25 July 2008

Forced to be free

The complacent assumption that secularism and democracy are inseparable, that one necessitates the other, has been debunked by the current situation in Turkey. It's enough to confuse the stalwart advocate of Enlightenment values; "What, you mean it's possible to have to choose between secularism and democracy?" That's like being told that you have to choose between your left or right leg if you want to walk.

Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been attacked by ardent secularists (including the army, judiciary and urban elite) who view themselves as the ideological heirs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder. Ataturk's secular reforms in the 1920s aimed at bringing Turkey into the modern age by curtailing the political power of the Islamic establishment, thereby lifting the Turks from a dark age characterised by stagnant tradition and paralysing custom. Yet now Ataturk's legacy of liberation shows worrying signs of being subverted to democracy's detriment. The secularists are calling to ban the AKP, claiming that the party's Islamic roots feed religious conservatism and threaten to undo Turkey's secular constitution. This secularist attempt to neutralise a political threat comes despite the fact that the AKP was popularly voted into power.

Forcing people to be free, as a principle, presents an obvious paradox. While there is anecdotal evidence of civil liberties being eroded under the AKP's watch - people being beaten for wearing shorts, high-level civil positions requiring Muslim credentials, women's rights and representation in government on the downslide - it smacks of the pot calling the kettle black when the secularists push to ban head scarves in universities and seek to undermine the democratic process with the tacit assumption that they know what's right for everyone, contrary sentiments be damned.

For secularism to remain an ideal worth admiring and aspiring to, it needs to be democratically embraced, not force-fed to citizens by self-appointed guardians of freedom. Advocates of a secular state, and not just Turks, have an important role to play in ensuring that a nation's policies are crafted independent of any supernatural doctrine. Secularists bear a great responsibility to protect people from having their quality of life diminished by laws and customs taken from the dessicated pages of fairy-tales and myths. But secularists lose their integrity when they demand obedience as a price for their protection and resort to strong-arm methods when democracy doesn't further their cause.


No comments:

Post a Comment