Prof. Dr. Ayhan Kaya: "Laicism, Secularism, Religion and the Myth of Tolerance in Turkey"

Laicism, Secularism, Religion and the Myth of Tolerance in Turkey

Prof. Dr. Ayhan Kaya

Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of International Relations

Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics of Interculturalism

Paper to be presented at the Conference on Religious Freedom in Turkey,

Berlin, Adlon Hotel (3-5 December 2013)

Although Turkey is a secular state, the constitution of which guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion, it does not really have a comprehensive and consistent policy on the freedom of faith. The way in which the principle of laicism is commonly addressed and implemented in Turkey seems to be considerably far from being a democratic principle that can be used as a framework in matters related to religious freedom and in governing state-society relations. The Turkish state has always been negatively biased against the non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups. The laicist state was - rhetorically speaking - in an equal distance to all faith groups. But it is commonly known that the modern Turkish state was in fact a Sunni-state. And since the AKP elite has come to power, the state has been transformed into a machinery, which has revitalized the multiculturalist Ottoman millet system, and essentialized the rhetoric of tolerance vis-a-vis non-Sunni and non-Muslim populations, who are perceived to be subject to the benovelence of the state actors. In the mean time, Turkey has recently witnessed a growing revanchist attitude coming from the AKP elite vis-a-vis the former Kemalist-laicist-secular segments of society. In this paper, I will talk about the ways in which the notions of laicism, secularism, and tolerance have been deployed by the state actors to control the masses in Turkey. And I will argue that the ideology of laicism was manipulated by the Kemalist elite to rule the masses through generating a form of political Islam, while the Justice and Development Party accused the Kemalist state of being anti-religious to win the hearts of the Sunni majority at the expence of the others.

Laicism, Secularism, Tolerance and Religion: Ruling the Masses

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (2007) distinguishes between three different meanings of secularism: 1) republican secularism as the complete separation of state and church, of politics and religion, of the profane and the divine, as in the French laicist model; 2) atheist secularism as a general disbelief in God and religion, i.e. atheism, as in the former Communist regimes; and 3) liberal secularism as religious liberty and plurality in the public sphere. It is the third conception of secularism that Taylor appreciates the most, because secularism in this view means that religious beliefs and communities are fully visible in the public space as alternative ways of life that co-exist side by side, and with remarkable mobility and interaction. This third model also harmonizes well with the politics of recognition, which is his starting point in discussing tolerance and multiculturalism.

The principle of laicism and the Kemalist legacy suggest a preference for the first type of secularism in Turkey. However, it appears to be a "false" version that conflates the state and mainstream religion with state neutrality and laicism. This "false laicism" goes a long way in explaining the success of the AKP, a political party which is believed to be a less repressive champion of secularism and above all a champion of religious freedom, as in the third type of secularism. But, is it really so? Could one call the AKP a political party practicing the secularism of the type 3? Or is it a non-liberal version of secularism that the AKP endorses? I argue in this paper that the pluralism of the millet system offers a source of misguided inspiration to the AKP in favouring Sunni Islam at the expense of non-Sunni and non-Muslim groups residing in Turkey.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, education became an important instrument in modernizing Turkish society in line with the Western model while emphasizing the role of unity and solidarity in the nation-building process (Kaya, 2013). The early Republican period was a time of rapid political reformation and social transformation. In the early 1920s, the reformation of the educational system was one of the primary concerns of the Turkish state. The reforms in this period focused on establishing a state-controlled form of education instead of one run by the ulema (clergy)[1], and unifying education to minimize the perceived damages of foreign and Christian minority schools through the establishment of a unified curriculum, raising the level of literacy, and fostering secularist and nationalist values. To that effect, the reformation process aimed to produce a Turkish identity that eclipsed Muslim identity via the establishment of a laicist state structure (Berkes, 1954, 1978; Zürcher, 2003). 

Following the French model of laicité, the choice of the early Republicanists to insert the principle of laicism into the Turkish Constitution in 1937 indicates that the Kemalist elite was not preoccupied at all with the elimination of religion from the public space. On the contrary, they affirmed the fact that Turkish society was religious in essence. The main rationale behind the insertion of the principle of laicism into the Constitution was not to wage a war against Islam, but to provide the people with the power to challenge the rising authority of the Islamic clergy (Ulema) since the late 18th century. Laicism derives from the French word lai (or laique, in contemporary usage, lay people in English), meaning "of the people" as distinguished from "the clergy". Hence, laicism underscores the distinction between lay members of a church and its clergy (Davison, 2003).

