Secularism and Democratization

by Tarık Günersel    /  April 12, 2013  / No comments

A secular government is essential for democracy in Turkey.

Atatürk in early 1930s

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti) and the leader of the pro-Western secularist cultural revolution in the 1920s and 30s. Photo: Courtesy of Tarik Günersel

Islamofascism” is becoming a popular term. But, because modern Christianity acts as the authority in many countries, A History of Christofascism would make for interesting reading. For example, Nicholas II of Russia, a man whom we would label a Christofascist today, once threatened Leo Tolstoy and had him followed by police when Tolstoy’s support of the Dukhobor sect drew opposition from the Orthodox Church.

  1. Wor(l)ds in Danger, a<br />
column by Tarik Günersel
  2. Life is words in action, literature is action in words.
    Humans are about to destroy their spaceship Earth. Some of them are aware of this and they try to change the course of events. Will they succeed? Will more humans be alarmed and do something?
    Literature is vital and translators are messengers of world peace.
    Though I shall focus on the literary scene in Turkey and its problems regarding freedom of expression, I shall not omit the other parts of our planet. Today local is global and vice versa.
  3. Tarik Günersel
  4. Tarık Günersel is a poet, playwright, aphorist, librettist and short story writer. He is the president of PEN Turkey and an ex-member of the PEN International Board. He studied English Literature at Istanbul University. A self-exile after the military coup in 1980, he spent four years in Saudi Arabia with his wife Füsun and their daughter Barış, teaching English. A dramaturg at Istanbul City Theater since 1991, he has acted on stage and screen and directed some of his plays. He proposed World Poetry Day in 1997 which was accepted by PEN International and declared by UNESCO as the 21st of March. His translations into Turkish include works by Samuel Beckett, Vaclav Havel and Arthur Miller. His works include The Nightmare of a Labyrinth (mosaic of poems and stories), and How’s your slavery goin’? His Oluşmak (To Become), a “life guide for myself,” includes ideas from world wisdom of the past four millennia.

And while there are liberal and humanist versions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, human rights and democracy only stand a chance within secularism.

As for democracy: No country is democratic enough. Struggle is necessary to have complete democratic freedom.

Democracy and Islam
The subtitle above was the subject of an international panel I attended in Istanbul in the early 1990s. Two of the speakers were Muslim intellectuals—one from Pakistan and one from Sudan. The other two were non-Muslim American Islamologists and advisers to the White House. Prof. John Esposito was one of them. The Muslim intellectuals, who had suffered in prison in their countries, stated: “On an individual level, Islam can be liberating. But as a political regime it becomes oppressive.”

The non-Muslim American scholars said: “Why not give it a try?”

I was furious: “Are we guinea pigs? They think they are safe at Harvard!”

I was also appalled by Samuel P. Huntington’s negative approach to the subject in his book The Clash of Civilizations. His claim that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s legacy should be wiped out in Turkey is not only arrogant but also harmful. If the existing version of Islam in Turkey is still relatively compatible with democracy, it’s mainly thanks to Atatürk, the founder of the republic and the leader of the pro-Western secularist cultural revolution in the 1920s and 30s. However, my Kurdish friends criticize his Turkish nationalism and hold him responsible for the oppression that our Kurdish citizens have suffered. I sympathize with them and hope that democratization will contribute to healing the wounds.

Non-Muslim American Islamologists have Misled the White House
The above was the title of my article which I naively sent to the White House in 2001 right after 9/11. Early in Obama’s first term in 2009, I—again, naively—tried to alarm the American Consul General in Istanbul: “Please stop imposing ‘mild Islam’ on Turkey,” I told her. “You cannot play with religion. You cannot start a fire and then try to control it to your advantage.”
 
The Secular and Democratic Republic of Turkey
Prof. John Esposito thinks that Turkey is becoming normal as a secular country. I disagree. Media, literature, theater, education, and the legal platform are increasingly oppressed under Prime Minister R. T. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

It is true that the AKP government has brought some positive changes in favor of our Kurdish citizens’ rights and moved against militarism, but such changes have gone hand-in-hand with a despotic emphasis on Sunni Islam as the nation’s binding element.

You cannot fight Islamofascism by injecting “mild Islam” into a culture. Secularism should be the core value.

Some forces have been trying to convert The Republic of Turkey into an Islamic state: The Islamic Republic of Turkey. The USA should refrain from contributing to that goal.

A secularist democratization of Turkey is vital—for a better quality of life and for freedom of literature.

About the Author

Tarık Günersel is a poet, playwright, aphorist, librettist and short story writer. He is the president of PEN Turkey and an ex-member of the PEN International Board. He studied English Literature at Istanbul University. A self-exile after the military coup in 1980, he spent four years in Saudi Arabia with his wife Füsun and their daughter Barış, teaching English. A dramaturg at Istanbul City Theater since 1991, he has acted on stage and screen and directed some of his plays. He proposed World Poetry Day in 1997 which was accepted by PEN International and declared by UNESCO as the 21st of March. His translations into Turkish include works by Samuel Beckett, Vaclav Havel and Arthur Miller. His works include The Nightmare of a Labyrinth (mosaic of poems and stories), and How’s your slavery goin’? His Oluşmak (To Become), a “life guide for myself,” includes ideas from world wisdom of the past four millennia. He has recently initiated the Earth Civilization Project with the support of several intellectuals from various parts of the planet.

View all articles by Tarık Günersel

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