Separation of Mosque and State

Turkey’s Constitutional Court has decided against disbanding the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and ruled instead to cut the party’s … Continued

Turkey’s Constitutional Court has decided against disbanding the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and ruled instead to cut the party’s public funding. This sent a clear signal that the AKP is now on probation, and may yet be shut down if it pursues what ardent secularists view as a policy of creeping Islamization.

These decisions echo beyond the Middle East. From Istanbul to Paris, and from Cairo to Jakarta, the conflict between Muslims who want to tighten versus loosen the mosque-state link is escalating. In Middle East countries that have pursued modest political reform, this elemental dispute is undercutting democratization. But even where democracy is on firmer ground, the battle between Islamists and secularists is eroding the quality of democratic governance. The stakes are enormous.

Consider Turkey and France. While it may seem odd to put them in the same basket, the political systems of both countries have long been guided by elites who champion an ideology of state-enforced secularism. Although upheld as a key ingredient of democratic life, this ideology was animated by a profoundly illiberal impulse: to keep any display of faith out of the public sphere. This arrangement worked so long as the vast majority of French and Turks favored or acquiesced to it. But in recent years, social, demographic and economic changes have enhanced the clout of a new generation of Muslims–many of whom are not ready to fold up their headscarves when they walk into a public university or government office. Alarmed, the defenders of “laïcite” and Ataturk-style secularism are striking back.

Thus in France, political leaders left and right have applauded the recent decision by that country’s highest court to deny citizenship to a Moroccan woman because, among other reasons, she wears a burka (a full body cover traditionally worn in Afghanistan). This clothing, the Court stated, is “incompatible with values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes.” Echoing a similar logic, Turkey’s Constitutional Court cancelled an amendment proposed by the AKP that would have allowed for the wearing of headscarves in public universities. The Court went a step further when it considered a proposal to disband the AKP itself. But while the Court has stepped back from the brink, a hobbled AKP must now tread carefully between its desire to promote “religious freedom” and the ardent determination of secularists to confine that freedom to family or the mosque.

In France and Turkey, unelected courts have intervened in ways that ignore or defy the voice of elected parliaments. But at what cost? France’s democracy will certainly survive. But it is a huge leap of state authority for France’s highest court to deny citizenship on the grounds that someone’s religious values clash with prevailing notions of gender equality. While French intellectuals are busy debating whether the burka-clad woman in question suffers from false consciousness, they should ponder the broader implications of the Court’s actions (particularly in a country that practically invented the term liberté).

By contrast, the decisions taken by Turkey’s Constitutional Court may –or may not– create a space for the deepening of democracy. Much will depend on whether moderate political leaders on both sides of the Islamist-secularist divide can use this fragile moment to craft a mutually acceptable vision of secularism.

It won’t be easy. It may be that AKP leaders genuinely believe that allowing headscarves is not part of some grand conspiracy to Islamicize society. But many secular Turks think otherwise. After all, they argue, the issue is not merely freedom of religion but freedom from religion. Open up the universities to headscarves and many secular women may feel growing social pressures to wear religious garb. Islamicization will come, not out of choice, but out of a fear.

While such concerns may be exaggerated, they should not be dismissed. True, the banning of the AKP would have been a disaster not merely for Turkey, but for the wider Middle East, where a new generation of Arab Islamists has been inspired by the AKP’s quest to forge a pluralistic vision that is also attentive to conservative religious values. Yet Washington should not romanticize the AKP by ignoring or downplaying the tensions and fears provoked by its efforts to advance a post-Islamist secularism. Instead, the U.S. should take a cue from European leaders, who are now encouraging the AKP to address the concerns of secular Turks, many of whom voted for the party only to wonder about its ultimate intensions.

By Daniel Brumberg | 
August 7, 2008; 10:09 AM ET

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  • Ken Houston

    “While it may seem odd to put them in the same basket, the political systems of both countries have long been guided by elites who champion an ideology of state-enforced secularism.”It may be semantics, but ‘state enforced secularism’ is normally used to describe the regime type exemplified by many (former) communist countries who banned religious expression outright. France and Turkey do not do this. They ban religious symbolism within the political sphere and in public institutions. Both countries actually support religious civil society bodies. Therefore, secularism is not ‘enforced’.