In this sense, rather than antagonizing Islam, laicist rhetoric simply means to empower the individual believers vis-à-vis the clergy. However, the laicist ideology has made it possible for the Kemalist elite to politically and culturally instrumentalize Islam to unify the nation through the institutions of the Ministry of Education and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Hence, misinterpreting the principle of laicism, the Kemalist state created its own version of a political Islam in order to rule the masses. In this sense, it is not correct to accuse the Kemalist state of being hostile to Islam as has often been claimed by the pro-Islamist political parties and groups in Turkey ranging from the Welfare Party in 1990s to the Justice and Development Party nowadays. The Kemalist state was on the contrary a Sunni-based state ever since it was established. The perception that laicism was a kind of "anti-religious secularism" actually ignores the regime's religious policy, and fails to consider the existence of different versions of political Islam in Turkey, one of them in power until very recently – that is to say run by the Kemalists - and others outside of it – that is to say the Milli Görüş and the radicals such as Hizballah.

I believe that the popular use of the term laicite has so far made it impossible for the citizens of Turkey to freely discuss the differences between the terms laicism and secularism. These two are often interchangeably used in Turkey, but they actually have rather different ethymologies, institutional histories, and normative theoretical implications. Secularism derives from the Latin saeculum, meaning generation or age, and originally meant "of the world" (dünyevi in Turkish) as opposed to "of the church" (ruhani in Turkish). Hence, the term "secular" differentiates between matters of religiosity and matters of the world. In this sense, secularization of a society simply refers to the "diminution of the social significance of religion" and "the growing tendency to do without religion" (Bruce and Wallis, 1994; Davison, 2003). A secular state then refers to a "religion-free" state - a kind of state that does not apparently comply with the modern Turkish state. In this regard, one could argue that the way laicism has so far been implemented in Turkey was actually an obstacle to secularization, as it has allowed the state to instrumentalize religion as a tool to control the masses.

I assume that the divide between laicists and Islamists has so far been ideologically manipulated by both the so-called laicist and the Islamist political elites. The ever-lasting political obsession with religion, as displayed by both laicists and Islamists, tends to distract the masses from social and economic problems by engaging them into a rhetorical debate about existential and societal fears. One can clearly see that the theological and political debates around laicism and Islamism cannot be isolated from the socio-economic realities in which they are situated. The rise of an Islamic bourgeoisie, the re-Islamization of society and politics in everyday life through the debates on the headscarf issue, Alevism, erecting gigantic mosques in various parts of the country, the emergence of consumerist lifestyles, not only among the secular segments of the Turkish society but also among the practicing Muslims, and finally, the weakening of the legitimacy of the Turkish military as the guardian of national unity and the laicist order are all very important aspects of the ways in which the Turkish society and politics have changed in the last decade.

In the Turkish debates on laicism there is little acknowledgment of the similarities between Alevi organizations and pious Sunni Muslim groups in regard to their opposition to the laicist regime, nor of their demands for recognition of their practices. I believe that this clearly has to do with the ways in which the regime of laicism juxtaposes the notions of modernity and reactionary religion (irticai) as opposite poles in a binary opposition, leaving little room for more complex and creative imaginings. A scientific elaboration of the problems in democratic platforms leads, let's say, both Alevis and headscarved women, to agree that their problems actually spring from the fact that there is no freedom of religion in Turkey. Hence one should not underestimate the power of liminal spaces whereby Alevis and headscarved women, or Alevis and Sunnis, or Muslims and Christians come together, as they have the potential to be the fertile grounds of dialogue, respect, empathy, recognition and pluralism.

Tolerance, Respect, Recognition

The divided nature of contemporary Turkish society along ethnocultural and religious lines probably originates from the multiculturalist form of governmentality during the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman multiculturalism, or millet system, was usually coupled with the term ‘tolerance'. The concept of tolerance has also a very popular usage in everyday life in today's Turkey. Turks are usually proud of referring to the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, often known to be the guarantor of tolerance, respecting the boundaries between religious communities. The equivalents of the term tolerance in the Turkish language are hoşgörü, tahammül, müsamaha, görmezden gelme, and göz yumma. Hoşgörü literally means "seeing (the other) in a good way". The term ‘tahammül' is derived from the Arabic root word ‘haml', which literally means ‘to pick' or ‘to bear' or ‘to carry'. The word müsamaha literally means to forgive, and it is even claimed that the word Masih, or Messiah, derives from this word in Arabic. Most of these words used in Turkish as equivalents of the term tolerance address a kind of burden to carry on one's shoulders, so they all refer to a kind of endurance and forbearance - tolerantia (Latin) means sufferance, souffrir (French), soffrire (Italian), sevel-sovlanut (Hebrew) (Kaya, 2013).

