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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 333-350

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Turkey, a "Secular" State?
The Challenge of Description

Andrew Davison

The analytical reason for suggesting that what is known as secularism in Turkey be understood and consistently redescribed as laicism, indeed as a limited, inconsistent, and ambivalent form of laicism, 1 is that secularism and laicism are not two different words for the same institutional arrangement, but rather two distinct, complex, varied, contested, and dynamic possibilities in the range of nontheocratic politics. In this essay, I review the conceptual, empirical, and normative-theoretical bases for this suggestion and examine some of their consequences for the study of Turkey and the politics of secularization and laicization.

As concepts, secularism and laicism, while synonymous in some limited senses, have different etymologies, institutional histories, and normative theoretical implications. Secularism derives from the Latin saeculum, meaning generation or age, and originally meant "of the world" as opposed to "of the church." Laicism, by contrast, derives from the French word lai (or laïque, in contemporary usage), meaning "of the people" as distinguished from "the clergy." Secular thus originally conveys the early [End Page 333] Christian "requirement of distance, of non-coincidence" 2 between matters of religiosity and matters of the world (seen as corrupted and to be resisted), while laicism underscores the distinction between lay members of a church, or ecclesia, and its religiously wise, clerical strata.

Lay certainly has some secularized meanings (e.g., "nonexpert"), but its English usage still seriously conveys its core original affiliation with the nonclerical, but still religious, members of a community of believers. By contrast, because of the core contradistinction it conveys between belonging to the world/worldly/temporal matters, on the one hand, and belonging to religion/religious/spiritual/heavenly matters, on the other, the concept secular today connotes a wide range of ideas, institutions, worldviews, ways of living, and other matters that extend well beyond the contours of any religious imagination. (Note that we call the "nonexpert" meaning of lay a "secularized," not a "laicized," meaning.) Secular is associated, for instance, with varieties of materialisms, humanisms, atheisms, and antitheisms that conceptualize worldliness and "the world" in ways that sharply differ and depart from the original Christian conception. Indeed, the term secular would not be what it is without connotations of jettisoning, divorcing, or dissociating religious doctrine, practice, and especially the premise and idea of God from all aspects and levels of human experience and social organization—from individual conscience and ordinary behavior to outlook on reality, symbolic experience, forms of art and inquiry, social norm, custom, education, administration, law, ideology, governance, and politics. Secular may thus convey a negative relation to religion and religiosity. George Holyoake, who coined the term secularism, described it as "a policy of life for those who do not accept theology." 3 Sociologists have defined the process of secularization as the "diminution of the social significance of religion," and "the growing tendency . . . to do without religion." 4

The original Christian usage of secular, of course, complicates contemporary discourse regarding secular organizations of power between state and religion, but only to some extent. In one sense, "secular" political arrangements that delineate separate spheres for religion and politics by separating the two may do so precisely on Christian grounds of maintaining a distance between affairs of the world (state/politics) and affairs of the tradition. This was the case for the founders of the United States, who, in building a "wall of separation" between state and religion with the First Amendment to the Constitution believed, as James Madison noted, that religion is [End Page 334] as much "hurt by establishment" as civic order is threatened. Garry Wills notes, "Neither Jefferson nor Madison thought that separation would lessen the impact of religion. . . . Quite the opposite, churches freed from the compromise of establishment would have greater moral force." 5 The religion-free, secular status of the federal government was designed largely to ensure the vitality of religion at all other levels of experience. Indeed, according to Michael Sandel, "at the time of its adoption, six...


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pp. 333-350
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Archived 2004
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