Middle East Transparent - Secularism: Its Place and Future, in Turkey and Egypt

   Middle East Transparent

24 June 2004

شفــــاف الشــــرق الأوســــط


Secularism: Its Place and Future, in Turkey and Egypt


Adel Guindy


It has been eight decades ever since secularism was made by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk a pillar of the state. Ever since, it has grown roots and gained strong supporters in the state and society, in addition to the armed forces that have long seen themselves as the guardians of the secularism of the modern republic.

Nevertheless, some secularists view Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with suspicion because his Justice and Development Party had Islamic roots and because of his inflamatory language in the mid-1990s - including citing a poem with the line "The mosques are our barracks, the minarets our bayonets" - which landed him in prison.

But since taking office as prime minister last year, he has been a model of Westernizing restraint, emphasizing repeatedly that Islam and politics do not mix. Meanwhile, his most single-minded focus has been on securing EU approval, which may come at the end of this year, for the start of negotiations on Turkish membership. Such membership is a dream supported by between 70 and 80 % of Turks,

Suspicion, however, soon resurfaced last month as the government of Erdogan plunged into its worst crisis since his electoral triumph of November 2002. At issue has been the place of Islam in Turkish education and, by extension, national life. A political debate ensued and was getting everyone agitated.

The crisis was sparked by a legislation proposed by Erdogan's party that would make it easier for graduates of religious high schools, established for the training of would-be mosque imams and preachers, to enroll at universities of their choice and undertake courses like engineering or commerce that are unrelated to their schooling as prospective prayer leaders.

The European Union wants, on the one hand, the Turkish military to relinquish its guiding role in national affairs. On the other hand, the EU also wants secularism maintained in Turkey. These two desires may conflict at times because the armed forces have long regarded themselves as the guardians of the modern secular republic. The parliament, dominated by Erdogan’s majority voted for that law.

The matter may seem fairly innocuous, or even obvious since, as advocated by its supporters, that new law would restore equity to those receiving a religious education who are currently discriminated against in the university exam system. Erdogan supporters, whose party secured almost 42% of the vote in local elections in March, up from 34 % in the vote that brought his party to power in 2002, say that he had to reward his voters by pushing for the educational reform.

But things may not be that simple in Turkey, where there is still a deep concern that secularism, despite 80 years of practice, my be undermined. Critics maintain that such a law would threaten the secular state by allowing passage into the ruling elite of large numbers of students deeply versed in an Islam they had absorbed at an early age.

They see in the legislation proof of the old theory that Erdogan has a secret Islamic agenda aiming at undermining secularism from within. This led the Office of the Chief of the General Staff to declare that the religious schools were only suitable "to train graduates for handling religious service." The statement added: "Nobody should be wondering what the army's stance will be on this issue."

As expected, the law was vetoed by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, thus making the prospects for passing the legislation appear cloudy at best. If Erdogan's party, with its solid majority, persists, the legislation could end up before the Constitutional Court. But in this respect, there is no question that the army's view is that the court should deem the proposed law incompatible with Turkey's secular system. This view remains influential.

Perhaps, this was all along Erdogan's undeclared design: to demonstrate to his religious and more conservative supporters that he tried in the knowledge that his efforts would fail. Such a wily approach would have the advantage of retaining the loyalty of religious supporters while not permanently alienating the army or the EU (as Roger Cohen puts it in The New York Times). For there is only one obvious way that Erdogan can claim a unique place in Turkish history: to emerge as the politician who persuaded EU leaders that Turkey's place is in Europe.

In sum, Turkey, often viewed as an example of the Islamic country where democratic values could flourish, is still facing a central question about the place of Islam in public life, along with a related one regarding the role of the armed forces at a time when it  is now closer than ever to achieving its EU aspiration.



This brings us to a question worthy of exploration: Is there a place, now or in future, for secularism in a country like Egypt?

This question is central, as I believe that secularism is a fundamental (even-though insufficient) pre-requisite for the creation of a democratic state. Talk about reform and democratization in Egypt (or elsewhere, for that matter) is shear twaddle in the absence of constitutional and practical separation between religion and state; i.e. secularism. Interestingly, a prominent columnist in Egypt recently expressed his admiration (rightly so) of the latest elections in India, and demanded the creation in Egypt, following India’s steps, of an independent commission to oversee the electoral process. As if free elections and democracy were synonymous, he sounds like someone calling for installing good quality door-locks in an apartment in a multi-storey building whose foundations are yet to be laid. The Indian model is indeed enviable. But this, above all, is because the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic have enshrined secularism as its cornerstone.

While India flourishes, and Turkey remains pre-occupied with soul-searching questions, sadly Egypt seems to have few questions to raise or address. Instead, the country pushes on, full steem, to implement a ‘roadmap’ of Islamization of all aspects of life. For besides the well-known constitutional texts where religion is enshrined (Islam being the religion of the state, and Sharia the main source of legislation), as well as a host of religiously-based laws and decrees, no one could ignore the increasing, to the point of saturation, of ‘religion-mania’ in the society.

This, under the leadership and drive of the various governmental bodies, has led the society to delve into a kind of public hysteria, with little resemblance in the rest of the world.

Here are some demonstrative examples:   

First: whereas the number students of religious schools in Turkey is about 80,000 in Egypt (with a comparable population) this figure exceeds one and one-half million, in addition to tens of thousands of graduates who enrolled in various colleges (including military schools...). In every middle-sized town there is now a religious school (or rather two; one for males and one for females). This massive program has been implemented mostly in the past twenty-five years. As if that was not enough, there is a fast-spreading phenomenon of private ‘Islamic schools’, operating under the nose of the government, whose mission is to infuse the minds of pupils, starting at kindergarten age, with an extensive dose of Islamic indoctrination. This, coming on top of the general curricula which are based on rote learning, could only mean the shaping of generations of youngsters unable to conduct critical thinking, and ready to receive guiding orders unquestioningly.