Toleration in the Ottoman context as well as in the modern Turkish context refers to the absence of persecution of people, but not to their acceptance into society as full and welcomed members of community, or as equal citizens. In this sense, toleration is actually nothing but a form of governmentality, designed to maintain peace and order in multi-ethnic and multi-nominational contexts. The Ottoman imperial experience and the Turkish national experience approved that the Turkish nation tolerate those non-Muslims, non-Sunni-Muslims and non-Turks as long as they did not disturb, or go against the Sunni-Muslim-Turkish order. For instance, not only the non-Muslims, but also Alevi and Kurdish cases reveal that when ethno-cultural and religious minorities did transgress, their recognition could turn into suppression and persecution.

Against this background, I argue that the regime of tolerance is far from resolving the problems of contemporary Turkish society. What is actually happening now in Turkey and elsewhere is the rise of the discourse of tolerance in a way that leads to the culturalization and depolitization of what is social and political in the age of neo-liberalism, which is primarily shaped by the reduction of the materialist civilizational discourse into post-materialist, culturalist and religious forms of the civilizational discourse. Hence, the policy makers should not only be limited to the use of the notion of tolerance (hosgörü) in settling societal, political, economic, cultural and religious conflicts. They should also give credit to the notions of respect, recognition, pluralism and equality in order to create a cohesive society by means of underlining the social and political nature of problems faced in everyday life. 


To conclude, I believe that one of the most essential problems of contemporary Turkey is that the state has always monopolized the right to define and shape the principal components of public space. The campaigns of  "Citizens speak Turkish!" in the 1930s and 1940s, the headscarf ban of the last decades,[2] and the AKP's insistence on the discourse underlining that "Cemevis (Alevi communion houses) are not places of worship" in the 2000s, all these are examples of the statist understanding of the public space, which have recently been repeated during the AKP rule through the building of shopping malls, skyscrapers, bridges, airports, and gigantic projects without consulting the inhabitants of big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. In this sense, the Occupygezi movement is a revolt of the citizens, or the dwellers of Istanbul and of other cities, against the repressive hegemony of the state restricting the right of individuals to shape the public space. If such an understanding becomes widespread among different segments of the Turkish society, which hardly interact and communicate with each other, such as the Alevis and headscarfed women, I believe then a more cohesive, democratic, deliberative and communicative society can be accomplished.

Actually, what happenned in the Occupygezi movement last June was also partly due to the ruling elite's negative bias against the non-Sunni way of life. The Gezi movement is a new global social movement, which displays similar characteristics compared to its predecessors such as the Tahrir Square, Occoupy Wallstreet, and European Indignado movements. It is difficult to determine whether it is more accurate to actually still call it a movement, or a moment in time. Whatever we call it, the Occupygezi movement provides us with a prefigurative form of politics as it was meant to be the rejection of vanguardism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in all walks of life engineering the life-worlds of Turkish citizens with regard to his intention of raising a ‘religious and conservative youth', his call upon the mothers to bear at least three children, his direct intervention in the content of Turkish soap operas, his direct order to ban alcohol on university campuses, his intention to build mosques in Taksim Square and Camlica Hill, his condescending manner of judging the lives of individuals, and his increasing authoritarian discourse based on Islamic references.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that Turkey needs a radical change in the state-society paradigm, that is to say that the state should adopt an equal distance to all faiths. The state should give up the discource of tolerance, and instead generate an alternative discourse of respect, equality, and recognition vis-a-vis all kinds of minority faith groups as well as atheists.



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Berkes, Niyazi (1978). Türkiye'de Çagdaslasma (Secularism in Turkey). Istanbul: Dogu-Batı Yayınları.

Bruce, Steve and Roy Wallis (1994). "Secularization: The Orthodox Model," In S. Bruce (ed.), Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 8-30.

Davison, Andrew (2003). "Turkey, a Secular State? The Challenge of Description," The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 102, No. 2/3 (Spring/Summer): 333-350.

Kaya, Ayhan (2013). Europeanization and Tolerance in Turkey: The Myth of Toleration. London: Palgrave.

Taylor, Charles (2007). The Secular Age. Cambridge MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Zürcher, Erick Z. (2003). Turkey: A Modern History. London: I.B. Tauris, Publishers.


[1] Ulema is an Arabic word, which refers to the scholars of Islam and Islamic law.

[2] The AKP government has lifted the ban on headscarf for the public officers other than the police, judiciary and the army in October 2013 within the framework of democratic reforms.