by Rob Huggins
Many people have forgotten about the persecution and bloodshed leading our founding fathers to separate church and state. We’re centuries past the atrocities leading to those decisions, so it is hard to recognize the problems that come along with a majority version of Christianity imposing its will on all other Christians and faiths. Sometimes one must look at an issue in another context to better understand their own situation.
I have several friends in Turkey that have given me a different perspective on this issue. When October 29th rolls around, I start seeing pictures of a man named Atatürk alongside Turkish flags. October 29th is Republic Day in Turkey, and it is similar to our Independence Day. This day is very important to many people, because it is the day the secular Republic replaced the Islamic state government of the Ottoman Empire. The freedom this brought to the people of Turkey cost many lives, and the struggle to maintain modern progress has been a struggle right up to the present day.
From 1894 until 1917 the crumbling Ottoman Empire lashed out at minority groups like the Armenian Christians. Concentration camps were set up across the country, and around 1.5 million people were killed in death marches and mass executions. The bloody consequences of the Islamic state’s intolerance had reached a level of atrocity that could not be continued.
After the Ottoman Empire fell, the Republic of Turkey rose in its place with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the leader. The history of moving toward more religious tolerance was complex, and just as our founding fathers did not end slavery the day they declared all men were created equal, Turkey’s founding fathers didn’t achieve all of their ideals the day the Republic was founded.
They did set forth six founding principles that the country would aspire to achieve over the next century, and one of these principles was Laicism. Laicism is the Turkish version of separating church and state. The desire to secularize the government was not just to stop the bloodshed. As their constitution says it is an attempt to achieve “a civilized way of life that forms the basis for an understanding of freedom and democracy, for independence, national sovereignty, and the humanist ideal, which have developed as a result of overcoming medieval dogmatism in favor of the primacy of reason and enlightened sciences.”
Unfortunately, the ideal did not last. In order to achieve a secular state, Turkey needed a radical cultural revolution. The reforms removing Islam from the government left many Muslims feeling that the state was trying to control their religion. By the 50’s, a political backlash had grown within the Conservative Democratic Party, and Islam became a political tool used to garner support for political objectives.
Over the decades, Islam fought its way back into various aspects of public life until the modern day where we see Turkey dominated by the AK Party which appeals to the Islamic faith for support, but there are those that remember the concept of Laicism. In 2013, we saw mass protests with people flying Turkish flags with pictures of Atatürk. Those without context for these events simply lumped the protests in with the Arab Spring, however these protests had a unique secular origin.
What actually led up to the unrest was a series of encroachments by the religious majority on the private secular lives of citizens. Laws regarding obscenity were used to restrict art and music. Attempts were made to stop protests promoting secular ideals. Abortion illegalization, alcohol restriction, kissing regulation, and gender segregation laws were being brought to parliament supported by religiously motivated moral supporters. Plans were made for a state built mosque, and public officials were openly opposing LGBT rights.
99.8% of the Turkish population is Muslim according to the CIA World Factbook, so these reforms were not unpopular due to a lack of Islamic faith in the country. It’s simply a fact that not all Muslims are alike, so the government couldn’t impose these Islamic beliefs on the populace without infringing on the personal choices of many of their citizens.
You can see many parallels between the story of Turkey and our own history here in the United States. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” He too believed in the ideal of a secular government.
We too saw religion creep back into our government in the 50’s with “In God We Trust” replacing E. Pluribus Unum. on our Great Seal. “Under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance, and the modern legal precedence prohibiting public schools from leading students in prayer and Bible reading wouldn’t come until the 60’s.
In my home town of Springfield, Missouri, I see the modern struggles of Turkey being mirrored in my local government. Our government successfully legalized discrimination against the LGBT community. Attempts have even been made to reign in protests outside the religious norm. On the national scale we see questions being raised about whether an employer should be able to use their religious beliefs to dictate the health care their employees have access to, and the right of LGBT individuals to marry has been openly protested based on the religious beliefs of people not in the LGBT community. Our public schools face attempts to put the religious belief of a creation into secular science classes. We pride ourselves for our freedoms, yet even today the struggle to keep religion and government separate continues.
For those within the Christian majority of our country, it may be hard to see how our government mirroring their personal values would be a problem, however Christians really aren’t as different from the Muslims in Turkey as it first may seem. Not every church shares the Catholic view on birth control. Not every church views the LGBT community as a group that needs to be suppressed, and not everyone is Christian. The foundation of religious freedom starts with a secular government. It is not hard to imagine oneself participating in the Turkish protests if you were born in Turkey as something other than a Sunni Muslim. The need for a separation of church and state shouldn’t still be questioned even if you do worship in the same way as a majority of Americans.
Both our great nations have rich religious histories, and many good men from both religions did amazing things for our nations. However, next time you see a Turkish flag, think of the principle we’ve both aspired to achieve since our founding. Think of the dream of religious freedom that can only come under a secular government allowing people to differ in their beliefs. There is no reason we can’t both enjoy our respective religions or lack thereof without also enjoying a society that does not try to force the majority religion into the government. Just as we no longer question whether all men should be free, perhaps one day our societies will stop questioning whether religion has any place in government.