The construction of national secularism

Turkey and Turkish history is a bundle of paradoxes. One of the biggest paradoxes centers on the ideal of laicism, which defines the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey. The issue of laicism and/or secularism has been a subject of frequent debate since the Ottoman Tanzimat, a period of centralizing top-down reforms that extended from 1839 to 1876. Since then, debates have focused on religion and religious institutions, and their effects on society and the state. The question “What is the true regime of the state? ”has occupied minds in Turkey in the past, just as it does today. Is this regime an Islamist regime, a fascist regime or a laicist one? In my opinion, it is one based on national secularism, which is the product of two-decades of work.

Turkey’s secularization that began with the Tanzimat era gained a firm legal basis with the removal of the constitutional clause that stated, “Islam is the religion of the state” in 1928. With the adoption of the laicism clause into the Constitution in 1937, laicism became the fundamental tenet of the regime. But there remained a problem, a paradox. The state never stopped controlling religion, and sometimes even reshaped religion to serve its own aims. In these situations, the state preferred to behave as if laicism existed, and imposed it on the people as a religion. In reality, it was behaving more in line with Rousseau or August Comte’s schools of thought.

Laicism is the product of centuries of religious and philosophical debates in Europe. While laicism in the West is a product of modernization, in Turkey it became the driving force behind modernization. This is another paradox. Sociologist Şerif Mardin argued that modernism happened through “secularizing government policies.”

The state is certainly not alone. Legionaries of the state who appear to be intellectuals and take pen to paper believed that existing problems would be solved only through behaving as though laicism existed. Towards the middle of the 18th century the administrative system of cameralism appeared, followed by the appearance of Jacobinism in French Revolution. Cameralism and Jacobinism are not ideologies; they are methods. Under cameralism, also referred to as enlightened despotism, kings used educational institutions as a top-down instrument of shaping and changing the people, thereby making progress towards “establishing a strong central administration.” Cameralism began to influence the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat period. But enlightened despotism in Turkey became most influential under the Young Turks (who came to power in 1908) and the early years of the Turkish Republic (established in 1923). The phrase “enlightened despotism” is itself a paradox.

Philosopher Durmuş Hocaoğlu argued, “Jacobinism has been one of the defining characteristics of Turkish Westernization since its commencement, and especially peaked during Kemalist reforms” implemented by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Hocaoğlu argues that the reason for this is that intellectuals noticed a negative trajectory, but did not know how to change tracks. He furthers that this desperation pushed the intellectuals to take refuge in ideological camps, and as a result their philosophical beliefs turned into ideologies, even religions, that were then imposed on the people. This is Jacobinism. Modernization was then effected through these junta politics of Jacobinism, in order words, through a laicism that was imposed top-down.

The best example of cameralism or Jacobinism in modern Turkey is Kadro magazine. Beginning publication in Ankara in 1932, Kardo was intended to develop an ideology for the regime. By institutionalizing the ideology of Kemalism, intellectuals such as Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, Şevket Süreyya Aydemir, Vedat Nedim Tör ve Burhan Asaf Belge meant for their magazine to develop the ideological substance of the revolution.

The adventures of so-called laicism in Turkey can be examined in five periods.

Between 1908 and 1950, the government implemented French-style secularism. By French-style secularism, I am referring to the appearance of secularism. Under this approach, the state attempted to reshape religion to fit the needs of the government. It imposed a new understanding of Islam that would be conducive the state’s goal of reaching the same level of civilization as European contemporaries. Changing the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish is an example of this. This policy was in line with the two fundamental characteristics of the state: laicism and nationalism.

Although the appearance of French style secularism continued from 1950 to 1980, in fact the state gave up on reshaping religion, and decided instead that instrumentalizing Islam to achieve its ends would be easier. Using Islam as a defense against communism from the Soviets was also in line with NATO policy.

The period from 1980 to 2002 is the period of “national laicism.” With the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, Turkish style laicism, in other words, Turkish style laicism, became the official ideology of the state. Religious classes became compulsory at schools. Bear in mind that according to the ideology of late-19th/early-20th century Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp, Islam is one of the central elements of the Turkish nation.

From 2002 to 2016, the regime appeared closer to “Anglo-Saxon style secularism” or liberalism. The religious freedoms guaranteed in the public sphere resembled liberal policies in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. But beneath this appearance of liberalism, Islam was made into a tool for even bigger projects. In this sense, this was an incubation period for the following years.

With the July 15, 2016 coup, “national secularism” was established in Turkey. Following the two hundred year regime crisis, the last step was taken in the construction of a Turkish nation. This last step is still ongoing. The pairing of Islamist and nationalist policies is a contradiction. Whereas Islam embraces a universal Islamic community, nationalism prefers Turkism and borders. For an ideology to adopt certain parts of Islam does not make that ideology Islam. Islam is an indivisible whole.

President Erdoğan’s rhetoric leads us to believe that he is an Islamist politician. The support he receives from Islamists in Turkey further reinforces this notion. But in the absence of the four tenets of Islamic thought—justice, consultancy, equality, and liberty—it is impossible to talk of an Islamist administration. In Islam, justice is the religion of the state. With the July 15 regime, these Islamic values have been done away with entirely, and replaced with Machiavellian policies that established Turkism disguised as Islamism. The presence of some Islamic values in the administration is not a function of Islam, but a function of Turkishness. Have no doubt: Ziya Gökalp’s ideas are being implemented.


This is why the current administration is not the plague of secularism of which some Islamist writers mistakenly complain. The current administration is Turkish-style secularism that is a contemporary version of fascism, in other words, national secularism.