Changing Planet

Secular Democracy and Turkey

With the United States Capitol Building, symbolic of secular independence standing as a beacon of democracy in the background, a crowd of approximately one thousand — Turks, Turkish Americans and Turkophiles — walked in solidarity with the young protestors occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul.

June 2013 was not a good month for secular democracy in Turkey!

The United States was founded 237 years ago by group genius, by the likes of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison… all children of the Enlightenment, along with one military hero who became the symbolic “Father of the Nation.” In distinction the modern Turkish Republic was established 90 years ago, resurrected from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, by a single genius, Kemal Ataturk. After proving himself invincible as a military tactician, Ataturk launched a plethora of Western-style reforms, including the equality of genders and secular governance. In psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s monumental book, King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership, he stands at the pinnacle of all the national leaders of the 20th century. For most Turkish Nationals, Ataturk incorporated all the assets of the gifted group that had created the United States. In the closing days of the 20th century, when the editors of Time Magazine asked its readers to nominate the “Individual of the 20th century,” they were so inundated by Ataturk nominations that they had to close off the nomination process. (The choice of the editors was Albert Einstein, a symbol for the “Century of Science.”)

An unfortunate, but necessary provision in the constitution that Ataturk authored was the charge to the Army with having to serve as the guarantor of the constitution and of the secular nature of the nation. The series of blogs I’ve written for National Geographic Newswatch, include the following about Ataturk:

“Einstein’s Letter to Ataturk’s Turkey”
“Einstein and Ataturk (Part I)”
“Remembering Gallipoli I: Anzac Day 2011”

Although it was an imperfect democracy, Ataturk’s secular and Western-leaning Republic of Turkey represented a system infinitely superior to the one that has followed it in the past eleven years. Beginning in 2002 the newly elected AK Party immediately began the systematic dismantling of Ataturk’s reforms. Initially, Europe and America both saw Prime Minister Erdogan as a fresh face, a moderate Islamic leader in the sea of fundamentalists threatening to take power in the Middle East and North Africa. Western media and Western politicians have given Erdogan a pass that has allowed him greater room to maneuver. They failed to heed his words: “The 21st Century will see the Islamic Nation gain its premier position in the world.” In the last 2-3 years Mr. Erdogan’s Counter-Reformation has been accelerating. Speculations that he is establishing an Iranian-style Islamic Government, however, are only partially correct. The Parliament that he controls is on course to convert the Parliamentary System to a Presidency, not unlike the Russian-style Presidency à la Putin. Many, however, speculate that he ultimately seeks to reconstitute the ancient Ottoman Empire, a caliphate ruled by Sharia Law—and to crown himself the next Sultan.

On May 31, 2013 Turkish youth occupied Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. The government had announced plans to demolish the park and in its place to build an Ottoman Era Army Barracks and Museum, an adjoining shopping mall, and a mosque. To the young people this was the last straw. They were there not just to protest the bulldozing of a park. The destruction of a park in the urban center of Istanbul, after all, was no more significant than the bulldozing of Central Park in New York to create additional commercial property. Mr. Erdogan and his government were guilty of the systematic destruction of secular democracy.

Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay
  • VictorW

    Islam was the sole reason for the destruction of Ottomans through ignorance, and will also cause the ruin of Turkey. It was very unfortunate that Ataturk died so young, and could not make the additional reforms to prevent the development of minds such as that of Erdogan’s anywhere within the Turkish soil; very unfortunate, indeed

  • BeingHuman

    Blaming a religion is wrong. Turkey’s secularism is insane, what kind of secularism interferes in daily lifes of people? People enjoy more freedom in west than in turkey and no one object on how they dress or their women wear a scarf or not. In west you are either an ethiest, church going christian or other. Turkish govt. should make itself secular in true sence but should not intere in the lives of commoners.

    • Religion should be practiced according to individual belief, but not foisted on everyone else. I simply believe in the separation of Church and State.


  • Cetin

    Religion should be a personal matter. Something between you and your maker, practiced at home or places of worship of your choice.

    Religious believes should have no part in governments or public schools. To bring religion into a government is to discriminate those of other religious or no religious believes.

    Religion is the opium of the masses.

