Islam and Secularism in Turkey: Correcting a Few Misconceptions

Written and first posted by myself, under the pen name of Mehmed Mustafa Hamdi, as a reply to the discussion at this blog address. I thought it would be appropriate to edit it slightly and re-post it here also, as a separate and independent main blog post.

Certain prejudices, misconceptions and urban myths abound in the U.S. as well as the entire “West” regarding Turkey and the conception and practice of Islam within it. Unfortunately and rather strangely, some Muslims in the West, especially those educated in Western educational institutions, believe in many of these as well. We really need to remove some of them as soon as possible. Let us examine this issue in the context provided by a specific objection to the activities of a Turkish Muslim group.

A Bosnian Muslim woman wrote on the internet: “If they [the Islamic movement of Turkish origin led by Fethullah Gülen] were concerned about reaching out and bettering the Ummah in the real meaning of Islam, then why not start with Turkey itself! Start up grass roots organizations there, squeeze the secularist oppression and then talk about reaching out to the privileged phD converts!” I just want to answer this objection of hers and below yet another one, so that she and others who think as she does can understand why this movement behaves in some ways they find objectionable and that they appreciate the problems of these people that force them not to act otherwise. The other answer will pertain to the alleged adoption of secularism “by the Turks”.

In reality, “reaching out to the PhD converts” as well as many other sorts of people around the world is a thousand times easier and more efficient than focusing entirely on “setting up grass roots organizations” in Turkey, let alone “squeezing the secularist oppression”. Even the supposedly liberal and libertarian powers of the West give only lip service to the legitimate rights of the religious Muslims of Turkey. They are mostly good friends with the secularist oppressors that have been mentioned above, in actual practice. When they have to take real action regarding Islam in Turkey or, in general, the Muslim world as in the case of the hijab ban in Turkey, they side with the secularist establishment. For example, the European Court of Human Rights has decided twice, and hence without a further chance of legal objection, that the hijab ban in Turkey is not a breach of human rights at all. That’s why the sisters and brothers in that Islamic group are trying to reach out to the West firstly. We cannot end the secularist oppression in Turkey without gaining the hearts and the support of the people in the West first  and foremost. Therefore, these people are using the avenue that is natural and potentially more efficient for change within Turkey. It’d be unwise and unjust to blame them for that.

Actually, the most oppressive side of secularism in Turkey is not the brutal force kind of oppression as in many other, much less democratic Middle-Eastern countries. It’s rather disinformation and defamation against Islam and Islamic figures in the country.

The same Bosnian Muslim woman also wrote: “Yes, Turks are more educated than the norm, only because they have not been colonized and exploited to the extent Middle Eastern and South Asian countries have been for years and years. They are fortunate enough to have survived this trivial period in history and paid for it by accepting Secularism! The other countries didn’t want to leave Islam, and our price was defeat, humiliation, exploitation and war!”

Turks never left Islam. Besides, Turks also paid the price of “defeat, humiliation, exploitation and war” as well as a terrible series of genocides that took place against them in the Balkans, approximately during the last one hundred years of the Ottoman State.

Turks did not secularize themselves. The rulers who seized the government of Turkey through many sorts of intrigues after the victory of the Anatolian War of Independence in 1922 (a truly religion based movement for the Turkish masses if not for some of the elites who had already been secularized and westernized and who had already become nationalists) were western-educated and acted as homegrown western imperialists. Most of these ruling bureaucratic elites did leave Islam and imposed secularism on the Turkish masses. They misinformed the Turks about their religion too. That is why most Turks today have liberal or nationalistic rather than ummah-embracing opinions. They have been brainwashed by the secularist, westernist regime into believing that Islam forbids polygyny and that the shariah is traditional and pre-Islamic Arab law, not Islamic law. Turks are at least as Muslim as the rest of the Muslim world, but they have been deceived. They were conquered politically and militarily from within, by outwardly Turkish and Muslim agents of western colonialism, without being allowed to realize it, except some intellectually and religiously luckier Turks who are few in number nowadays, though possibly and hopefully increasing in number.

Turks were at least as poor and underdeveloped as the rest of the Muslim world when the Ottoman Empire was finally ended completely by the Western “Great Powers” around 1920. From what my 1915-born maternal grandfather, who is now bed-ridden, told us, they did not have the material means to remove their hunger sufficiently let alone organize an effective Islamic resistance against the imposition of secularism.

But they did try to resist every way they could. For example, when the Kemalist regime banned the recitation of the Qur’an in the original Arabic, they hid their Qurans everwhere they could find and continued to recite the Quran in secret until the end of the ban. The propaganda of the Kemalists was that they were encouraging the reading of the Quran in Turkish in this way. However, that was utter nonsense because few people in Turkey could read Turkish in the newly promulgated Latin-based script. Besides, actually they would not trust the official translations of the Kemalist despots either… So my grandfather and his elders were sometimes caught when reciting or teaching the Qur’an and thus were punished but they never stopped. Even this shows how much the Turkish masses loved Islam and clung to it as far as they were able to.

I am among the minority who is luckier in terms of faith and intellectual awareness if not lucky in terms of socio-economic conditions. I know much more than the average Turk about the true characteristics of Islam and the shariah as well as the history of how we’ve been brainwashed by the secularist elites. That’s because I have always been interested in religion and history more than any average person in the world could be. My education in a liberal English-speaking Turkish university (a history education) also helped me to think beyond the borders of the Turkish official history. Also, forgive my sounding as if boasting, I was intellectually braver than most ordinary people who were deceived by the state-imposed propaganda that depicted religious people and even local imams as corrupt, narrow-minded, backward and outright evil people. Fethullah Gulen, as a former imam and preacher, is still depicted like that today by the so-called “mainstream” media. But not everyone in the world as well as in Turkey is supposed to be as intellectually lucky and intellectually aware as I am, and that is why I cannot blame most of my Turkish brothers and sisters who cannot question the official dogmas of the secular state imposed on them let alone struggle against what you quite aptly call the secularist oppression. They are forced to believe that the shariah is separate from Islam and to believe in many other deliberately false items of propaganda.

I hope this explanation will help foster some understanding for the Turks and the Fethullah Gulen movement among the Muslim brothers and sisters who read this. And I hope that it will show to all readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, how ridiculous are the arguments of the secularist elites regarding the dominant religious and secularism-related situation in Turkey as well as what the supposedly pro-Islamist, elected AK Party government is trying to do.

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