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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 381-395

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Whatever Happened to Secularization?
The Multiple Islams in Turkey

Haldun Gülalp

Modernization was supposed to drive away religion, or at least its social and political role. Religion was supposed to become something private, between God and the individual believer. Although this never really happened, at least not uniformly, not everywhere the world, and not even across Europe, 1 it has always been treated as one of the most fundamental axioms of sociology. Moreover, the imaginary secularization experience of the West has also been treated as a normative standard against which the non-Western world has been judged and found wanting. According to Ernest Gellner, for example, unlike other religions, Islam is not conducive to secularization; 2 consequently, Islam has always occupied a central place in the lives of Muslim societies, so much so that "the hold of the religion over society seems interestingly independent of other aspects of society." 3 Likewise, according to Bernard Lewis, "if, then, we are to understand anything at all about what is happening in the Muslim world at the present time and what has happened in the past, there are two essential points that need to be grasped. [End Page 381] One is the universality of religion as a factor in the lives of the Muslim peoples, and the other is its centrality." 4

Turkey, however, is often considered as having passed the test of secularization. Thus, in Gellner's words, "Islam is unique among world religions, and Turkey is unique within the Muslim world. . . . Turkey [is] the exception within the exception." 5 Yet this truly exceptional model does not appear to be faring very well lately. The Islamist movement has been growing since the late 1980s, reaching a peak in the 1990s. In 1995, the Islamist political party (Welfare Party) won the general elections, making its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister of the country for a period. It was only a short period, however, before the Islamist-led coalition government was removed from power through an indirect intervention of the military in 1997. This sort of intervention was not a new experience for Turkey. As Gellner himself has noted, the army, regarded by all as the guardian of Kemalism, does not seem to hesitate to step in every time a democratic election results in Islamist victory. 6 Hence secularization in Turkey seems to be a peculiar affair. While in the normative model, secularization is supposed to be associated with enlightenment and the freedom of thought, in Turkey it is imposed from above and protected in an authoritarian manner by state institutions, including the military. 7

But perhaps secularization is not the correct concept to use here. Perhaps the whole discussion about the peculiarities of the Muslim people and of Islam as religion is based on a false premise. Perhaps the reason that Islam seems to play an important role in people's lives is not the centrality of religion in Muslim societies, but the role that Islam has historically played in signifying a social and communal identity. This identity aspect of Islam is something inherited by modern Turkey from the Ottoman Empire, notwithstanding the claims of the founding republican elite as to having severed all ties with the past and created a new national identity. It is certainly not unusual for religion to play an important part in the definition of any modern nation's identity; 8 and that Turkey's national identity contains a strong dosage of Islam is well documented. 9 In fact, this should also be clear to Bernard Lewis, who is certainly aware of the conflation between Turk and Muslim and who actually illustrates this by indicating how the Muslim citizens of Turkey do not even refer to the non-Muslim citizens as "Turks." 10

But if this is the case, then the discussion ought to take a different direction. For, as a source of identity rather than religious dogma, Islam would [End Page 382] normally be free to acquire any set of characteristics in the...


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pp. 381-395
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Archived 2004
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