Secularism without humanism: Turkey


By Ahmet Abidin  Ozbek:

Turkey is one of those contradictory countries officially described as secular and democratic. However, the real picture is more complex. It is very difficult to describe a country as truly secular and democratic when it lacks a humanistic outlook.

Modern Turkey basically adapted French secularism or laicism.  It adapted the French idea which involved the outright banning of religion from the public sphere, as well as the French-inspired desire for a highly centralized style of government. At the same time, Kurdish was declared a forbidden language. The aim of this programme was less to eliminate religion than to impose strict state state control over it, and to prevent anyone from using religion as an instrument for political mobilization (Leezenberg.M, 2006).

There are huge concerns about the country’s policies towards minorities, including Armenians, Kurds, Muslims, Alevis or any other groups. Turkey has been unable to resolve its problems with minorities, and with religious people or nonbelievers.

It is true that Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate. That was a real body blow. He undermined opposition by establishing a ‘Tribunal of Independence’, with full powers over life and death, and by extending the law of treason to include all discussion of the caliphate or any appeal to religion in political life. This cut the last ideological ties Kurds felt with Turks. The closure of the religious schools, the madrasas and kuttahs, removed the last remaining sources of education for most Kurds (McDowall, 2004). However, religious education in Kurdistan had a value even for the Kemalists in government, because it would slow down the spread of secular nationalism (Bulloch and Morris, 1992).

That’s one reason why the Alevis and Kurds lost their trust in the modern Turkish state. The Alevis, especially, are one of the most secular, humanist and democratic elements in the country. At the beginning of the modern Turkish state, they fully supported the regime on the separation of mosque and state, secularism, and democratization of the country. The Alevis (quizilbash, bektashi) had been victims of the Ottoman regime in the past as a sizeable minority (some 20 per cent of Turkey’s population) adhering to a heterodox version of Islam. But their trust didn’t last long.

At the beginning, most Christians, Alevis and Kurds welcomed the new Turkish republic because of its promises. The Alevis and Kurds were even strong supporters of the Kemalists during the independence war.  Once the Kemalists took control of the country, they started to renege on all the promises to minorities they had made before 1923. They immediately started to massacre anyone who requested equal citizenship and autonomy, especially in Kurdistan. Their war against the Kurd and Alevi revolts continued until the 1940s (for example, Kocgri, Dersim, Seyh Said, etc.) alongside the repression of Greeks and Armenians.

So what really happened in those days ? As we know, the Ottoman Empire was based on multi-ethnic and cultural mosaics, but it was not secular at all. The Sultans claimed to represent the entire Muslim world during the Ottoman era. When Ataturk came to power he destroyed one vital structure and religious backbone in the land called the ‘caliphate’. The people thought that this was the beginning of secularism in the modern Turkish republic. Yes, there were some more changes in the modern Turkish state, but unfortunately the reforms didn’t last long. Eventually the entire state became aligned with the Sunni Halafi Muslim tradition again. I strongly believe that, in spite of the revolution and some radical reforms, the nature of the state didn’t change fundamentally.

The transition from Ottoman era to modern republic was neither secular nor democratic. In reality, anyone who was not Turkish-Sunni Muslim or a supporter of the Kemalist regime became an ‘enemy of the state’.

If we look at the big picture, serious state crimes can’t happen under a truly democratic and secular regime. For example, in modern times, I am thinking of the Sivas (1993) or Maras (1978) massacres.

I strongly believe that in true secular humanism we cannot separate people from their ethnic or religious (and non-religious) origins. Today, there is huge lack of secularism. The military is the backbone of Turkish nationalism and authoritarianism which is the successor of Kemalist state politics.  But the military is certainly against any reforms towards minorities, especially Kurds. The Kemalists absurdly still believe that the Turks are racially superior. Ironically, they also gave full support to Sunni-Islamic groups against the Alevis and Kurds.

