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Letters from Tokyo
Turkey and The Secular Card, Myth or Reality?
By Lee Jay Walker
Tokyo Correspondent
Turkey and the Secular card, myth or reality?

Turkey is often praised for being secular and a future role model for other mainly Islamic societies because of its rich history of secularism. America and the United Kingdom, and other nations, often claim that Turkey is a beacon of hope and that it is evidence that democracy and secularism can exist within a mainly Muslim nation state. However, during this so-called "golden age" of secularism it is clear that religious and ethnic minorities have suffered greatly in modern day Turkey. So how true is it that Turkey is secular?

If we look at the founding father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk, then it is clear that he himself supported the destruction of Christianity via the Armenian and Assyrian Christian genocide of 1915. Therefore, it is clear that Turkish nationalism and secularism is tainted by its anti-Christian nature and also its anti-Kurdish nature. After all, the nation state of Turkey was about Turkish nationalism and secularism did not protect the religious or ethnic minorities of this diverse nation.

In spite of this, the myth of modernity and secularism based on the founding father prevails and Western nations are very optimistic about Turkey. Yes, Ataturk faced many difficulties and from a Turkish point of view he was very astute because he preserved a Turkish state when it was threatened by others. Yet in order to do this he crushed others and therefore the "bedrock" from the start was frail because it was based on Turkish nationalism.

Ataturk did implement many reforms in order to modernize Turkey and he did lay the foundation stone for a secular based state. In this sense he crushed Islamist hopes of a Sharia Islamic state and he gave more rights to females which did not exist in the old Ottoman Empire. But his legacy of modernity and secularism is tainted by the overt nationalism of old Turkey and this nationalism is still strong in modern day Turkey.

So if secularism means having the right to crush Christian minorities, moderate Muslim minorities like the Alevi, and ethnic minorities like the Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians, and, most notably, the Kurds in modern day Turkey; then it is not the secularism which I support. So surely modernization and secularism is tainted by this overtly nationalist state and of course the Sunni orthodox mindset means that religious inequality is the norm?

In the 1990s the Alevi Muslims witnessed an upsurge in attacks against them. For example, David Zieden, who wrote an article called The Alevi of Anatolia, states that "Renewed inter-communal violence is sadly on the rise. In July 1993, at an Alevi cultural festival in Sivas, a Sunni fundamentalist mob set fire to a hotel where many Alevi participants had taken refuge, killing 35 of them. State security services did not interfere and prosecution against leaders of the riot was not energetically pursued. (41) In 1994, Istanbul municipal leaders from the Refah Islamic political party tried to raze an Alevi tekke (monastery) and close the Ezgi cafe where young Alevis frequently gathered."

Meanwhile, if we focus on recent times then it is clear that persecution is still continuing. After all, in 2007 three Christians had their throats slit. Two of the victims had converted from Islam to Christianity, therefore, Necati Aydia, 36, and Ugur Yuksel, 32, were killed by Islamic fanatics on the grounds of merely leaving Islam. While the other murdered Christian, Tilmann Geske, 46, was a German citizen. One of the killers stated in the Hurriyet newspaper, that "We didn't do this for ourselves. We did it for our religion. May this be a lesson to the enemies of religion."

Before concluding it is important to state that you have many positive elements within Turkish society who desire change and who support a genuine democratic Turkey, which is inclusive. Also, if we view this nation from its past history and from a Turkish point of view, then clearly this nation faced many obstacles. For Ataturk, the infancy of Turkey was about survival and many Turks also suffered greatly. Given this, it is apparent that you have many positive elements within modern day Turkey and this nation does desire to join the European Union. Also, for America, Turkey is a vital strategic ally and a valued member of NATO.

Despite this, if we look at the rights of Alevi Muslims and Christians in modern day Turkey, and the persecution of Kurds; it is clear that orthodox Sunni Islam and nationalism is still being used by conservative elites. These elites still desire to crush both religious minorities and ethnic minorities. So are minorities equal in modern day Turkey? I think their treatment is the answer to this question and in recent times we have heard about several Christian murders. Also, for the more numerous Alevi Muslims and Kurds, then it is also clear that they face huge discrimination. Therefore, I believe that secular Turkey is a myth because in reality this nation state is focused on nationalism and clamping down on all minority faiths.



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Lee Jay Walker serves as Tokyo Correspondent of The Seoul Times. He specializes in int'l relations and geopolitics. He is also involved in analyst work and research on business. After finishing BA degree in East European Studies at the University of London, He earned MA degree in Asia Pacific Studies in Nottingham Trent University. He also studied business at London Institute.

 

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