery Dixon. “Turkey Islam, and the EU”. Contexts8 (4). Sage Publications, Inc. 2009. 42–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41960589.
  8. Monshipouri, Mahmood. “Secularization.”Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World.  Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 615-616.
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