Atatürk's Vision of Secularism Still Relevant Today

Modern Turkey's founding father, Kemal Atatürk, created a secular, pluralist democracy that continues to thrive today. Many scholars say Turkey's separation of state and religion might provide lessons to other Muslim nations.

Atatürk literally means the "Father of the Turks." Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the legendary military leader who led Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He pushed though what many analysts call the most radical secular program ever implemented in an Islamic society.

Atatürk's Radical Transformation

Kemal Atatürk replaced religious laws with secular civil and criminal codes. He abolished the Ottoman caliphate, which is a public office under the leadership of an Islamic sultan. He believed a complete separation of religion from political life was crucial for Turkey's future.

He also expanded women's rights and promoted western-style dress and the Latin alphabet. Today, Turkey is one of a few multi-party, secular democracies in the Muslim world.

The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has Islamist roots. Many scholars fear that Erdogan threatens Atatürk's secularist legacy. Yet he has disavowed any hard-line Islamic views and says religion has played no part in his politics.

Turkish Secularlism: Controversial in the Mideast

Turkish secularism is often viewed in the Middle East as anti-Islamic. There is strong opposition to what many Arab nations say is Turkey's complete rejection of religion from public life. They claim the prohibition against women wearing headscarves in public buildings is an example of secularism gone too far.

The Unique Role of the Turkish Military

Some analysts say Turkey also provides the notion of a higher authority to safeguard secularism. Turkey's military serves as the guardian of the constitution. The army removed the Islamist government led by Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 for being too religious. Turkey's system also values tolerance and pluralism.

Safeguarding Secular Democracy

Sonar Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says: “The idea is that someone is there who would be watching over the system to make sure that Islamist radicals and fundamentalists do not hijack the democratic system and use it to their advantage. This could be a king, a monarch, a supreme court or a constitutional court—any institution that is willing to look over the system to maintain its secular, democratic base.”

Turkey may be serving as a model for other Muslim nations. In Morocco, some people see the king as a force that helps democracy. Egypt has a vibrant movement toward democracy and civil society, led by people who have worked in human rights organizations and women empowerment organizations, for example.

Source: Atatürk's Vision of Secularism Still Relevant Today
Voice of America, Public domain

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