  • Author (Dan B)

    Well, I will have to politely disagree with my reader. When the state effectively makes it a crime of wear a headscarf in a government office or at a pubilc university, it is enforcing a certain kind of code. Turkey, in particular, has very illiberal laws on the expression of identity. Islamists and especially Kurds must tread carefully. The AKP has proposed a modified version of the law on “Turkishness,” but it will not go further than this lest it offend the military or the nationalist parties. Turkey’s identity laws are in some ways more draconian than those of the former Soviet Republic.

  • Andre Sauvageot

    Even a cursory survey of the negative impact of religion on humam rights in today’s world reveals that the secular Turks got it right in framing the issue as “not merely freedom of religion but freedom from religion” as Professor Brumberg phrased it in his excellent article. Unfortunately, this point gets lost more often than not in discussions about “freedom of religion” in the United States as a function of the strong religiousity in American society and the extent to which the Republican Party and the Bush Administration has played to it over the past seven years. Even preceding the Bush Administration, a declared athesist could not be nominated for president, the senate or perhaps even the House, by either political party. This is not a legal restriction, but simply political pragmatism given the grip that religion holds over Americans. Much of the religious propaganda in America, e.g., against gay rights, reveals that their concept of “religious freedom” includes the right to restrict the civil rights, even of people who do not share their religion or do not interpret even the same religion in the same way. And if certain Christian elements in America exert such an oppressive influence, as they do, it pales beside the much more oppressive proclivities and even practices of certain Islamic groups or even governments. So the most humane, sustainable formula for all concerned is to maintain strict separation of religion and state power. Perhaps counterintuatively for many Americans, a country that has achieved this to a remarkable degree is the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The governing Communist Party of Vietnam guarantees both freedom of and freedom from religion in its constitution of 1992 and amended in 2001. The Party itself is atheist but respects all religions and allows all religious Vietnam citizens to worship as they please in a church of his/her choosing, provided they operate within the framework of law and the constitution. Thus, a Vietnamese athesist could run for the National Assembly (parliament)while an American atheist could not get nominated by either major party to run for Congress or the Presidency. This is not to say that Vietnam does not have political restrictions that the U.S. does not–but the topic of Brumberg’s article is religion qua religion and thus the subject of my comment not only as it applies to Islam, Turkey and France, but to the larger world beyond both.

  • Anonymous

    Put it in any politically correct way as one will, Islam was founded as a political religion. For anyone who has overlooked the details, the Islamic era started in 622 AD, the year Mohammad fled to Medina and established political rule, NOT 610 AD when he got his first religious revelation. Political Islam needs reform. Turkey and Europe are right to be vary of Sharia Law creeping its way back into mainstream politics whenever it gets a chance.

  • jkassel

    I tend to agree that codes which prohibit headscarves in a public building is oppressive. Yet I must confess concern over a religious edict requiring female believers to completely cover themselves in a burka. There must be room for moderate voices to reasonate in islamic political discourse. Perhaps the AKP is one such voice.

  • Farnaz

    The situations in Turkey and France are quite different. Turkey is in the unadmirable position of being in fear of becoming a theocratic state, and, as a result has long held its current position on Muslim religious emblems, such as headscarves. It is neither the elite, alone, who support this policiy, not the poor who object to it. Some secularlists, among them the elite, do object to limitations placed on freedom of religious practice. They know that well-educated Turkish women who wear burkas will be employed, but not in positions befitting their credentials. They have seen well-educated middle-class Turks leave their country in order to practice their religion freely. On the other hand, many are fearful of Islamism. Turks in the South, who are far more religious than those in the North, are not entirely happy with a secular state, and the Turkish government, needless to say, knows this. As well, there are the Kurds, who occupy territory not only within Turkey, but in Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc. An independent nation of Kurdistan would not only be just, it would alleviate some of Turkey’s tensions and gain support for Turkey’s entrance into the EU, the delay of which in no way encourages Turkey to liberalize. (Turks know bigots when they see them.)Ever nativistic France and Austria are the staunchest opponents of Turkey’s acceptance. Among their chiefest fears are more Muslim immigrants. In France’s case, there is also the despicable need to preserve “Europeaness” (read Frenchness). France’s position is very different.