Second: If one visits the governments’ largest administrative building in the center of Cairo for whatever dealing with the renowned Egyptian bureaucracy and happens to be there at a time of prayer, one should not be surprised at the scene of employees leaving their work, to perform prayers (preceded by related preparations..) in designated chapels, or simply in the corridors. Leading the prayers are usually the managers and superiors, often including high brass officers. The message intended implies that performing religious rites comes ahead of any duties and, furthermore, the state’s representatives by acting as prayer leaders are instilling the idea that the government is held responsible only towards ‘heavens’ and not its subjects.

Third: Egypt’s TV and radio broadcasts are so ingested by religious material in a way that differs from those of Saudi Arabia and Iran only in the fact of having much larger number of channels. It is worth noting that the TV satellite channel, by definition directed towards viewers abroad, insists on interrupting any program no matter how important (sometimes even ‘historical speeches’ by heads of state) in order to air the call for prayer. As this is of course made ‘according to the local time of Cairo’, it would be of no benefit to the target viewers who typically live in different time zones altogether. The message is then clear: Religion reigns supreme: Its voice takes precedence over anything, anytime. [Not to mention, of course, the fact that fanatic clerics are routinely hosted in various programs, at a time when the government claims that it fights fanaticism and terrorism and calls for tolerance].

Fourth: Fairly uniquely in the world, Egypt’s governmental vernacular newspapers are abound with religious articles. Often, these are smug with blatant claims, or are immersed in pitiful narcissism. Daily corners devoted to religious fatwas and guidance material show the extent of the abyss of obscurantism reached.

Fifth: Egypt, which produced a century ago advocates of women emancipation such as Hoda Shaarawy and Qasem Amin, has the ‘veil’ turned from a limited phenomenon into a sweeping religio-national symbol that only few dare to challenge. With the exception of ‘un-repenting’ actresses and the like, and the Dhimmi women, Egypt’s females are veiled, while a non-negligible percentage wear the niqab, previously seen only in Yemen and most backward parts of Arabia.

Sixth: The president of the republic has, for many years, stopped attending the national ‘science day‘ celebrations, where state prizes used to be handed out to those who excel in various domains. Instead, he is now intent on attending religious ceremonies, in particular those where prizes are granted to Quran rote learners from Egypt and the world over. Even more, a reward is given to the governorate with the best effort in Quran learning; not in combating the ever-increasing illiteracy, nor in controlling the disastrous explosive increase in population. Government’s media emphasize the president’s regular meetings with religious leaders to review the situation of Islamic da’wa (proselysing) the world over; as if he were the caliph of all Muslims.

Seventh: We saw in India Sonia Gandhi (who belongs to a Christian minority) decline the premiership after the victory of the Congress Party that she leads. Manmohan Singh (from the Sikh minority) took over the job, and was sworn in by president Z.A. Abdel Kalam, who belongs to the Muslim minority. This happens there, in that poor but civilized country. On the other hand, Egypt’s government still insists on not appointing a dhimmi in a leading job; not even a nomination as a mayor of a small village. The near-impossibility of having a Christian succeed in making a university teaching career has become a resounding example of the policies of discrimination, openly and deliberately conducted, in all key governmental bodies.

Eighth: The already oppressive religious censorship powers that Al-Azhar wields, have recently been increased; thus becoming possible to raid a bookshop, for example, and confiscate material considered to be against ‘Islamic’ norms or tradition.

Ninth: The national airline carrier has, for years, gone dry; not exactly a smart thing in a country where tourism ranks at the top of foreign currency earnings. Passengers frequently came across captains reciting some verses of Quran, ahead (or instead) of the habitual ‘welcome-on-board’ message. It has now become a standard routine in all flights to flash such verses on the screens at take-offs and landings. Besides the implicit message of religious predominance, there would be, it seems, an added value: Facing such piety; who would dare complain about poor service or schedule delays?!

Etc. Etc. Etc.


In sum: If we could have a scale from zero to ten for secularity, with Turkey trying to remain in a place close to the higher end, and Saudi Arabia holding, along with Iran, the other end; then Egypt’s position has clearly fallen over the past years to a mere ‘one out of ten’. In other words, its system (and unlike what international media often says) is closest to a theocracy. It should be remembered that Mohamed Ali, Khedive Ismael and the leaders of its renaissance in the early 20th Century had tried to make Egypt a ‘piece of Europe’, but the country seems now content to become merely part of the vast wilderness of the Arabia.

Al-Ahali newspaper (mouthpiece of the leftist Tagamu’ Party) reported, with alarm on May 5, 2004 that representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in the People’s Assembly were preparing, with the support of several colleagues from the ruling NPD party, to present a legislation to enforce Sharia rules (such as lapidating the alcohol drinker or amputating the thief’s hands etc.). We feel, however, that the competition, sometimes de-facto cooperation or even coordination, between the government and the Islamist currents in the country have led to an Islamization of the society and the governmental apparatus. Moving to the stage where flagellation, stoning or amputation is applied, appears to be only a matter of time, no more.

There is hence no realistic hope that secularism could have a chance of getting any popular support in Egypt, despite the fact that it is vitally needed there, if the ‘Mother of Civilization,’ were to rank itself amongst the countries trying to catch up with modernity.

Any attempt in that direction would necessitate a complete reshaping of the Egyptian mind and ethos, a process that would require, above all, a brave Egyptian Ataturk. Regrettably, we don’t know if such a leader would ever come before it is too late.