Our friends the Turks

May 5, 2007

are having another of their recurring crises of Secularism.

You see they have a proudly, militantly secular state, founded in the 1920’s by Ataturk, who strictly limited public expressions of religious faith, de-Arabized the language, etc. As a military man he naturally had a strong authoritarian outlook, which he justified on the grounds that as long as the people were largely uneducated and under the influence of the mullahs any attempt at democracy would end up putting reactionaries back in power. In this and in other matters (like the organization of the economy) he claimed to follow the French revolutionary tradition, with its strongly centralized State.

After the death of Ataturk the dictatorship gave way to an elected government, but the people kept electing parties to power which were, though as a rule not religiously authoritarian, at least softer on religion than Ataturk was. So repeatedly the Old Guard, which still dominates the military, judiciary and civil service, has intervened in the process, overthrowing governments when they see fit.

Meanwhile the public has gotten more and more fed up with the corruption and inefficiency of the secularist parties.

So: what we get is violations of human rights and democracy in the name of secularism, while on the other side the Islamists are actually now the modernizers, trying to make the country conform to Western standards of governance.

Very odd.

Personally, I sympathize with the Islamists in this situation. Banning head-scarves from public institutions and functions is just stupid. I will defend the Islamists against militant secularism unless it becomes clear that the only alternative is in fact a return to religious authoritarianism. Given a choice between authoritarianisms, I’d prefer the secular kind, because I think at least I could learn to speak its language and deal with it. The more corrupt the better, in fact; corruption gives people some wiggle-room. Crooks can be more pragmatic, better at compromise than self-righteous saints.

But in Turkey it’s the secularists who are more afflicted with self-righteousness.

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