Religion and Society: New Perspectives from Turkey.
By Ali Bardakoglu
Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, Ankara, 2006, ISBN: 9751938643
The establishment of a modern Turkey based on Western political values was a watershed in Turkey's history. The early republican elite distanced themselves from the cultural and ideological heritage of the Ottoman Empire and laid the foundational elements of modernization and westernization. These foundational elements were vastly expanded by the early republican elite circles in the formative period of modern Turkey. Today, Turkey continues to seek an appropriate balance between religion and secularism in a nation that is almost entirely Muslim. Given its historical and recent experiences, Turkish society offers an excellent example of a case study for those seeking answers to the following questions: Can Islam and democracy coexist? How far can religion and secularism be reconciled? To what extent can religious liberty, particularly freedom of religious expression, be extended in a secular state with a majority Muslim population? Should we worry about freedom of religion in Turkey?
Religion and Society: New Perspectives from Turkey addresses these questions with particular emphasis on the administration of religious affairs, the authority of religious knowledge, Islam and democracy, state-religion relations, modernization, secularization and Islam in Turkey, and the position of Islam as regards interreligious relations, peace-building, and conflict resolution. Ali Bardakoglu, a scholar working on Islam for more than twenty years, shares his views and the insights he has drawn from his tenure as Turkey's President of Religious Affairs. The mere existence of this office (Diyanet Isleri Baslanligi) as a public institution in a secular state has been a contested issue since the establishment of Turkey, and is still widely debated. Given his vested interest in the position of the Diyanet and its role in society, the author begins his book with a discussion of the structure, mission, and function this institution. The author asserts that the Diyanet is not a new invention in the history of Turkish religious and political culture. Rather, it was established during the Republican period, and, ironically, continued the Ottoman experience to a certain extent; however, state now took responsibility for the organization and administration of religious affairs via the office of the Seyhulislam.
As the continuation of the Diyanet indicates, the state in modern Turkey also claims the responsibility for the organization and administration of religious affairs. Today, the Diyanet has a mandate for the administration of religious affairs confined to Islam. The organization of mosques and the role of informing people about Islam are also primary responsibilities of the Diyanet. The Diyanet is frequently criticized as being controlled by the state since it is a public institution and its President is appointed by the government. Bardakoglu challenges such claims and argues that the Diyanet emerged as a response to a social need for the organization of religious affairs and in order to provide religious services. For him, the existence of the Diyanet does not contradict the principles of a secular state. Instead, he argues that although the Diyanet is part of the state machinery, it remains an independent and civil institution as far as implementation of its mandate is concerned.
One of the most frequently asked questions these days is whether Islam and democracy can co-exist, and, by extension, whether Muslim societies can nurture the rule of law, political participation, and democratic governance. There is no easy and straightforward answer to this question since there are many Muslim countries with different political cultures and perceptions of religion. Bardakoglu focuses on the Turkish experience to show the factors that have shaped perceptions and the practice of religion in Turkish society. He argues that there is a moderate understanding of Islam in Turkey. He attributes the development of such a perception to several factors: the tradition of co-existence with different faith communities and cultural groups in Anatolia for many centuries, which promoted peaceful life styles, recognition of diverse religious interpretations and differences in Islamic tradition, and to the tradition of mystical thought in Islam, which reinforces tolerance, as well as to the experience of the last two hundred years in Turkish history, including modernization, legal, educational and constitutional reforms, including the establishment of a Republic and parliamentary democracy. The author argues that harmony between Islam and democracy is sustainable in Turkey and that a democratic culture helps promote healthy religious diversity in a democratic society. He concludes his arguments on Islam and democracy by reminding his readers, "Muslims should be conscious of the fact that a democratic culture and democratic values do not contradict Islam."
In the popular media and in populist political rhetoric, Islam is often associated with violence, intolerance, and oppression of differences. More specifically, Islam is blamed for imposing restrictive principles which are used to justify the violation of freedom of religion and belief. Bardakoglu challenges these cliches which tend to essentialize Islam. Based on theoretical principles derived from the textual sources and historical experiences, he shows that Islam recognizes and protects religious liberty. He argues, "there are certain principles that guarantee the freedom of religion in Islam.
The foremost of these is the principle that religious belief must be based upon free choice." Bardakoglu refers to the culture of co-existence and its expression in the Ottoman state and modern Turkey as meaningful and relevant experiences.
This timely work provides an excellent introduction to one of the most interesting and fascinating countries among the Muslim nation states. It shows how Turkey differs from others as far as state-religion relations and debates on secularism and Islam are concerned. Written by an authority on Islam as President of the Diyanet, Religion and Society: New Perspectives from Turkey makes a valuable contribution to the current debates about Turkey's negotiations with the European Union for a full membership on the one hand, and the best means of improving its relations with the Muslim world on the other.
Talip Kucukcan, SETA