Another loss for Turkish secularism

Turkey recently had a referendum on constitutional changes, in which the ruling party enjoyed a crushing victory.

The Western press, to the extent it paid attention, was preoccupied with questions such as whether this was a victory for democracy, and whether it was a victory for Islamism. The answer to both is yes. Western powers need not worry: the ruling Islamists in Turkey are loyal economic neoliberals, and they are far from the ridiculous bomb-tossing image of Islamism promoted by our holy warriors against Islam. They are the democratically legitimate voice of a majority in Turkey, even if you have to qualify that by observing that democracy is as debased in Turkey as other third world countries, such as the United States.

A more interesting concern was aired among secular intellectuals in Turkey as part of the lead-up to the referendum. This was more than the usual alarm-raising about the future of Turkish secularism. After all, the Turkish version of military-backed secularism is already just about dead; there is no point in continuing to worry about it. The worry I hear more often these days is that the Erdoğan government is turning increasingly dictatorial, using democracy as a device for imposing a tyranny of the majority. The way things are going, living a secular life is going to be increasingly difficult in a country where the institutions of the state are heavily influenced by religious brotherhoods, and religious solidarity networks are major factors in both the formal and informal economy. The proposed (and now approved) constitutional changes included measures to bring the judiciary under closer government control. Secularists worry that by undermining whatever (already compromised) independence the judiciary possesses, the modified constitution gives an even freer hand to a government bent on making Islam the touchstone of political and cultural legitimacy.

All of this is reasonable. If I were still living in Turkey, I’d be worried about much the same things, and I’d be joining in the usual futile gestures including voting against the Islamists.

But I haven’t lived there for nearly a quarter of a century, and looking from the outside, I have to say that Turkish secularist worries also come across as the whining of a privileged class that has lost its commanding position.

The means of cultural reproduction, no less than economic production, are fiercely contested in politics. There are many possible property regimes and institutional arrangements, and changes in them have consequences about the creation and  distribution of wealth. I see nothing illegitimate in engaging in politics on such a basis. But similarly, culture and religion is also a strong motivation for many people’s political engagement. There are many possible institutional arrangements regarding culture and the state, and changes in these arrangements alter the landscape of reproductive fitness for culture. Once upon a time in Turkey, cultural Westernization and secularism were privileged. This has become less so of late, and there are no signs of change in that trend.

There is a secular liberal conviction that somehow secularity ought to be privileged, to the extent that it should shape the public sphere while shunting religion off to a domain of private worship. Turkish religious conservatives, like their brethren from other countries and religion, naturally grant no force to such a conviction. All whining aside, this is a political contest. And in Turkey, for now, and as usual, the secularists have lost.

All anyone with sympathies to Turkish secularism can hope for is that the secularists will keep trying, and that in the future their ideas may remain alive enough to regain influence if the opportunity arises. The likelihood of this appears, however, to be diminishing with every year.