At present, the perspectives and lifestyles of Muslims in Turkey are rather diverse. I am not simply talking about the religious spectrum of those who agree with one another and those who do not. The spectrum I am talking about is that of submissive and liberal approaches to the religion-state relationship.
Paying attention to the use of the terms secular and laic can be useful when understanding the color and shape of this spectrum. There is a broad use of the term secular in many sociological contexts. The term is usually used by religious individuals to refer to language and lifestyles. It may or may not reflect existing animosities and tolerances, but in every case, the term is used at a societal level.
Laicism, meaning the exclusion of clerical control, is always used to describe political systems. Even more important than the religion-state relationship, the term laical defines the relationship between religious authorities and political authorities. There is yet another difference in the use of these terms; anti-secularism is pronounced openly, but anti-laicism is only whispered behind closed doors.
Laicism is an essential framework of the Turkish constitution. The principle of laicism has existed in the constitution since the early days of the Republic. Additionally, the concept played a significant role throughout Islamic history.
This discussion of secular semantics is currently relevant because of a recent development involving the Chief Imam of the Ayasofya Mosque, Mehmet Boynukalın. He has demanded that the principle of laicism be removed from Turkey’s constitution entirely. Such a change would be highly controversial and thus, warrants discussion.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been dreaming of a new constitution in the spirit of the 1924 constitution since he first started openly talking about the necessity of a new constitution.
The party-state system, which the Justice and development Party (AKP) and the Nationalistic Movement Party (MHP) government established, was always going to be used to subdue party opposition. Just like the 1924 constitution, any ‘new’ constitution will certainly exclude the Kurds.
Despite my certainty in this regard, the possibility of bringing back the clause stating that “the state religion is Islam,” never occurred to me until the Chief Imam demanded it. Such an open demand indicates that some religious communities believe that a “critical threshold has been surpassed,” which makes this demand viable.
When the government converted the Ayasofya from a museum into a mosque via presidential decree this past year, the voices shouting, “We want Sharia law” became even louder. This was a sign of compromise between a religious consortium and political authorities.
In this respect, the Leader of the Main Opposition CHP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s response to the proposed change, saying, “I don’t think that’s possible,” transcends all levels of naiveté.
The development of insular language among Muslims occurred within the history of Islam as the state choose to support a submissive religious authority and subdue any opposing religious authority when clashes arose. As a result, communities began to refrain from expressing their thoughts and feelings openly.
This subjugation continued for ages and Muslim communities became voiceless over time. They could not practice the faith in their hearts, but also could rid themselves of it. Not only in Turkey but in almost all Muslim societies, religious groups became silent in the face of political authority, but maintained their religiosity and passed it down through generations.
Contemporary anti-laicism is based on the narrative that religion and must be closely connected to identity politics. Those who have made their individual religious perceptions into their identity, believe that state officials belong to their community and expect them to unite under the anti-laicism cause.
The state policy of having amicable relations with submissive religious groups while oppressing non-submissive ones, has led to problems within Muslim communities. While non-Muslim communities have lived peacefully and freely since the early days of Islam.
If we look back at jizya today, the tax paid by non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim societies, it may look antihumanitarian. But if we consider the conditions of the time, that system enabled minorities to preserve their beliefs, cultures, and institutions via taxation without forcing them to convert to the religion of their ruler.
In many places in Europe, before and after the emergence of Islamic states, people lost their lives if they did not convert to the religion of their ruler. This was the case until the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century. Governance was transferred from religious authorities to the secular ones. This freedom was given to non-Muslim minorities; however, Muslims were denied the freedom of diverse religious interpretations.
Laicism existed within non-Muslim communities since the time of the first caliphs of Islam until the Tanzimat political reform period of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 19th century. This system also brought extra income to the treasury. Within this framework, the present anti-laicism demands in Turkey are contrary to the history of Islamic societies.
The recognition of individual freedoms for religious minorities since the 7th century, should result in modern consensus regarding similar secular principles.
Unfortunately, this is not the case when we look at recent developments. The reason for this is closely connected to the subject of individual freedoms. During the Tanzimat political reform period, modernization replaced ‘subjects’ with ‘citizens’ and the ‘state-society’ relationship with the ‘state-individual’ relationship. This is an essential element of modern society.
However, sects, communities, and cults now rely on Islamists in power when demanding the removal of laicism, despite a secular order being the only way for all members of our society to live according to their beliefs.
As a result, the laity must be defended and preserved by those Muslims who support individual freedoms. Individual freedoms exist at the core of Muslim theology. Belief is genuine only when it is supported by free will and rational thought.