Sunday, 3 December 2006

Secularism in Turkey and Britain

Issues of secularism are a constant in Turkey. The constitution states that Turkey is a secular republic. The founder of the Republic, Kemal Atatürk, was a very determined and radical secularist. His position was one of laicism, in which the state does not simply adopt a neutral attitude towards religion, but actively promotes the non-religious attitude as a basic principle which requires the exclusion of religious symbols from the state along with a social struggle against groups who wish to give religion a political role and use it to dominate the public sphere.

While Britain is a very secular society, that has not arisen from secularism or laicism as a principle. Some people of great influence in British politics and political thought have advocated principled secularism. The most notable example is the Nineteenth Century philosopher and Liberal Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill. That sort of principled radical secularism had a role in the general evolution in a secular direction, but generally speaking that evolution expressed itself in the gradual weakening of state discrimination in favour of the state church and of discrimination against those outside the Church of England. Britain had a multiplicity of Christian churches from the Sixteenth Century and secularism developed as they learned to live with each other and refrain from attempts at dominating rival churches. Consequently for most in Britain secularism means leaving people alone rather than having an active policy.

However, things are changing in Britain. The main motivation is the threat posed by Al-Quaida style Islamic terrorism. That reality has resulted in a greater drive to integrate immigrants, through a language test and through a citizenship test required for immigrants to become naturalised as British citizens. The role of some Imams in promoting ideology close to terrorism, or even recruiting Muslims for terrorist training, has undermined the old laisser-faire attitude. That in turn is creating a reaction, and not just from Muslims.

The head of the Church of England has become concerned that the state is 'licensing' religions rather than leaving them alone. Archbishop Rowan Williams sits in Parliament as a member of the House of Lords,along with other senior members of the Church of England. The monarch of the day is required by long standing law to be a member of the Church of England, and is the 'governor' of the Church. There is law that requires Christian based assemblies in schools and Christian based religious education. Rowan Williams has never complained about state intervention on behalf of his church so his complaints about 'licensing' are not based on intellectually coherent arguments.

If he does not like the new secularism, he will probably just have to get used to it. Though most British citizens identify themselves as Christian, this is usually Christianity of a very symbolic sort, so that it is often hard to distinguish from agnosticism. The activities of some anti-evolution Christians in promoting creationism in state schools, has created concern for those of mainstream views. The fear of Islamist terror has focused minds on the dangers that the growing sector of Muslim state schools could promote segregation and radicalisation of young Muslims. Mosques are being watched by the security services, radical Imams have been arrested. This new secularism embarrasses Christian conservatives and is opposed by some on the left who think that if Islam is a minority religion in Britain and a Third World religion in general, then no criticism can be made of any expression of Islam which is not racist and colonialist.

Turkey is very very gradually moving from some aspects of state led secularism. This is not a straight forward liberalisation at all. Illiberal measures include: the present moderate Islamist government finding jobs in the public sector for its religious friends, at least one Istanbul district imposing fines for public drinking, the government trying to reduce the autonomy of the highly secularist Higher Education Council. On the more 'liberal' side, more private Koran classes have opened. Taking the pressure off radical groups, or merely allowing more use of Muslim symbols in the political and public sphere, could lead to exactly the same problems as Britain is trying to resolve. The lesson is surely that measure which genuinely increase the rights of peaceful people should be encouraged, but not measures that encourage segregation or radicalisation. The private sphere could be more broadly defined in Turkey to include what head dress female students wear at university, but in Britain student unions which play an important role in supporting student groups are becoming more concerned about Christian groups which may discriminate against gays. Such groups have had bank accounts frozen and been banned from student union based activities. The other side of Turkey's laicist tradition is that politics has been strong influenced by Sunni Muslim brotherhoods, governments have sometimes encouraged religious state schools, and there is an implicit bias to Sunni Muslims so long as they are pro-state.

Some people in Turkey, like many foreign observers, work on the assumption that the radical secularist and laicist tradition of the state, is old fashioned and authoritarian, is tied up with restrictions on political freedom and statist economic structures. A close look at what is going on in Britain should lead them to think again.

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