01 April, 2010

One nation - under secularism?

One of the things i found so interesting about my Turkish friends back in the states - and hence one of the things that impelled me to choose Turkiye as a destination - i think i've mentioned before. It is the sense of contested identity, of living a contradiction, that comes of a culture on the bridge between two continents, but more importantly, a culture collectively walking the internal tightrope between Islamic and western worldviews.

As you may already know, Turkiye has sought admission into the E.U. for several years, and negotiations continue to unfold. Particularly thorny issues are the trial of authors and journalists for "insulting turkishness"; the absence of freedom of religion; the ongoing occurence of "honor killings" in eastern provinces; and of course, Turkiye's official unwillingness to validate the alleged Armenian genocide of 1915 (an event, it is worth noting, which occurred during the last crumbling years of Ottoman rule, before the founding of the modern Turkish Republic).

Wait, did i just say no freedom of religion? Indeed. Since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1923, the Turkish government has taken some strong measures to limit Islamic expression, for example forbidding headscarves in federal buildings and, at times, schools. In those instances when center or left-leaning parties have allowed identifiable Islamic influence into government, the army has seized control - the last coup took place in 1980. The guiding doctrine of the republic has for nearly nine decades been an evolution of Atatürk's philosophy, known as Kemalism. And this guiding doctrine is as controversial in Turkiye as the statement "one nation, under god" is in America.

It is as though Turks and Americans ask the same fundamental question - where do we draw the line between personal faith and public policy? What, if any, level of religious expression is appropriate in government? That question, it may be noted, is complicated by the fact that neither Islam or Christianity, as they are most often expressed, is truly personal in nature. Religion is a social form inasmuch as it engenders collective purpose; where two or more are gathered together, politics are undeniably present.

A fellow American student, chronicling his travels for the Santa Barbara Independent, dedicated his February 9th column to Turkiye's separation of church and state, and for the trouble he got some quick misinterpretations. Even i balked at the opening paragraph: "Finding overt religion in modern western democracies takes …[an] inquisitive eye. … Never do we mix business with friendship, nor do we allow religion to pervade the spheres of politics or law." One need look no further than inaugural pageant or examine the battle over same-sex marriage to find ample evidence to the contrary.

I suppose what he meant to say is that in the U.S.A., our guiding values emphasize and prescribe separation, though we do not always achieve it. By contrast, such separation is a radical goal Turkiye has nearly achieved in the face of a near-east culture where separation, as a value, is a decidedly foreign concept. It is a tenuous achievement at best. Two articles well worth reading - one by a Turk calling for "Kemalism ...to be disarmed", and another by an Irish columnist attacking Turkiye's EU aspirations - elucidate sentiments from within and without. Too much, or not enough?

As relatively young nations, ours are remarkably similar. They both struggle - perhaps more directly and articulately than other nations - with the same question. Without a history as deeply fraught with church-rule as France or Spain, without their five hundred years of rather brutal decision; without the far east's nondeterminist malleability, we continue to negotiate between those two taboo topics of dinner discussion. Though Turkiye and the U.S.A. begin professing different creeds, in both a ferment of opinion and action frustrate achieving any definable balance. I've been mulling for days over the right way to express this, and all i can come up with is this: Turkiye is as secular a nation as America is a Christian one. Reality is imprecise in such matters.