Turkey and Religious Liberty

My interview with Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol was published today in The Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty quarterly. Our talk focused on the prospects for greater economic and religious liberty in Turkey. Mustafa blogs at The White Path.


Let’s talk about religious freedom. There’s a great tension between the modern secularist path of Turkey, going back to Ataturk, and the revival of Islam and its influence on politics. Will this be a winner take all battle, or is Turkey working out something a little more complex in the future?

I say there will be room for all of these views, and Turkey will be more pluralistic than it used to be. Actually, right now, the battle is between the people who want to create room for pluralism and those who want to keep it homogeneously secular. Keep in mind that the founding idea of the Turkish Republic was very monolithic. It picked up the narrative of the French Enlightenment in that secularism would make the country safe from religious obscurantism and the forces of darkness. Hence came the closure of old traditional religious institutions while the state took control of religion by establishing the Directorate of Religious Affairs. That way, religion came under the control of the state and it would be permissible only in private sphere or, of course, in the mosques.

So religion left the public stage?

That was the idea [that] was imposed. But the religious people never really accepted that and now they have become much more refined in the way that they reject this secularist notion. In the past, they dreamed of going back to the old golden ages of Islam and getting rid of what they called “western systems.” But I think at some point, thanks to their integration with the world and the global economy, these religious folk realized that actually what Turkey needs is not less Western-type democracy, but more of it. They understand that in the West, in Europe or the United States, people have more religious freedom than they have in Turkey. It’s pretty simple. Now groups like the AKP understand all these things better and their policies are much more sophisticated. They say that the secular state is fine, but the secular state should give us more religious freedom. On the other side, the secularists think, oh, if we move an inch then we will lose everything and it will be the beginning of the end. This is what I call the doctrine of preemptive intolerance, which dominates the state approach.

Do you see any signs of movement toward more religious freedom?

In the recent years, there emerged more attention to the rights of Christians. That could be the right for missionaries to evangelize their faith or for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to call himself ecumenical or to reopen the Halki Seminary. Now, interestingly, most conservative Muslims are in favor of these rights, whereas the secularists are not. The AKP is much more open to accepting these reforms. Whereas, the secular nationalists think that these are all bad because, first of all, they think that the Greeks are the foreign element, the fifth column. Some secularists also fear that if you grant other faiths these rights, then Muslims will ask for them. So, they say, we shouldn’t give in to any of them.

Read “Turkey: Islam’s Bridge to Religious and Economic Liberty?” — an interview with Mustafa Akyol.

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