Secularism in danger

While Gandhiji was fighting the British Empire for khilafat,Kemal Pasha abolished it. He also insisted that the Turkish language be written in the Roman script

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:June 23, 2013 5:11 am

While Gandhiji was fighting the British Empire for khilafat,Kemal Pasha abolished it. He also insisted that the Turkish language be written in the Roman script

I don’t dabble in social media but I gather they are full of alarmist predictions about what might happen if and when Narendra Modi becomes prime minister. The answer is: look at Turkey. It was made into a secular Republic by its founder Kemal Pasha who had no time for the mullahs. While Gandhiji was fighting the British Empire for khilafat,Kemal Pasha abolished it. He also insisted that the Turkish language be written in the Roman script. Turkey was modernised,secularised and its women were emancipated,unlike in other Islamic countries (or India).

Over the decades,it is the Army which has been the guarantor of Turkish secularism. Like Pakistan,Turkey had an intermittent democratic system. But more recently,the Army has kept away and there have been a succession of democratic governments. It was a great shock for the system when AKP (Justice and Development Party with Islamist origins but says it stands for ‘conservative democracy’) was formed in 2002 and won a landslide victory in 2003. This was because the other parties,which were nominally secular,proved corrupt and inefficient.

AKP has now been elected thrice,each time with a large majority. While it was cautious about proceeding along its desired lines initially,it has been bolder since. When it first insisted that women cover their heads,this raised alarm among modern Turkish women. Along the way,the government reformed the system,boosted the economy and made Turkey prosperous. Steadily,the government has tested Turkey’s secularism without violating it. The Army,which should have guarded the Constitution,was shown to be conspiring and there was a clean-up of its rebellious elements. Recep Tayyep Erdogan,the Prime Minister,has successfully won a constitutional referendum which made the system more democratic and more open.

AKP has also been successful in settling a long-standing dispute with the Kurdish minority which was fighting for its own state. Thanks to these moves,there is truce and negotiations after 50 years of conflict. Erdogan has a lot to be proud of. The secular constitution has not been violated but the government is trying to change the mood music.

Now,there is a mass protest at Taksim square in Istanbul. Its origins are in something Indian readers are familiar with. Prime open land in the middle of the city has been sold off for private residential development. There has also been resentment about the ban on alcohol consumption which the younger generation does not like. The unrest has shaken the government. It may even be that more than the religious gestures,it is the slowing down of growth which has really riled the younger voters. (Brazil,over the last week,has had riots for very similar reasons—faltering growth and inflation and gross wastage of public money.)

What can one learn from the Turkish experience? Firstly,that it is possible for an openly non-secular party to win majority repeatedly in an erstwhile secular country. The test is that the party delivers on development and improves internal security. People put economic and safety issues way above secularism or communalism. The non-secular gestures of the AKP have been mild so far and relate mainly to dress codes etc.

Turkey’s secularism is against the majority religion. Its origins are in the atheism of its founder Kemal Pasha. Secularism means a total separation between the State and religion. Indian secularism is not anti-religious. Nehru was an atheist and had zero tolerance for superstitions. He never frequented temples,or swamis,or consulted horoscopes. Indira Gandhi was religious and indeed,insisted on choosing an auspicious day to move into Teen Murti,much to the annoyance of her father. Because of her,secularism means tolerance of all religions but it only cares about protecting the Muslim minority,not Sikhs or Christians.

Muslims have not benefited from this. Yet,paradoxically,Muslim vote is most ‘secular’ in UP and Bihar where Muslims show the least economic advancement. Is it better to be secular but poor? Social media bloggers are too well-off to find out. The people must answer that question in the voting booth.

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