  • halozcel

    *new generation of Arab Islamists has been inspired by the AKP’s quest to forge a pluralistic vision*Could you please to write those *islamist pluralist* parties in Middle East ?*Islamist Pluralist*(whatever it means),*islamic democracy*,*Taliban Democracy* etc. are all *Alice in Wonderland* concepts,nothing else.Why not Democracy AS DEMOCRACY ?Why do you advice *veiled democracy* and *desert rules* to Turkey ? Why dont you recommend Democracy as Democracy to Turkey ?JKASSEL,Oppression/subjugation is Headscarf,not contemporary secular codes.

  • James R. Cowles

    Hmmm … So a Muslim woman may be denied French citizenship because she wears a burqa. I wonder when a Catholic applying for French citizenship will be rejected because she wears a cross, or a Jewish man because he wears a yarmulka. JIM


    Mr. Brumberg states- If the people of Turkey wanted radical militant nationalism- they would not have voted the AKP into office. The head of the CHP (Turkish Nationalist)OYMEN speaks about headscarves- OYMEN: “Of course, because you don’t have the danger of Islamization of American society or Sharia governments in America. You don’t have such a threat. If some Indian students put their special traditional clothing in universities we don’t mind because we don’t see them as a threat to our society. But if in Turkey you use it as a symbol of religious state, then it’s different. For instance, why NAZI clothings, uniforms, are prohibited in Germany? Isn’t it a democracy, Germany? Why you prohibit such uniforms? Because they feel that there’s a threat of a revival of Nazi tradition. You see the difference.”Question: “So you would equate head scarves with Nazi…” OYMEN: “Of course, yes. Anything, not only head scarf, but anything, any uniform that will be used as a symbol of a political belief or religious belief is a sort of identification of a religious or national symbols to dominate the society. For instance, in the Hitler time, Hitler youth were put in black shirts, so they called themselves Blackshirts. So it was a symbol of Nazi ideology. In Mussolini time, in Italy, they were wearing brown shirts, so those who carry brown shirts are by definition supporters of Mussolini. So only in authoritarian systems you have such things. Not in democracies. In a Western society you cannot identify the political philosophy or belief of persons while looking to their clothing only. It’s what they are trying to do in Turkey. Not only putting the head scarf, but they put it in such a special way that only the believers of this party ideology do it. It’s not a traditional head cover of Anatolian woman. It has nothing to do, it completely, never seen such a thing until 20-30 years ago in Turkey. Question: “But to sort of equate Blackshirts or Brownshirts with a head scarf of billions of people from a religious party seems to be rather…” OYMEN: “Well you may believe that it’s exaggerated. It may. It may be. But in the beginning, Hitler was elected as a political party. He got 44 percent of the vote, he got the support of any number of Germans who are not by definition Nazis. But by time he turned the country into an authoritarian system, totalitarian system and he created a mess who was responsible for, let’s say, sufferings of millions of people. I cannot compare today our ruling party with Hitler. Of course not. But the matter, the fact that the party is elected does not mean that they would always observe the rules of democracy. So this is the difference. So Hitler did it for political ideology or nationalist ideology. Now, in our country, they use their political backing in elections for an Islamic society. So, you cannot find one single week, look at the newspapers, you cannot find one single week in the last five years or more where one of the leading members of the government has not raised a religious issue.” This is the LEADER of the opposition party speaking! The one mr. Brumnberg is supporting! 90% of the population of Turkey is Muslim. And the Turks just voted a year ago for another AKP memeber to be their President. (Gul) Can you imagine what the uproar in America would be, if, an orthodox jewish woman was prevented from going to a university and getting an education because of her headscarf? Or even a muslim girl? The author also fails to mention (or just doesn’t know) that the nationalists were just thwarted in yet ANOTHER coup attempt to take over the government by force- yet again. Enough already! Burkas in Turkey? Where? There are some nude beaches on the coast- but you will have to go deep into a vilage to find even one burka wearing anatolian woman. Even that ardent nationalist Halozcel- despite his hysterical alarmist views- will attest to that. “While such concerns may be exaggerated, they should not be dismissed.” “True, the banning of the AKP would have been a disaster not merely for Turkey, but for the wider Middle East, where a new generation of Arab Islamists…” “…has been inspired by the AKP’s quest to forge a pluralistic vision that is also attentive to conservative religious values.” Not conservative- one isn’t conservative because they wear a headscarf- Mr. Brumberg- your views are so slanted and alarmist- as well as uninformed on the subject you are writing- “While such concerns may be exaggerated…” Indeed, they truly are. Pandering to the fear factor already propogated by the neocon mentality. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  • halozcel

