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Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France and Turkey.

Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France and Turkey, by Ahmet T. Kuru. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 313 pages. $27.99.

Ahmet Kuru's book explains the variation of state policies toward religion. More specifically, it asks why American policies toward public visibility of religion are inclusionary, while French and Turkish state policies are largely exclusionary. His book is also sensitive to the different degrees of exclusionary policies in France and Turkey and offers refined explanations to account for this variation.

Kuru assesses the limitations of modernization theory, the civilizational approach and rational-choice theory, and takes an ideology-based position. Arguing that state policies toward religion are the result of ideological struggles, he identifies two conflicting trends in secular states: assertive and passive secularism. Assertive secularism assigns the state the role of excluding religion from the public sphere and confining it to the private realm; passive secularism allows public visibility of religion (pp. 11-14). Why is passive secularism dominant in the United States while assertive secularism dominates in France and Turkey? Kuru develops a historical explanation. In France and Turkey, the antagonism between republicans and religious institutions stems from the presence of an ancien regime based on the alliance of monarchy and hegemonic religion. The United States had neither. It is this lack of an ancien regime in the United States that stands out as the most critical factor.

Kuru's argument does not end here. He also explains the different degrees of assertive secularism in France and Turkey. He accounts for the Turkish strictness by addressing the "diverse impacts of democracy and authoritarianism" (p. 32): It was the existence of multi-party democracy in France and authoritarianism in Turkey during the formation of secularism that created a difference in the degree of their adherents' assertiveness.

To support these arguments, Kuru employs a two-pronged strategy in his empirical chapters. First, in Chapters Two (about the United States), Four (France), and Six (Turkey), he takes ideology as an independent variable and demonstrates how the dominance of assertive or passive secularist ideology resulted in exclusionary or inclusionary policies. In explaining the policy consequences, he looks at six policy issues, with a special focus on the most vital ones in each country: "(1) student religious dress and symbols in public schools, (2) pledges recited in public schools, (3) private religious education, (4) religious instruction in public schools, (5) public funding of private religious schools, and (6) organized prayer in public schools" (p. 8). In the United States, accommodationists (conservatives who argue for state accommodation of religion) and separationists (liberals who argue for a strict separation between religion and state) compete over different interpretations of passive secularism, leaving the policy consequences of an assertive secularism out of the game completely. Kuru's in-depth analysis of the issues of school prayer, freedom of religious speech at public schools, and school vouchers shows that the dominance of passive secularism has led to the emergence of more inclusive policies in the United States. In France, he demonstrates how the dominance of assertive secularism created restrictive policies toward religion, focusing attention on policies toward the Muslim minority. Despite the opposition of passive secularist groups, the French state has banned the wearing of headscarves at public schools due mainly to the strength of its assertive secularist ideology. The conflict in Turkey is between the dominant assertive secularists (the Kemalists) and the passive secularists (mainly the pro-Islamic conservatives). Kuru, with a special focus on the headscarf ban, the imam-hatip schools and the Quran courses, shows that the dominance of an assertive secularist ideology has created highly exclusive state policies toward religion.

Second, in Chapters Three (looking again at the United States), Five (France), and Seven (Turkey), Kuru shows how assertive or passive ideological positions initially became dominant in each country. He examines in detail the formation of the state-religion regimes in each country. To him, the critical junctures that followed the American War of Independence (1775-83), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) played a determinative role in the dominance of one or the other type of secularism. The contestations over state policies toward religion in the United States between 1776 and 1791 ended with the dominance of passive secularism; rationalists and Evangelicals agreed on the absence of a federally established church for different reasons. Kuru argues that this "overlapping consensus" among the two groups was the result of the lack of an ancien regime. France and Turkey each entered into the critical junctures with an ancien regime based on cooperation between the monarchy and a hegemonic religion. In France, the republicans' subsequent electoral victories over the Catholic conservatives, allied with monarchical forces, in the Third Republic caused the dominance of assertive secularism. The alliance between the monarchy and the Catholic Church strengthened anti-clericalism, which in turn led to more assertive ideological positions against religion. Similarly, assertive secularism dominated Turkey in the early republican era "because of the reformist elite's reaction to the Ottoman ancien regime based on the alliance between the monarchy and the hegemony of Islam" (p. 204). In explaining why Turkish secularism is more assertive than French secularism, Kuru argues that multi-party democracy in France has allowed the passive secularists to have relatively more impact on the formation of French secularism. In Turkey, the one-party authoritarian regime of the early republican period and the later semi-authoritarianism led by the military and the judiciary limited the power of the passive secularists.

