Is Turkey a secular state? asks Matt Cherry
By committing troops to the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, the Republic of Turkey again demonstrated its unique status: a Muslim nation with a robust commitment to secularism and the "Western world." The Turkish example has never been more crucial to the future of both the secular West and the Muslim East. Yet this natural bridge between East and West continues to be ignored and undermined by both sides. The modern Turkish state was founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Emerging as a military leader in the First World War, Ataturk subsequently led the successful war to force out the Western colonial powers. In the following decade Ataturk transformed Turkey into a modern nation. Making religious faith a matter of individual conscience, he created a secular state, where the vast Muslim majority and the small Christian, Jewish, and non-religious minorities are free to follow their faith or beliefs. A modern, secular justice system replaced Sharia law.
Women were given legal equality, including the right to vote, hold government office, and work in business. The Western (Julian) calendar replaced the Islamic calendar; and the Roman alphabet replaced Arabic script. Primary education was declared compulsory, and for the first time, the education of girls was promoted. In addition to his social and cultural reforms, Ataturk also initiated a programme for economic development in Turkey, which consisted of agricultural expansion, and industrial and technological advances. Ataturk described Turkey's new ideological foundation as "a creation of patriotism blended with a lofty humanist ideal."
Although far from perfect, Ataturk's legacy continues to flourish. Turkey today is democratic, moderately prosperous, and culturally rich. The state is still strictly secular, guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for all, and most Turks are practising Muslims. Over the past 80 years the Republic of Turkey has made far more sustained progress than any other nation with a predominantly Muslim population. And all this despite the absence of the petro-chemical riches of many Middle Eastern countries. Turkey's record on human rights and democracy has been mixedwith more emphasis on Ataturk's "patriotism" than on his "lofty humanist ideal." But Turkey has made enough progress to now be a candidate for joining the European Union within the next generation.
Unfortunately for both East and West, no other Muslim nation has successfully followed Turkey's model. On the rare occasions that a secular state has been established in a predominantly Muslim nation, for example Bangladesh, the forces of conservatism have swiftly destroyed the secular government. Secularism, and Ataturk's "lofty humanist ideal," has virtually disappeared from the Muslim world, while the most reactionary forms of Islam have grown increasingly powerful.
Fundamentalist Islam's triumph over secularism has many causes. So subtle and complex are many of these causes, that it is easy to overlook something as unsubtle as the role of oil money. The Islamic Republic of Iran has funded Shi'ite fundamentalism across the Middle East. More significantly, the immense oil riches of Saudi Arabia have been used to export its very conservative brand of Islam. Billions of Saudi dollarsfrom both government and private foundationshave been sent throughout the world to support Islamist groups preaching hatred of secularism and the West. Before 11 September, the West turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's financing of Islamic extremism. America in particular has supported the autocratic and corrupt royal familyso long as they keep the cheap oil flowing. The West has also failed to support the Turkish model of secularism. Christian conservatives, including the US government, are uncomfortable with the concept of separation of religion and stateat home and abroad. And many Western liberals have seen the promotion of secularism in the Muslim world as a form of Western cultural imperialism.
Ataturk did not subordinate Turkey to the West or deny his nation's history: he fought off the Western colonialists and promoted respect for Turkey's past (including its rich pre-Muslim history.) He took what he felt was best from the West to ensure a successful future for his peoplescience, technology, secularism, democracy, humanism, and human rightsat the same time as promoting pride in Turkey's national heritage. This is a model that should be promoted by everyonein the West and the Eastwho wants to advance democracy, secularism and peace.