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Sec-u-lar-ism (n.) –Separation of church and state

October 24, 2011

- How Prime Minister Erdogan’s revised interpretation of secularism has reignited the debate on the role of religion in Turkey

Prime Minister Recep-Tayyip Erdogan

As the world watched the 20th become the 21st century 11 years ago, the Turkish government strived to reach new levels with their economy and achieve relevancy on the global scale.  Recep-Tayyip Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul, and current Prime Minister of Turkey was at the forefront of an economic charge that an Islamic nation had yet to achieve.  Once he took the helm of the Turkish government in 2003, Erdogan started to implement a number of reforms that, while difficult to achieve, propelled Turkey into a global economic success.  However, during this time of national economic success, the country has become divided in their support of Erdogan’s view of religion and its role in society.

Since Turkey became an independent republic in 1924, ridding the nation of a history of authoritarian rule, the tradition of secularism has been upheld.  Yet this established way of life for the Turkish government and its constituents is threatened by the outwardly religious Erdogan.  His opponents warn that with Erdogan in power, secularism will cease to exist.  They have already seen the headscarf ban overturned by Erdogan, whose wife and daughters wear headscarves in public.  Conversely, many of his supporters hail the idea of having Islam reclaim an important role in every aspect of Turkish life, especially government.   Economists and journalists have argued indefatigably regarding the impact of overt religion on the future of the Turkish economy.  While some claim that international support will diminish and a grim economic future will ensue, others argue that Islam and the free market can be a successful combination not only in Turkey, but throughout the Middle East as well.

Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol argues in his new book Islam Without Extremes, that Islam and the free market can absolutely coexist and one needs not look further than Turkey as a case study.  But will Turkey continue down the path of supposedly ridding itself of secularism?  The question of Turkey as a secular state in the future may have been answered by Erdogan himself in a series of talks while visiting countries that participated in the Arab Spring.  Seen as a voice for Islam and a potential unifying force for the Middle East, Erdogan astonished many when he described that Egypt and other nations can move forward and have successful democracies by becoming secular.

So, does Erdogan actually support secularism?  If yes, this would be a giant disappointment to many supporters who believe that with Erdogan as Prime Minister, Islam will play a bigger part in Turkish politics.  Erdogan has addressed this issue head on, but often without clarity, while describing that his view on secularism is not the one of old, in which there is a complete separation between church and state.  Rather, it may be that his view is one where religion is accepted across the country, including within government, without necessarily having religious practices influence political decisions.

While meant to inspire a sense of direction for Arab Spring countries and their new leadership, Erdogan has put religion at the forefront of Turkish debate once again.  He has conservatives outraged, and pro-Kemalist secularists bewildered.  So what role will religion play in Turkey’s future?  Perhaps it will come down to another provocative speech by Erdogan to further describe his stance on secularism, and by association, Turkey’s stance.

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