Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Relevance of Turkish Secularism

In a way Turkey is the Japan of the Middle East. Japan was the first non-ethnically European nation to modernize and consequently provides a counterexample to many social or political arguments that Westerners forget no longer apply only to them: no, you don't need Christianity to build a productive stable society based on the rule of law, and no, as Hernando de Soto observed, it's obviously not the Protestant work ethic that built Japan (unless you count Zen, Nichiren and Shingon as Protestant). All this happened after a blindingly fast two-generation centralized transition from the feudal Iron Age to a modern industrial power.

Like Japan, Turkey came from a less-than-developed state (although it was a faded great power) and, in a rapid and centralized manner, was transformed into a secular country. It Romanized its alphabet and eventually joined NATO (can you imagine this happening in Iraq now, even post-conquest?) Critics are right to point out that during this same period Turkey also committed genocide. (For those critics are Christian "all mass-murderers are atheists" bandwagon-jumpers, I would ask whether Turkey becoming Islamic again is what they have in mind. As a part Native American, I would also ask if my own country is completely innocent of the same charge.)

Still, the fact remains that today Turkey is the only secular country in the Middle East. It's worth paying attention to, particularly because many Turks value their secularism and are willing to stick their necks out for it, and it's been somewhat eroded lately. Most interesting from an Americans' perspective is the alignment of secular vs. Islamist interests. In Turkey the most strongly pro-secular element is the military, and it's civilian populists who make a (not unreasonable!) argument that the military should increasingly be subject to the same scrutiny as everyone else.

My knowledge of Turkish politics is very superficial, and my purpose in posting this is to point out how political factions can align differently elsewhere. It's particularly useful for Westerners who want to defend secular values in their own country to watch how events are playing out in other parts of the world, where the constellation of interests is very different.

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