McKiernan (2006) said the Turkish military adopted as a matter of policy the depopulating of whole villages. Many, many people simply disappeared. They were taken away by the Turkish forces and never seen again.

The politics of the Turkish state dramatically changed again in the 1980s. Van Bruinessen (2006) said that, instead of reverting to the strict secularism of the Kemalist period, the military glued a mix of conservative Sunni Islam and Turkish nationalism, in the hope of pre-empting more radical Islamic currents and combating Marxist thought. Sunni (Shafii) religious education became an obligatory subject in all schools; the state built mosques in villages where there was none. This imposition of Sunni Islam could only make the Alevis even more aware of their distinctly non-Sunni identity.

The current government party, the AKP,  and the Fettullah Gulen movements are both sponsors of Turkish-Sunni fundamentalism which is ideologically powerful in Turkey and outside the country and they are products of the 1980s false secularism. According to some sources, the Directorate for Religious Affairs at some points had a bigger budget at its disposal than the Ministry of Education.

The Alevis, Kurds, Christians and non-believers became easy targets for the AKP regime. The AKP came to power with promises of reform and democratization but, like the Kemalists in the 1920s, once they became powerful they turned into monsters.

It’s also true that the Islamists and Kemalist are at war in Turkey. But we need to know that their war is not about secularism, humanism or democracy in the country. Their dispute is about who controls the state and social and economic institutions. Ironically, the AKP arrested many generals (for example, the Balyoz or Ergenekon cases) – not because of the military-sponsored pogrom against the Kurds, but because of their coup d’état activities. Furthermore, if you look closely at the opposition parties (and also at pro-military or Kemalist forces) like the CHP or MHP, they all support a unitary state against the reforms called for by Kurds or Alevis.

In summary, the minorities feel betrayed by their own state/government. The Kurds want to live in the country as equal citizens with a democratic constitution or in a federal system. The Alevis are asking for real democratic changes to the state, the removal of Sunni-Islam politics in government and official recognition by the state. Also the non-believers, atheists and agnostics are asking for freedom of speech and recognition.


McDowall, David.2004.A Modern History of the Kurds. Third Revised Edition, ISBN 1-86063-41666. NY.

Bulloch, John and Morris, Harvey. 1992. No Friends But the Mountains. The Tragic History of the Kurds. Oxford University press. ISBN 0 19 508075-0. NY.

Van Bruinessen, Martin, 2006. The Kurds. Nationalism and Politics. Edited by Falah Jabar & Hosham Dawad. 21 to 48. Saqi Press.

Liezenber, Michiel.2006. The Kurds. Nationalism and Politics. Edited by Falah Jabar & Hosham Dawad. 203-228. Saqi Press.  

Kiernan, Kevin. 2006. The Kurds. A People in Search of Their Homeland, ISBN. 978.0.312.32546.6. St. Martins Press. NY.

Zubaida, Sawi. 2006. The Kurds. Nationalism and Politics. Edited by Falah Jabar & Hosham Dawad. 93 to 102. Saqi Press.

Copyright © 2012

2 Responses to Secularism without humanism: Turkey
  1. kuvan
    November 14, 2012 | 23:17

    Turkey is not a democratic state because in a truly democratic states, the judiciary system plays the most important role in wresting people’s rights from the power-holders, in informing the law, in supporting civic life and in consolidating and upholding justice and liberty
    It ensures the rule of people by people,guarnting the right of minorties and protecting them from the dictatorship of majorties which i do not see it happining in a fascit sate like Turkey .
    When the judiciary becomes the sole arbiter, no political party, religious or non-religious will take it upon itself to sanction the shedding of human blood under this or that excuse. The judiciary, which is supposed to be the people’s refuge, is today such a subservient, corrupt organ in many countries in this world and the power-holders have rendered judges totally ineffective.this is the main problem of Turkish state and so is in many other countries .

  2. Kurd
    November 16, 2012 | 05:24

    just curious: do you think the current KRG is democratic? using your own criteria??

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