About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

GUEST POST: Turkey's Choice, An Islamic Trojan Horse?

By Tunç Iyriboz

On September 12, with an impressive 73% turnout hailed by President Obama as democratic "vibrancy," more than 38 million Turkish citizens voted in a referendum on important constitutional amendments. The 58% "Yes" outcome was unexpectedly higher than predicted by recent polls.

From one point of view, the results can be interpreted as highly positive for improving the country's democratic record. The proposed set of amendments modify the 1982 constitution, a byproduct of modern Turkey's most recent interruption of democratic continuity — the 1980 military coup d'état. The referendum, symbolically scheduled on the coup's 30th anniversary, introduces key constitutional amendments improving the rights of the individual, strengthening gender equality, eliminating discrimination against children, elderly, the disabled and veteran, and enhancing rights to privacy. These changes are considered universally noncontroversial, and are supported both by the secular opposition (traditionally left-leaning), and the sponsoring political party in power, the controversially Islamic-leaning AKP, with its increasingly powerful leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The amendments were also required to support Turkey's accession to the European Union.

According to another point of view, bitterly voiced by the opposing secular establishment — including the military, the proposed modifications actually represent an Islamic Trojan Horse: the democratic amendments were used to camouflage other clauses that radically alter the way the judicial and military entities function, permanently disrupting a delicate balance between these traditionally separated powers, and putting them under increasing control of the ruling party. These include clauses that empower civilian courts to try military personnel, leading the way to prosecution of past and future coup organizers, members of the so called "deep state." On the judicial front, included are increases to the number of justices on the Constitutional Court, and to the number of members on the Judges and Prosecutors Higher Board, some of which would be appointed by the parliament. The changes can be expected to bring a composition shift to the traditionally secular judicial branch. The secular opposition claims Erdoğan plans to use this to fill the courts with Islamists, pushing the country to the edge of a quiet Islamic coup. AKP maintains that its political stance is no different than European Christian democratic parties, in a Muslim flavor.

For some, this marks the end of Kemalism, further weakening the political power of the country's military, already eroded by the AKP administration's recent investigations. The military was traditionally seen as the protector of the secular state, along with the judicial branch. Turkey has been a secular democracy since the 1920s, and represents one of the most successful attempts to implement a working modern democracy with an overwhelmingly Muslim constituency. This unusual accomplishment has not been easy: The democratic history has been interrupted by military coups d'état in 1960,1971, and 1980, and a couple of more recent soft coups — military memoranda, in 1997 and 2007. Most of these political turning points included some justification to keep religiously motivated political movements under control and preserve the strongly secular quality of the state. They have introduced periods of democratic regression, which have become obstacles on the country's path to become the modern European state Mustafa Kemal intended.

It has become increasingly inappropriate and implausible for secular Turkey to fall back to such totalitarian methods in the 21st century, particularly as the prospect of European Union membership intensifies. Recent developments, leading to this referendum, actually make another military coup or memorandum highly unlikely to ever happen again. If the Trojan Horse claim is true, the regime in Turkey will find itself under increasing religious influence. However, the constitution remains staunchly secular, and the democracy increasingly vibrant. With this referendum, Turkey may have made of itself the perfect laboratory to test whether Islam today has reached the potential of behaving as Christianity has in Western democracies. Turkey's current choice appears to give that explosive mixture a full chance, and challenges non-repressed Islam to prove it can do well under secular rule.

If Turkey fails this test, that is, if the Islamic penetration of the other branches of the government reaches a turning point that leads to an Islamic constitution and law, one can expect the political landscape of the Middle East to change significantly in the next few decades. For the worse, needless to say. Such a transformation could lead to an extremely unstable Middle East, not unlikely to facilitate the next World War. If it wins, that is, if Turkey maintains its secular definition of state, while allowing a diverse, fair and uninterrupted Western style democracy to thrive, we will have reason to be optimistic about the future of the rest of the Muslim world. Sam Harris' thesis that there is a certain "je ne sais quoi" about Islam that makes such cohabitation impossible would be proven wrong. We should actually all hope and root for that.

