Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Turkey, Islam & 'Western' secularisation II

The final part of our feature on Islam in Turkey looks at how Western modernisation has changed the practice of the religion

Statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of Turkey

The name "Ataturk" means "Father of the Turks" and for many both in Turkey and abroad, Mustafa Kermal Ataturk truly did "father" the modern Turkish nation. In what seemed like a miraculously short shape of time, he chiselled away at the relics of the Ottoman era, and shaped the new streamlined Republic of Turkey.

The impact of his reforms were undeniable. They sowed the seeds of a modern, secular, Western State. The Islamic institutions of marriage and divorce were altered to resemble those of the West and the Arabic alphabet was exchanged for that of Europe. Faith was privatised and Islamic dress banned, aligning Turkey with a French model of secular modernity, where items of religious dress are banned in schools. The language of the call to prayer was also altered from Arabic to Turkish, making it universally comprehensible, as the Protestants had sought to do centuries earlier in Western Europe, exchanging Latin liturgy for sermons in national vernaculars. In short, Ataturk turned the public face of Turkey secular.

The "modern proletariat" said sociologist Max Weber, "is characterised, like the greater part of the authentic modern bourgeoisie by an indifference to or rejection of religion." He argued that modernisation created "disenchantment
", the rationalisation of thought and coterminous rejection of "mystical" religion. Ataturk, many argue, assembled a Weberian proletariat at a pace no other statesman has ever rivaled. 

However, while in many ways the secular modernity Ataturk created embodies much that modern Western society aims to achieve, in other ways it clearly contradicts such aspirations. Many Western countries, for example, take a liberal attitude towards religion, allowing all people to practise their respective faiths and protecting their rights to do so. This is not the case in Republican Turkey where women who veil have been marginalised in government and the media.

Meanwhile, Ataturk is often ascribed a god-like status. As anthropologist Esra Ozyurek has noted in her book Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Modern Turkey, pictures of the former leader have become part of the cultural landscape: couples get married with these images pinned to their chest, to depict Ataturk in film has only recently been permitted, and the small village of Yukarı Gundeş has become a place of national significance as once a year a shadow resembling Ataturk’s silhouette creeps across the barren mountains.

The memory of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincon is often idealised, but nowhere is the veneration as complete as in Turkey. As these rebulican modernists become "disenchanted" with their belief in the "founder of the world" and His moral code, they turn to the "founder of modern Turkey" and his political agenda.

Another celebrated aspect of modernisation is the cross-fertilisation of ideas. In Turkey, this process was unidirectional: Turkey only looked West. Ataturk not only de-mystified religion and changed the alphabet, he also exchanged the lunar calendar for the Western solar one, and adopted elements of the French education system and Swiss legal code. Despite appearing superficial, these changes had great symbolic significance for many republicans. In her book, Ozyurek explains how republican interviewees referred to dates before Ataturk’s reforms using the solar calendar, even though this was unnatural and required calculation.

The headscarf ban was relaxed in 2011 allowing students at public universities to veil, and many expect the ruling Islamic-based Justice and Development Party to lift the ban altogether. As Kicanç Ulusoy, assistant professor of political science at the University of Islanbul claims, "many people are against the headscarf because they see it as a political instrument." And yet it is hard to see Turkish secularism, born of Ataturk’s political wrangling, as anything but politically motivated
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