    James R.Cowles,*If a Catholic wears a cross or a Jewish man puts on a yarmulka* these are not segregation,discrimination.Burqa,black wrap,headscarf are discriminative and mark of being second class citizen.State(is state is state) has to provide man-woman equality and enforce(of course enforce) to teach *two plus two makes four*Comparison Burqa with Catholic cross is empty polemic.Instead of doing empty polemic,try to come to twentyfirst century.Watch Olympic Games.Jamaica(island state)/third class country won first,second and third place at women 100m race.Where are the muslim women runners,swimmers ?Please,please open your eyes,look at the world.

  • Ansari

    This clearly shows the hatred in the hearts of western puppets for Islam. Wearing a headscarf or burqa is a fundamental right of a Muslim woman, because it is a divine obligation on her. Restricting this means that it is a direct oppression on religion but since Islam is the only danger for Capitalism, the West want destroy each and every mark of Islam from the minds of Muslims.

  • halozcel

    Ansari,You say *Islam is the only alternative and ultimate solution for the whole mankind*What did islam solve since 1400 years ?

  • Ibrahim Mahfouz

    Ansari lectures:The Turks who are now forbidding women from wearing the Hijab were the ones who wore the mantle of the caliphate for five hundred years ending in 1923. They enslaved, among others, the whole of the Arab people and stunted their growth and made them what they are today; the least developed of all nations. Despite the ample privileges they had as colonists, in the name of Allah off course, the Turks realized that their existential future depended on separating mosque and state. Ironically their former subjects among the Arabs have not learned this simple lesson. The World War I was enough of a lesson for Turkey. The Arabs lost every conflict in the 20th Century and the 21st century so far and they still had not yet learned their lesson. They will tell you it is Allah’s will, and as long they truly believe this , Allah is not going to disappoint them.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, understand… In France or Turkey, if they *allow* women to wear headscarves on government business, it’s five minutes away from becoming *mandatory,* for varying reasons, whether a Muslim woman wants to or not. I like to think that in America, we can go to bat for that, but for all our faults, we can actually do that.

  • Paganplace

    Which is to say, we might be spoiling for certain fights over *here,* in our arrogant way of thinking certain stuff never came down before. But memories are longer in Europe, though they might fool you about it.

  • halozcel

    *Who are any of us to decide what a woman wants or doesnt want for herself*Very simple.Woman,herself.But,but,but one thousand times but,woman(man’s tilth as written) must be FREE.First of all,woman has to be Human,not tilt,not half creature.If a girl of six or seven years old wears Burqa,can you believe *it is her choice* ?*Turkey has been a muslim country for a almost a thousand years* Wrong.Terrible wrong.Turkey has been founded as secular and Republic State in 1923.Before then,it was Ottoman Empire that founded in 1300 AD.Secular Republic of Turkey is completely different from islamic Ottoman.Look,I am asking to all *islamic cotton princess* tale writers some questions;-How many muslim woman professors were there in islamic Ottoman Empire ? Let me tell.Zero.Null.Yes,where were those *it is my choice* palaver sayers in islamic Ottoman Empire ?

