By Saad Hafiz
February 8, 2020
The tussle between religion and modernity hasn’t been confined to Islam. Western civilization also experienced a similar tug-of-war. The West chose the path of evolutionary secularism. It made room for the assertive secularism sans religion dominant in France and the passive secularism more accepting of religion in the United States. But the West generally downgraded the role of religion in politics.
One Muslim leader who implemented the Western model was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He led a revolutionary effort to transform a traditional Muslim society into a confident modern state. He wouldn’t be a happy man today. Nearly a century after Atatürk, single-handedly force marched post-Ottoman Turkey to absolute secularism, his Islamist successors, are hell-bent on overturning his legacy.
Some critics say that Atatürk’s absolute secularism, social engineering and political reforms went too far. Islamists view the Western social and political institutions that Atatürk imposed as incompatible with a Muslim majority country. Democrats question Atatürk dictatorial methods and his undemocratic, repressive, and sometimes violent actions to meet his goals. He disbanded the Ministry of Shariah, replaced the Islamic legal system with a Western legal framework, banned Sufi orders and madrasas (Islamic schools), placed mosques under government control, and discouraged headscarves for women, etc.
The fact that Atatürk imposed a ‘Godless’ Western secular model is his biggest crime in the eyes of his Islamist detractors. Still, Atatürk is not the first and probably not the last rationalist Muslim reformer dismissive of the Utopian path of finding solutions to complex social, economic, and political problems in religion alone. He firmly believed that strong rulers didn’t need religion to uphold their governments. Atatürk saw religion as an obstacle to progress. He wanted the Turkish people to learn the precepts of democracy, the principles of rationalism, and the teachings of science.
So what is Atatürk’s unique legacy? First, a political system representing the sovereignty of the people replaced the absolute rule of the Sultan. Second, there was no place for a state religion in the modern state. Third, measures ensured the secularization of society and politics whereby religion became a matter of private and individual faith. Fourth, women gained the right to vote and run for high office.
We have to remember the challenges Atatürk faced—to save a decaying empire from being swallowed up by Western powers and Russia, give hope to his countrymen who attributed all their misery to fate and sought salvation only in religion. By abolishing the Caliphate, Atatürk’s secular Republic defined a path from dynastic rule to the modern era. An avowed critic of religious superstition, Atatürk boldly said that he saw no value in Islamic tradition.
Another part of Ataturk’s vision that I find appealing is that he confined himself to making Turkey a modern and self-reliant nation. He had no expansionist designs and wanted his country to live in peace with its neighbours. Some accused Ataturk of racism for advocating nationalism for the Turkish people only. But that was more to do with the limits he set himself, not to expand his influence beyond Turkey’s borders.
I have often wondered what could have happened if the Islamic world had adopted the template for modernization that Atatürk had followed in Turkey. Would Atatürk’s secular and nationalist vision, if it had gained broader acceptance, eased the social and political stagnation that many Muslim countries are mired in today? I don’t know. But, it is a fact that Atatürk, compared to Lenin and Mao for example, radically transformed an agrarian country devastated by war into a modern state at a far lesser human cost.
On a personal level, I find it baffling that Turks would support the overturn of the monumental gains of the Atatürk revolution. Sure, as a believer that state and society must guarantee personal and political freedom, I find Atatürk’s often brutal and cruel methods troubling. But when compared to the feeble and unsuccessful efforts at modernization in major Islamic societies like Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt, what Atatürk achieved in a short period was remarkable.
I hope that Turkey can achieve a peaceful cohabitation between Atatürk’s modernization and the resurgence of Islam in the public and political space. But I worry about the Islamists all-or-nothing agenda intended to remove secularism and make way for an explicitly Islamic order. Unless there is a powerful secular backlash, I fear that the Islam-only value system will triumph in Turkey. This outcome will surely set back even the limited efforts for modernization and secularization inspired by Atatürk, elsewhere in the Islamic world.
Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues
Original Headline: Is absolute secularism the only path to Islamic modernity?
Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan