A tale of two secular republics

Like France, Turkey too is a secular republic. Secularism is one of constitutional principles that even to propose changing is banned. Yet, judging the paths taken by the two presidents Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Macron they are going at almost diametrically opposite directions.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an important speech on Oct. 2 in Mureaux in which he tackled major issues concerning the secular republic and republican citizenship. Like France, Turkey too is a secular republic. All the more so, secularism is one of constitutional principles that even to propose changing is banned. Yet, judging the paths taken by the two presidents Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Macron, and yes Turkey too now has a presidential system, they are going at almost diametrically opposite directions.

In his speech President Macron underlines the facts that secularism is the cement that binds the republic together. He defines it as the full freedom of worship and the total neutrality of the state towards religions. I guess not to fall into the Sarkozy trap, he talks about bringing the republic back into peoples’ lives and that love cannot be forced upon citizens but must be earned by government. There is the long term education and social policy efforts there as well.    

Yet Mr. Macrons’s plan is not only a starry-eyed new deal sort of a “France Relance” dream, it has teeth as well. All the more so, for the cynical minded, all the social and education bits may be considered as sugar coating for the bullet inside. That bullet is the counterterrorism bit that even involves -with the new law that will amend 115 years old famous 1905 law- the right for the governors to replace mayors as caretakers.    

Macron perceives an existential threat against the republic emanating from what he calls radical separatist islamism. Appearing to have quite an inspiration from Houellebecq’s “Soumission” novel, the French president is convinced that the time to act is now and the republic must dig itself in the philosophical trenches for the long haul. Like in cancer treatment, the French president wishes to attack the “parallel order” with all different tools he has at his disposal. 

As expected, Ankara was not late to come up with its own statement from the Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu who took offense from the expression “Islam des lumieres” and hammers in “our sacred religion” which itself is problematic coming from another secular republic. Çavuşoğlu accuses France with “islamophobia” and “dealing with Islam only from a security angle.” In my reading, Mr. Macron uses pinchers to tackle the subject to do just the opposite but I am not the foreign minister.

Turkey and France may be likened to two enemy twins. Turkish republic’s administrative structure is mostly modelled on the French third republic. France changed gears in the meantime numerous times to get into the fifth republic whereas Turkey waded into its second only most recently and it is still pretty much work in progress. The political debate is also on in Turkey about whether its so-called second republic is actually mostly about the long term dismantling of the first one. 

To my mind the present battle of ideas front which seems to be just opened between the two countries will be more vital and “bloodier” than the squirmishes concerning Libya, Syria and the East Med. One would hope not to see yet another shouting match between the two leaders but an educated and structured adult dialogue between the two governments. As President Macron, named Turkey alongside Morocco and Algeria, Mr. Erdoğan should be considered as one the main interlocutors. 

Foreign interference and fast pace radicalisation often times leading the way to join the “jihad” ranks in ISIS in the Levant are the main security concerns of President Macron. Maghrebin population in France (and Wallonie) can be compared statistically with the population in Germany with origins in Turkey. Although Germany too can have social integration problems, this is nowhere near the security threat perception in France. There, there is pausing food for thought I believe for Mr. Macron.

Furthermore, islamists, be them Shia or Sunni, of all various colours interestingly find political comfort in the UK and US much more than in France. Rightly so, in his Mureaux speech Mr. Macron emphasises the need in France to invest heavily in social sciences and laments the fact in the last decades, most ideas on the subject were imported from the US -again perhaps drawing an imaginary line between his and the national identity based ones by “Sarko l’américain.”

Although islamists of Turkey like their brethren elsewhere see in the US the imperialist “great satan”, they were also paradoxically enamored with the freedom of worship and proselytizing in the US. In the best of the worlds, there could have been meat there for reform in the first decade of the new century. The ship has long sailed now and the total difference of sociological “habitus” and the lack of rule of law cannot be more striking between the two secular republics today.      

The full text of Mr. Macron’s abovementioned speech is quite a long read but very much worth the detour in my humble opinion. Within the space reserved for this column it is only possible to explore certain avenues for future dialogue. At the same time, inside Turkey the battle for the soul of the republic rages on. It will take time to find common ground for the common good. 

Democracy is about consensus building but by default includes the fundamental right to dissent. In Turkey, the main secularist opposition bloc brandishes its final aim as “crowning our republic with democracy.” That leaves the taste of mashed potato in my mouth. As indicated here in previous weeks, I advocate rather the mission to be a “rassemblement pour la (nouvelle) république.” On that issue, closer academic and social cooperation between France and Turkey can help achieve much needed progress. 

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