By Arslan Ayan
25 March 2014
Around 110 years ago, the French legislature passed a law named "laïcité," which paved the way for the roots of today's modern France.
The word laïcité had been used from the end of the 19th century to mean the freedom of public institutions from the influence of the Catholic Church. "Laïcité" was the first concrete step on the way to secularizing the country, which means granting freedom to both the state and religion by separating them. The 1905 law made a huge impact on even the smallest elements of the French public's social life, such as marriage rituals, the education system and most of its daily routines.
After the declaration of "laïcité," secularism experienced changes over the years. Especially starting from 2004, a more restrictive interpretation of secularism was developed. For instance, female Muslim students were expelled from French universities and high schools for wearing headscarves in order to liberate young Muslim women. In other words, they were forced to be free, which is quite ironic. Although the French state has become more secular over time, the secularists miss a vital point, which is that while public institutions have gained their freedom from religion, now religion is fully at the state's beck and call. People have started to feel the hands of the state in every part of their lives. But there is a detail here that I must touch on. Under "laïcité," despite the fact that it is forbidden to cover the expenses of maintaining sites such as Islamic places of worship, the French state has continued to pay for the maintenance of existing churches. As one can see, secularism emerged in France in a more intrusive way than it did in the US. In France, secularism does not only mean the separation of religion from state affairs, but it also means the liberation and enlightenment of the French public. In literature it is called the "French Enlightenment."
The roots of American secularism appeared in quite a different way. The US founding fathers' first intention was to create a territory in which everybody could live in the way they felt to be appropriate and where they never had to experience the same violence they had faced under the domination of European countries. When they were forming the American Constitution, they also intended to ensure a limited government in order to resist the restriction of religious expression. In my opinion, Americans thought that religion was a necessary part of human nature. That's why it should have been protected by law, and again, they must have predicted that in one way or another, despite the crackdowns that have been implemented by governments in almost every era of history, people have managed to persist in their faiths. Therefore, it was obvious that restrictions on religion were meaningless. I am not sure if this was the attitude then, but I believe this briefly summarizes the basis of American secularism.
At this point, I want to reveal the differences between the American and French types of secularism and then compare these with the Turkish method of secularism. The US became secular with the establishment of the state, but France became secular upon the secularization of the state. In literature, the term "secularism" is used to mean the separation of religious affairs from governmental issues. Thanks to the realization of this separation, freedom would be injected into the state as well as religion. But in France, while religion was eliminated from the life of the public, the state fully obtained the reins of religion. So, an injustice appeared between the two.
Turkey embraced the idea of secularism with the 1924 Constitution. After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the founders of the republic removed Islamic expressions from the Constitution. The current Constitution clearly states that in accordance with secularism in Turkey, no kind of religion or faith can become involved in the political process. There is quite an important point I want to emphasize: With the 1982 Constitution, religious communities came under the authority of the state.
From this, one can easily comprehend that this expression refers to French laïcité, as the reins of religion are held by the state. Once you have the power to protect something that means you also have the power not to protect it or to alter it arbitrarily. For Instance, on the basis of the 35th Article of the Domestic Affairs Law, which was abolished by the current government, in the history of the republic we have witnessed the Turkish military interfering umpteen times in political and social life under the banner of protecting the state from religious issues.