Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Varieties of Secularism

Secular leftists as well as liberals tend to think that religion is an ideology, a product of alienation, whereas secularism isn't. Secularism, however, is a political doctrine, and as such, it is as much of an ideology as religion.

What kind of ideology is secularism?

There are at least three major varieties of this ideology that we need to study:
  • republican secularism (secularism won from below through authentic social revolution, seen, for instance, in France and Mexico);

  • authoritarian secularism (secularism imposed from above, for instance, Kemalism, an ideology invented as much to dissociate Turkey from its own region and make it a member of the mythical West1 as to pacify the working masses by dictating and controlling their ideology, purging religion here, promulgating a state-sanctioned variety of it there);

  • the American separation of church and state (which makes the state legally secular but makes religion, both good and bad varieties, flourish in civil society).
Not all varieties of religion are valuable, nor are all varieties of secularism. Among the three, only republican secularism may serve as a path to the proletarian Enlightenment, political or intellectual, that empowers them.

Nevertheless, even republican secularism, if the Left is not careful, can be deformed by the power elite into an instrument of social control, for example, as a weapon of xenophobic attack on predominantly proletarian migrants from France's former colonial possessions in the MENA region. An uncritical approach to secularism just helps make the empire more powerful at the expense of working people, in the North as well as the South.

1 Initially, Kemalism was an ideology of modernization as Westernization. The European Union's reluctance to admit Turkey as its member, however, has begun to change it. Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News, recently observed:
What is most striking in this nationwide division is that the so-called Islamists are generally on the liberal pro-Western side, while the secularists are often on the other. In the general election held on July 22, the "Islamist" AKP had the most strongly pro-E.U. platform, whereas the ultra-secularist Republican People's Party tried to woo voters with Euro-skeptic rhetoric. (The AKP won the elections with a clear victory of 47 percent, while its main secular rival took 21 percent.) The AKP is also a strong proponent of free markets and foreign investment, whereas most secularist politicians see such things as "imperialist" and favor a state-protected economy. As Ziya Onis, a political economist at Koc University in Istanbul, said recently, the current power struggle in Turkey is between "conservative globalists" and "defensive nationalists" -- including the ultra-secular Kemalists. ("The Protocols of the Elders of Turkey," Washington Post, 7 October 2007, p. B2)
It is in this context where the strangest variety of anti-Semitism, which peddles "a conspiracy theory about a Zionist plot to create an Islamist state" in Turkey, has emerged among Kemalists.
Look in just about any bookstore in Turkey, and you'll see some of the strangest bestsellers imaginable. The cover of "The Children of Moses," the first and most popular book in a series of four, shows the country's devoutly Muslim prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the middle of a six-pointed Star of David. Inside, you'll find a head-spinningly weird argument: that Erdogan and his conservative allies in Turkey's ruling pro-Islamic party are actually crypto-Jews with secret wicked ties to the conspiratorial forces of "global Zionism."

The books are hardly a fringe phenomenon. They're arrayed in chic bookstores along Istiklal Avenue, the funky pedestrian mall that's the heart of secular Istanbul. They're openly displayed alongside Orhan Pamuk novels at Ataturk International Airport. And they're even sold on tiny bookstands on the Princes' Islands, the vacation destinations in the Sea of Marmara that many well-off Turks view the way Manhattanites do the Hamptons. By the publishers' figures, they've sold about 520,000 copies since the books started rolling out this year -- a staggering figure for a nation of about 71 million people.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ergun Poyraz, who wrote the series, is a self-declared "Kemalist," the term used here to describe the committed followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the resolutely secular war hero who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The politicians whom Poyraz is out to skewer define themselves as sensible conservatives, but they're derided as closet fundamentalists by their foes among Turkey's traditional elites, who are still deeply suspicious of any intrusion of Islam into the public sphere. Poyraz's books argue -- apparently in all seriousness -- that "Zionism" has decided to steer Turkey away from its time-worn secular path and turn it into a "moderate Islamic republic." It is hard to believe that "Zionism" (let alone any sane Israeli leader) would prefer an Islamist Turkey to a secular one, but Poyraz is convinced that a mildly Islamic state would be more easily manipulated by foreign powers than a staunchly nationalist one. (Akyol, 7 October 2007, p. B2)

No comments: