Conflict Between State and Religion in Turkey

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CONFLICT BETWEEN STATE AND RELIGION IN TURKEY

Yasin Ceylan
Professor of Philosophy
Middle East Technical University, Ankara
(e-mail: yceylan@metu.edu.tr)

Secularization policies implemented by Muslim states such as Turkey, Egypt and Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century caused serious conflicts between state and religion. Attempts at the resolution of these conflicts by either party necessitated in turn, certain modifications both in the state mechanism and religious institutions. However, there are yet some major issues that have so far persisted, waiting for solution. I have attempted in this short article, to display the basic elements of the conflict, in the case of Republic of Turkey, adding a philosophical analysis to the sociological narrative of the events.

The need for a revision of the role of religion in state mechanism first appeared in the Gülhane Imperial Charter in 1839, which as a written document of modernization contained among other things, few articles concerning civic rights of non-Muslim subjects of the empire; which could be interpreted as departure from Islamic law Shari’a. Few other reforms were implemented in the fields of international commerce and navigation. In the following decades, a new educational reform program was enacted, with the aim of establishing new schools on European model, for military personnel and beauraucratic functionaries alongside with the madreses, the traditional Islamic schools (Mardin, 1989, 120). All these were indicating the fact that Islamic law and institutions were no longer good enough to handle the problems facing the Ottoman administration in the 19th century. It was due to this apparent inefficiency of Shari’a that a re-interpretation of the basics of Islamic law was thought to be necessary. A group of expert jurists were commissioned by the political authorities in 1868 under the supervision of Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, the renowned scholar of his time, to revise the existing codes and formulate a new legal source to be used in Shari’a courts. After years of coordinate study it emerged half-completed with the title Mecelle, which is regarded as the first example of reform or renovation in Islamic law.( Mardin, 1989, 115)

The modernization program which was also called westernization or Europeanisation, continued with a higher speed in the newly founded Turkish Republic (1923) after the Ottoman Empire was terminated in the First World War. The new state was a republic and a nation state. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) was the first elected president who initiated a radical program of secularization. He first abolished monarchy(1922) and than caliphate (1924). Then came other reforms: Abolishment of Arabic script and adoption of Latin alphabet (1928), prohibition of traditional headgear and dress, closure of medreses and tekkes and sufi orders, closure of Sharia courts(1925) and implementation of Swiss Civil Code (1926). These and many other related reforms are shortly called Atatürk’s Reforms. Islam was endorsed as the official religion of the republic in the first constitution of 1924. Four years later, this article was removed from the text, and replaced by the following sentence: ‘ Turkey is a secular country’. [1]

The secularization policy initiated by Atatürk was wholeheartedly resumed by his successor İsmet İnönü after the former died in 1938. A tight control by the single- party regime of the Republican People Party on all types of religious activities except rituals in the mosques was maintained until 1950, when the newly established Democrat Party came to power. The new government whose success was brought about by the votes of the discontented masses, loosened grip on religious expression of intellectuals and even the members of outlawed religious groups. Call for prayer (ezan) was again recited in Arabic instead of Turkish, which was made compulsory by the previous governments as a part of secularization policy and a requirement of Turkish...
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