  • Observer

    Victoria threatens on behalf of the Turks: This is a clear threat! Either we do the bidding of the Islamists by siding with them in that Hijab debate and at the same time allow them into the European Union or they will blow up the pipelines through Georgia. We cannot be threatened. Ask Saddam and the Turkish caliph before him. Turkey is a Middle Eastern country and should stay in the Middle East, especially now that a growing numbers from them seem to be yearning to the caliphate times and its symbolisms.

  • AMH

    Ansari said;


    HAlozcal- “*Turkey has been a muslim country for a almost a thousand years* Wrong.Terrible wrong…it was Ottoman Empire that founded in 1300 AD.” Wrong Halozcel- Terrible worng- A thousand years Halozcel- surely you learned that as a little Turk in school! “Very simple.Woman,herself… EXACTLY! Why should women be excluded from the political process because they CHOOSE to wear hijab? “If a girl of six or seven years old wears Burqa,can you believe *it is her choice* ? NO- it is her PARENTS choice to dress her as they wish- Because you know you have to go deep down in the villages to find even one! When is the last time you were home Halozcewl, to make such assertions? Observer-This is a clear threat!” That is a statement that alludes to the underlying interest in that area of the globe- RTurkey has been petitioning for admission to the EU for over 40 years- the longest standing and rejected petition ever. It is actually the new democratic government – the AKP- (the one you are alleging is turning Turkey into an islamic state which only those with the most peripheral knowledge of it’s history do so) Yes, anon is entirely right- the EU is basing their rejection entirely on the religion of the country- even though the EU itself strenuously denies that fact. But it is apparent to all, isn’t it? As for the Kurds- even the USA has called the PKK (Kurshish separatists) a terrorist group- The Turks grew weary of the coercion tactics of the ossified nationalists- who went to an extraordinary extreme to wipe religion out of the ladnscape- even changingthe alphabet so that new generations cannot even read their own history past Ataturk in 1924! How is THAT for doublespeak? The Turkish people have spoken in a democratically elected leadership, and continue to speak. which is why this statement by the author is so disingenuous- “The conflict between Muslims who want to tighten versus loosen the mosque-state link is escalating and undercutting democratization.” Undercutting democratization HOW? Freedom of religious expression- Why does the nationalist CHP oppress their own women by excluding them from the ability to attain an education- or participate in government offices ? The women have shown what they want! They are in the streets- protesting and proclaiming their right to wear their headscarf and declare their religious freedoms just like we do in America. NOT the men- the WOMEN- If masses of women protesting in the streets is not an expression of their own will- what is? Who exactly is the oppressor here? The rest of Turkey wants to move on. Do you think Mr. Brumberg would ever advocate taking the scarves off the heads of Orhtodox Jewish women in Israel, and threatening their right to attend a university and better themselves by their education? The outcry would shake the entire planet if he did. I’m sorry I have to speak so simply- as if to a child- but it is clear that people haven’t bothered to learn the first thing about the history- or current political climate of this country.

  • Ibrahim Mahfouz

    Halozcel said Does this not encapsulate what Halozel asserted above?


    If we lived in soap operas- yes- because they are the most credible source of impartial political analysis and social commentary possible. That is what we have pre-nups for- ever heard of one? I think most women, anywhere- who have been in such a situation where there husband leaves them for another woman- would consider such a term reasonable. And, O yes- before you start babbling that is an anomaly or non-islamic- all the T’s were corssed and the I’s dotted IN A MOSQUE!!!!! And, witnessed by muslims. A woman and a man- o yes- shoots down halozees continual assertion that women are somehow worht less than men- But then again, I take my cues from REAL LIFE- What village are you all crawling out from anyway? Importing your antiquated social mores and projecting them onto everyone else. One more thing- soap operas are geared towards WOMEN- not men- you know what? I can’t stop laughing-