Kuru's richly documented book is a path-breaking study for many reasons. First, it empirically explains the formation of varieties of secularism. Several previous studies comparing different state-religion systems failed to develop a systematic, empirically strong explanation for their initial formation. Kuru goes beyond those studies, by both analyzing the policy consequences of different understandings of secularism and explaining the initial formation of these different understandings. In doing so, he clearly identifies major actors, tracks the processes through which the current systems of secularisms developed, and explicates the macro-social structures in which the contestations among various actors occurred.

Second, by suggesting the theoretical relevance of ideology, Kuru brings an innovative perspective to the study of religion and politics. Previous studies have employed rational-choice theory (Stathis Kalyvas, Anthony Gill and Carolyn Warner), historical institutionalism (Joel Fetzer and Christopher Soper) and secularization theory (Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart). Kuru, without completely denying the findings of the previous literature, develops a perspective that locates ideology as the major explanatory variable with a well-supported historical-empirical analysis.

Finally, even though different typologies of secularism have been suggested by others, they have not been as systematic and analytically rigorous as Kuru's typology of passive and assertive secularism. He does not leave his concepts empirically poor, but provides an engaging historical account to support them. He successfully uncovers the ideological struggles, socioeconomic structures and strategies behind the formation of his concepts.

The weaknesses of Kuru's study are minor. First, his historical argument on the formation of different secularisms seems to include a contradiction. On the one hand, he prioritizes the absence or presence of an ancien regime based on the alliance of monarchy and hegemonic religion as the major determinant for the dominance of either passive or assertive secularism. On the other hand, he employs the arguments of critical junctures and path dependency, both of which are generally blind to the conditions prior to the critical junctures. This seems to be an intentional choice by the author, who challenges the conventional conception of critical juncture (p. 36).

Second, Kuru stresses in his conclusion that "religious groups should not build alliances with authoritarian regimes, if they do not want to face the rise of anticlerical (or antireligious) movements and an assertive secularist (or antireligious) regime" (p. 242). This is a teleological reading of history that assumes that democratic forces always win out over their alternatives. In the Turkish case, for example, the single-party regime was more authoritarian than the opposition that included religious groups. It is hard to claim that religious groups were the focus of Kemalist antipathy because they established an alliance with an authoritarian monarchy.

Finally, Kuru's claim that Islamophobia played little role in the headscarf ban in France is not persuasive and needs to be refined. The author himself shows that Islamophobia played a role in enlarging the coalition against the headscarf by making the rightists ally with the leftists. He is correct in noting that other Western European countries also under the influence of Islamophobia have "not attempted to ban students from wearing headscarves" (p. 105), but Islamophobia influenced them on other policy issues, depending on their particular regimes. As Kuru asserts in his chapter on the United States (pp. 71-72), Islamophobia has influenced U.S. state policies against Muslims even though passive secularism is dominant. Similarly, he is less than persuasive when he claims that the headscarf ban in France was not simply anti-Muslim since "the ban on students' religious symbols in France also covers large Christian crosses, Jewish kippas, and Sikh turbans" (p. 106). An analysis of the public debates in France prior to the ban shows that it was the Muslim school girls that the ban targeted. This criticism does not discredit Kuru's major argument, but in this particular case Islamophobia seems to be a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the headscarf ban, which is even more exclusionary than the traditional French policies toward religion.

Kuru's work speaks to a wide audience. Substantively, it explains both the formation and policy consequences of various forms of secularism, which should interest scholars and students of a wide array of subjects. With a precise analytical framework and engaging historical narrative, it introduces the relevance of ideology to the study of religion and politics. It also combines deductive theory with a rich empirical analysis that is sensitive to the historical context. This book deserves high praise for managing to cross so many boundaries in such a sophisticated manner.

Ramazan Kilinc, post-doctoral scholar, James Madison College, Michigan State University
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Author:Kilinc, Ramazan
Publication:Middle East Policy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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