Now, I don't mean, of course, root for Islam. What I mean is, to change the way we deal with it. Like its older Abrahamic siblings, Islam has proved that it is not easily going away. It is not exactly giving us a choice. In Turkey, of all places, after 90 years of attempts to repress, neutralize and regulate Islam using all kinds of methods, including violent ones, it is back in full power. The approach to it now needs to be different. We should look for ways to better understand it, to make it work with modern western democracies, civilized ways of cohabiting with it as has been possible with the older Abrahamic religions in the "West." Certainly, due to its relatively young age, this religion is still going through its violent adolescence, unlike its more mature and established Abrahamic relatives. Places like Turkey, which have experienced a relatively accelerated path to modernity, may represent the best setting we can hope for in bringing a non-violent coexistence with reason.

Tunç Iyriboz is a medical doctor, a radiologist. He is associate member, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and associate professor, Cornell Medical College. His interests include linguistics, philosophy of science, medical ethics, philosophy of mind and language.


  1. "Turkey may have made of itself the perfect laboratory to test whether Islam today has reached the potential of behaving as Christianity has in Western democracies."

    How shall we measure the results of this 'experiment'? Shall we measure individuals' human rights, freedom of the press, the checks and balances of democracy such as separation of parliament and courts? Turkey is already lagging behind Western European states in these aspects. Will they improve (i.e. become more Western-like) under the amended constitution? And how long should we wait before we measure the results?

    Dr. Iyriboz, you are a scientist. Can you define your criteria before the experiment?

  2. Eitheladar, excellent point, though I am not sure we can apply staunch scientific outcome criteria to this discussion. There are two levels of criteria to evaluate the outcome of this process. The first one is made explicit in the article: It is about the redoubtable transformation of the legal system from its current secular definition to an Islamic one, Sharia. I think we all agree that would be a clear indication that the democratic claim has failed, as Sharia is clearly not compatible with modern Western democracies. The second level is about evaluating the actual success of democratic reforms Turkey claims to be undergoing. There are independent organizations that specialize in measuring and rating democracy and freedom around the World, such as Freedom House [1]. Turkey's current rating on that scale is a rather poor 3-3. Another good but less organized source for evaluating Turkey's progress in this domain is the prolific discourse concerning its accession to the European Union. Turkey's imperfect democratic score is considered one of the major obstacles to this process, and continuously reevaluated at regular intervals. As to time lines of evaluation, I think the passing of these amendments will immediately improve Turkey's score on these scales. Remains to be seen how successful the country will be in translating these constitutional amendments into laws, and in practically implementing of such laws. There again, international agencies will be at work; the European Union has already voiced its laud for the amendments, immediately adding that their prompt implementation is now expected.

    1. http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2010

  3. So many things. I would caution thinking about an Islamic society's path toward secularization in ways too similar to its Abrahamic cousins. The first monotheistic societies to become secularized were, well, the first. The key feature of being first is that they did not develop toward secularization in a context where competing (can I say hostile?) religious traditions had already made that development. This difference shouldn't be under-estimated. This is the difference between capitalism developing in England, and capitalism developing in Germany. They looked very different, in a large part because the later was reacting competitively to the challenges posed by the former while simultaneously trying to emulate them. The former gave birth to the British Empire; the later gave birth to Nazi Germany.

    Secularized Islam could conceivably have a nasty edge that makes theocracy look not too bad. Well, I doubt that, but one should be conscious of the different in dynamics between the first and the followers.

