Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Turkey, Islam & 'Western' secularisation

The last century has seen Turkey go through two world wars, the fall of its Ottoman Empire and change in its religious landscape.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came to power in 1923 he began a series of dramatic changes to modernise - or rather westernise - Turkey. The headscarf was banned outright, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with a Latin alphabet, religion was wrenched from the public sphere and confined to the home and education was secularised. 

These changes were adopted willingly by certain sectors of society; professor of anthropology Ezra Özyürek interviewed one of the first generation of modernists, who described the changes as "a movement away from veiling...towards modernisation and emancipation." Adopting a Western discourse, which sees Western modernity as an end goal for all societies, Turkey was looking like a success story.

However, Ataturk’s changes have failed to convince everyone. Many still see Islam as an important element of society that should not be ignored in the name of modernity. Despite this, in some parts of the West, Islam’s increasingly rapid return to Turkish society represents alarming backwardness, impressions that the Islamic community is working hard to counter. 

Turkish Muslims are certainly not wholly to blame for these perceptions. The West often fails to notice where the rigid 'universal' principles it espouses are not actually coterminous with its own lived reality, as historian Joan Scott pointed out in 2008: when Turkey revised its laws on secularism that year, many interpreted the move as a return to fundamentalism and yet the French model of secularism, which had been raised to the level of a founding principle, was built to accommodate the majority faith. It never prevented those who outwardly professed their catholic faith attending school, nor did it require students to attend school on Sundays or Christian holidays, and it even left Saturdays free for students to receive religious instruction.

Turkish culture under Ataturk was moulded to privilege many western concepts of honourable behaviour over those indigenous to the area. Yet the elements of Western “culture” that have permeated Turkey are warped by removal from their original context, and what is left is a culture without origins or roots. And yet, as this cultural context begins to creep back in, the West looks on its protégé with trepidation. @LydiaGreen17

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