On September 12, 58% of voters in a referendum approved changes in the constitution of Turkey which significantly reduced the power of the military—the staunchest supporter of the secularism which had from the beginning characterized the republic established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. The outcome of the referendum is another victory for the AKP, the party with supposedly moderate Islamist roots, which has been in power since 2002. In an earlier post I made reference to the case of Turkey within a broader array of countries where secularist elites are at loggerheads with strongly religious electorates. The recent referendum makes me want to expand on my earlier remarks.
It is unlikely that Turkish generals and American federal judges would take to each other if forced to spend a weekend together. Yet they might discover than they have something in common: many of them are defenders of secularism in their respective countries.
Secularization refers to an empirical fact, which one may or may not like—a decline of religion in public space (if not necessarily in the lives of individuals). Secularity is the situation brought about by secularization. Secularism is an ideology which celebrates the empirical fact or, if it does not exist, seeks to bring it about. Secularity relates to secularism as, say, a sexual eccentricity as a congenital fate to the same eccentricity as a faith.
Contrary to a widespread opinion, most of the contemporary world is not secularized at all. Rather, it is full of religion, some of it in the form of mass movements. Traditional religion persists in many places. There are powerful movements inspired by religious passion, which revitalize or even transform the traditions. Such movements can be found in every major faith community. Two are most spectacular—resurgent Islam, which is a strong influence in countries stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea—and Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version, which has been exploding in parts of the world where it was previously unknown (such as in Latin America).
There are two exceptions to this picture of an intensely religious world. One is geographical—mainly Europe and some of its overseas extensions (such as Australia and, curiously, Quebec). The other exception is sociological—an international intelligentsia, sometimes (not always) linked to a political class. The intelligentsia is a minority, but a very influential one, because it sits on top of the commanding heights of the culture—in academia, the educational system, the media, the therapeutic institutions, and, in some places, in the judiciary. Everywhere intellectuals are the proponents of an enlightened worldview. An important ingredient of this worldview is secularism.
There may be different areas of contention between intellectuals and the general populace. In countries where secularization has gone a long way, religion is not usually a cause of contention. For example, there was no cry of outrage in Britain when an aide to Tony Blair said “We don’t do God here.” In other words, a secularized populace does not resent secularism. It is a different story when intellectuals form a secular enclave in a strongly religious society—even more so, when they try to impose a secularist agenda on such a society.
Democracy is bad news for secularists in most parts of the world. Democracy changes the rules of the game. The masses may be unenlightened and unwashed, but they vote. Usually the secularists don’t know what hit them. Of course non-democratic regimes may also feel popular pressures, but at least they cannot be voted out by angry peasants. The Chinese regime has become more relaxed about religion, but it still gives at least lip service to an atheist ideology, and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) tries to control the more exuberant religious movements as best as it can. Whatever problems the regime may have with religion, angry Buddhist or Christian voters are not one of them. On the other hand, there are various interesting examples of secularist elites having to deal with religious resistance in democratic situations.
There is the case of India. The constitution of independent India defined it as a secular republic. This did not imply an anti-religious secularism (after all, Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply religious man, was an icon of the struggle for independence), but it strongly affirmed that the state did not identify with any particular faith—in contrast with Pakistan, which defined itself in terms of a Muslim identity. But Nehru, the architect of the Indian state, was a very secular figure and the Congress Party, under whose auspices independence was achieved, has continued to express an elite secularism (which is why Indian Muslims, who have good reason to be afraid of Hindu militancy, have overwhelmingly voted for Congress). Given the dynamics of democracy, it was inevitable that the religious sentiments of the Hindu majority would eventually find political expression. An ascendant political party, the BJP, became the principal political vehicle of these sentiments. Once it came closer to power, it became more moderate in its rhetoric. But an important constituency of the BJP is composed of those who favor the ideology of hindutva, which asserts that India is a Hindu civilization and that the state should reflect that fact. Indian democracy continues to be influenced by the tension between elite secularism and popular religion.
Another interesting case is Israel. Here too the state was established by a secular elite, exemplified by Ben Gurion and other leaders with a background in east-European socialism. Israel was defined both as a democracy and as a Jewish state, but the latter identity referred to the Jews as a people, not to Judaism as a religion. Most Israelis have been quite secularized, if not necessarily secularist. But there is an increasingly vocal minority of religious Jews, ranging from moderate Orthodox to the so-called haredi ultra-Orthodox (the Hebrew term means “trembling”—presumably before God). And there are several explicitly religious parties. Because of the Israeli system of proportional representation, the religious parties, while representing a minority of the electorate, commonly hold the balance of power in the Knesset and thus are in a good position to push their religious concerns. Most intellectuals are on the other side, as is to be expected. The tension between these two cultures, symbolized by Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem, has been on the increase.
One of the clearest cases is that of Turkey. The Turkish republic was established in 1923 as a state with a secularist ideology along the lines of French laicite. Kemal Ataturk, the father of the republic, was deeply suspicious of Islam, eager especially to curtail its role in the public sphere. The prohibition of Islamic headgear, both for men and women, symbolized this agenda. Most of the population remained attached to Islam, but over the years a devotedly Kemalist political and cultural elite came into being. The constitution singled out the military as the principal guardian of the republic. As such, it became the major institution maintaining Kemalist secularism, supported by the bureaucracy, the judiciary and most of the intelligentsia. Several times, to prevent political Islamism from achieving power, the generals staged coups which reimposed Kemalist control. As Turkey became more democratic, the religious masses came to assert themselves. The power of the Kemalist elite was progressively eroded. For several years now, a party with Islamist roots has run the government with strong democratic legitimacy. One may assume that there are dark mutterings in officers’ clubs, but it almost looks as if the generals have thrown in the towel, at least for now.
On first glance, the United States looks like a very different case. Of course it is, in many ways. But there is an instructive similarity. Unlike Turkey, there is no merger here between political and cultural elites. Washington is full of people who attend prayer breakfasts and say grace before meals in posh restaurants (often embarrassing fellow-diners). There is definitely a cultural elite, heavily secularized and prone to secularist agendas. Like Turkey, the majority of the population is strongly religious, with Evangelicals constituting the most dynamic element. And they vote.
American secularists know that they cannot achieve their goals through the democratic process. Logically enough, they have instead turned to the least democratic component of the American political system—the judiciary, and particularly the federal courts. Secularist NGOs have been pushing case after case into the courts, like the American Civil Liberties Union (a Kemalist institution par excellence). They do not always succeed. Two victories of theirs, significantly both Supreme Court decisions, have cast a shadow over American politics for decades—the prohibition of prayer in public schools (1963) and the definition of abortion as a basic right (1973). The two decisions galvanized the religious resistance, which has by no means diminished over the years.
Let us imagine that a Turkish general and an activist of the ACLU did spend a weekend together—perhaps during that week when European air space was closed because of the Icelandic volcano (and an American general and his entourage made some very indiscreet observations). At one point in an endless conversation the Turkish general leaned over and said: “Perhaps I could make a suggestion…..”.