  4. James,

    "So many things", indeed. I'd say let's try to keep the focus on the subject matter, however, quick notes:
    1. I am not sure the claim that the only or main outcome of the secularization of Germany in a competitive setting was the Nazi Germany is a sound one. This is a philosophy blog, and I think we know better.
    2. As it comes to empires and genocides, the precursor of modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, appears to have already gotten its share, however, before the secularization of Modern Turkey, not after. Both 1. and 2. may have to do with nationalism rather than secularism. (I will not discuss the matter further in this context).
    3. As it comes to "first" being so special in the history of secular thought, as it turns out, it may have first started in the Arab / Islamic world, at least in theory.

  5. 1. Oh my! It most certainly is not. It's a good thing I didn't say that it was. What I did say, was that Germany's desire (and need) to emulate the economic successes of Britain, while maintaining a German character, provided the opportunity for Nazi rise. I was making a comparison between Germany's relationship with capitalism and Turkey's relationship with secularization. Germany's secular status is irrelevant, as is Turkey's relationship with capitalism. The point is that political systems are often emulated with conflicted intentions, particularly when the emulated party is perceived by the emulator as a challenger.

    2. I'm not sure how this is relevant. There seems to have been a miscommunication. No doubt, that is to blame.

    3. Hardly. Being first only matters when it is successful (Def. successful = currently dominant), which Arab secularization certainly is not. The point about being "first," isn't that you get a medal for it, but that all those who emulate it, do so as a reaction to the challenge set by whomever was first. This changes the character of the emulating system (that is, the system constructed as an emulation of the first system), for good or for ill. If Western secularization had perceived itself as emulating the Arab world, then we would have something to talk about.

    If you don't like Germany, you can look at China's current relationship with democracy and or capitalism. In both cases, what makes them so nervous isn't so much their commitments to Maoism as their desire to give Western strategies a distinctly Chinese character. The excitement in China today, isn't about Mao, but about Confucius.

    Distilling this all down into one concern: secularization in a contemporary Islamic society will most likely not look like western secularization, and as a consequence will not necessarily bring about the conditions it has in the west. Granted, if any Islam country was likely to beat the odds, it would be Turkey, but still, one should be cautious. I wonder, if an Arabic secularization is not likely to look western, what would it look like? How might secularization be adapted to give it a distinctly Arabic, or for that matter Islamic, character?

  6. I published a link to this article on my facebook page and a friend of mine, who is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv wrote:

    "Its typical. The West's pressure to get the military out of the political process and create a stronger democratic regime will most likely eventually end up with a not too democratic Islamic state like Iran. It'll take some time and things may change but that's where they're going now. Stage 1 was get the military out of the process and this seems to have been accomplished. Stage 2 is to make sure the courts won't stop them and undermine Ataturk's secular constitution--in process. After that no one will really be able to oppose them when they move toward a fundamentalist Islamic state.

    Nearly every Muslim state in the world either supports a fundamentalist version of Islam or closely regulates Islam and represses fundamentalist organizations. Turkey was the second type but is moving toward the first. It'll be in interesting case to watch."

  7. James: Thanks for clarifying the points I seem to have missed.

    Regarding your distilled concern: I believe you are right, secularization of societies may not exactly look like each other, due to timing differences and inherent qualities of the preexisting cultures. But if we define what "secular" means clearly enough, do you think those differences would be that important, once that definition is successfully fulfilled?


    I think it is important not to bundle "Arabic" and "Islamic" together when theorizing about their secularization, despite the irresistible temptation to associate.

    In the case of Turkey, it is not a question of secularization, but preservation of the already secular definition of the state, while unleashing unrestricted democracy, in the presence of Islam. We already know what Turkish secularism / laïcité looks like , though its viability through improved democratic conditions remains to be confirmed.

  8. AIC: Exactly one of the possible outcomes described and the main concern expressed in the article.

    It is sad to to hear the rigidly pessimistic prophecy of the anonymous professor.

  9. "It is sad to to hear the rigidly pessimistic prophecy of the anonymous professor."

    Well, he is a right-wing uber-Zionist, so it isn't surprising.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.