Ahmet T. Kuru is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. He was Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion at SIPA of Columbia University. His dissertation received the American Political Science Association’s Religion and Politics Section’s best dissertation award. Its revised version was published by Cambridge University Press with the title Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey. Kuru is also the author of articles published in journals including World Politics, Comparative Politics, and Political Science Quarterly.
Changing Turkey: First of all, Congratulations for having received the American Political Science Association, Religion and Politics Section’s Aaron Wildavsky Award for the best dissertation in 2007! Could you tell us a bit about your recent/forthcoming research? How do you evaluate the rise of the Justice and Development Party and its conflicts with the secular segments of the Turkish society?
Ahmet Kuru: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my research experience with the readers of your important and insightful blog. My book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey, asks why constitutionally secular states pursue substantially different policies on religion, particularly in schools. Three cases I analyze—the US, France, and Turkey—indicate sharp differences both in general policy trends and in particular policies, such as the ban on Muslim students’ headscarves. Current American policies have been largely tolerant toward religion, whereas French and Turkish policies generally prohibit public visibility of religion. I argue that state policies toward religion are the result of ideological struggles between the defenders of two types of secularism. In the US, the dominant ideology is what I call “passive secularism,” which allows public visibility of religion. The dominant ideology in France and Turkey, however, is “assertive secularism,” which aims to establish a secular public sphere and confine religion to the private domain.
The state-religion debate in Turkey occurs between two groups – the Kemalists (including the main opposition Republican People’s Party) and pro-Islamic conservatives (such as the ruling Justice and Development Party). The Kemalists criticize the conservatives for not embracing secularism and for having a hidden Islamist agenda. According to the conservatives, the Kemalists do not defend secularism; rather they defend an antireligious regime. My book argues that the debate between the Kemalists and conservatives is not a conflict between antireligionism and Islamism and, but rather it is a struggle between assertive and passive versions of secularism. The Kemalists have defended assertive secularism, which aims to eliminate Islam, in particular, and religion, in general, from the public sphere, whereas the conservatives have tried to replace it with passive secularism, which allows the public visibility of religion.
In addition to its analysis of contemporary politics, my book also explores how the historical conditions, particularly the presence or absence of an ancien régime based on the marriage between monarchy and hegemonic religion, played important roles in bringing about the dominance of passive or assertive secularism during the state-building periods in America (1776-1791), France (1875-1905), and Turkey (1923-1937). These conditions shape the consensual origin of passive secularism and the conflictual basis of assertive secularism. In sum, the book examines the historical birth of two distinct secular ideologies, their dominance and persistence until the present, and their impact on current policies.
Having published the book on secularism, I have started my second project which analyzes democracy and authoritarianism in 45 Muslim-majority countries. I am testing the validity of explanations based on the a) alleged incompatibility of Islam and secularism, b) subordination of women, and c) difference between Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries. I critically evaluate these variables and develop my own argument about the impact of the effects of regional neighbourhood and oil revenue on authoritarianism.
Changing Turkey: What are the potential limitations of the existing analyses on Turkish politics and society, in your opinion? Could you suggest any gaps in the literature or any potential pitfalls?
Ahmet Kuru: One of the gaps in the literature of Turkish Studies is the lack of systematic comparative analysis. That is largely due to the myth of Turkish exceptionalism that presents Turkey as a unique case hard to be compared with other countries. For example, Turkey has generally been presented as an exception in terms of combining Muslim-majority society with a secular state. This is a misleading presentation. It is true that Turkey was the first secular state in the Muslim world. Yet it is not the only secular state. There are two main criteria to evaluate state-Islam relations: a) whether Islam is an official religion and b) whether Islamic law is the basis of the legislature and courts. Out of 46 Muslim-majority states only 11 are “Islamic states” (fulfilling both criteria), 15 are “states with Islam as established religion” (fulfilling the first criterion but not the second), and 20 are “secular states” (fulfilling none of the two criteria) (See Kuru 2009, Appendix C).
Changing Turkey: Could you suggest any publications about Turkish politics and society?
Ahmet Kuru: Demiralp, Seda. 2009. “The Rise of Islamic Capital and the Decline of Islamic Radicalism in Turkey,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 41, No. 3.
Kuru, Ahmet T. 2009. Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Turam, Berna. 2007. Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.
See also, Comment on the Interview with Dr. Ahmet T. Kuru: “What Kind of Secularism? Policies, Justifications, and Scope” by Dr. Sune Laegaard