  • Daniel

    This article is a romanticisation of Ataturk. Ataturk proclaimed “Turkey for the Turks” and continued the policy of ethnic cleansing of Anatolia’s indigenous Christian population. His rule was authoritarian not democratic. What he did was align Turkey as a pro-western country which served western economic interests and continues to do so today, and that’s why he is seen as “great leader”. Have Americans forgotten the orphan exodus of 1921 when 20,000 Christian Armenian orphans were taken out of Turkey by the American Near East Relief organisation because Ataturk had given an ultimatum that the lives of Christians after a specific date could not be guaranteed? Yes, it is forgotten because Ataturk did not harm American interests, so therfore he’s a great leader!

  • Kyriacos Kyriakides

    If Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was so great, why did so many perish under his watch? Why are 20 plus million Kurds not able to learn their OWN language 90 years one? Oh, yes, I forget, they are able to take elective courses at the university! Why did he not create a state of EQUALS as he promised to Kurds in the 20s? Recall that Kurds lived in Kurdistan long before Turks set foot there. I am sorry. Kemal is revered by Kemalists alone, but Kemalists are the problem. Worst of all, they imposed on Cyprus exactly what they vehemently try to avoid at home, i.e. POLITICAL EQUALITY between majority and minority. I see immense suffering ahead, but not because of “mild Islamism”, but rather an immature society kept so by decades’ long Kemalist rule. Erdogan is building on very poor foundations built by but mostly in Ataturk’s name by “Kemalists” whose ideology is ethnic Turkish supremacy veiled under “secular democracy”. Personally, I expect the first true secular western-like Muslim democracy to come from Kurds.

  • Rashid

    Horrible and a very unfortunate one-sided article with so many accusations taken from extreme left that one doesn’t know how to even approach it. Turkey today is a functioning democracy, not perfect but not worse than several Eastern members of the EU. To throw so many unfounded allegations at the current prime minister makes the professor who wrote the article seem very bias, and it makes the magazine that published it very unprofessional in its editorial choices

  • Orkhun

    Primary problem of religious people is their lack of education and understanding as it is bind by other religious people whom they respect tells them what is right and wrong instead of themselves deciding and they believe secularism is atheism which is terribly wrong Secularism is the pillar of Democracy and Republic, it separates religion from politics, you can believe in religion and still be secular, but in a republic there are rules which everyone obeys and you can not challenge them as they are creating the equality for everyone.

  • udontknownothing

    where do you clowns pop up from. you hate erdogan but we love from turkey to other countries. quit hating. u dont run turkey.. stick with your own

  • muharrem sev

    What’s happening in Egypt may offer food for thought. Islam and democracy are not compatible doctrines.These two forces can coexist if one can tolerate the other. It is clear to me that Islam cannot tolerate democracy, yet the other way around it is possible because democracy is more flexible than religion.. It is a pity that the secular politicians in Turkey could not understand this simple truth. Instead, to keep Islamist parties out of Parliament, they instituted a ten per cent elective threshold which backfired on them in 2002, 2007 and 2011 general elections. Had secularists in Turkey made an accommodation for religious demands, such as allowing female students to cover their heads while attending school or female civil servants to do likewise while at work, they might have made further progress in moving Turkey towards modernity. Instead, they insisted on rigidity and exclusion of religion in public life which kept the country divided and eventually created a strong backlash. Similarly, the AKP policies are rigid, too Islamist and its leader is unbending towards opposition. Thus, the Gezi Park events portend great trouble for Turkey.

    • I agree with you. Had the secular governments before the AKP came into power been more accommodating of religious and ethnic groups, the present melt down would not have occurred. What I fear is that as an atmosphere of payback, as much as religious dogma, is fueling the present authoritarian government’s decisions. Even worst is that the Prime Minister happens to be charismatic speaker — confident, bellicose and articulate — who has surrounded himself with sycophant. The future appears bleak. Thank you for the incisive comment.

  • Nelsonel

    The article reminds us all what a major change the Turkish society has been going through under the present oppressive government and how a secular state founded by Ataturk is under serious threat. Democracy and Islamic rule are not compatible and there is no example of it working anywhere in the world. Turkish Prime Minister has restricted freedoms, imprisoned the opposition and suppressed the media. It is a well known fact that his main aim is to transform Ataturk’s Secular Republic into an Islamic state and is clear that he has no respect for the rule of law, of the Arts, or artists. The changes taking place in the last ten years in Turkey in this direction are a testimony to his actions and policies. The unlawful arrests and imprisonments of hundreds of innocent people and the curtailment of freedom of press have been widely reported. The Islamisation of Turkey with its covert oppression, especially of women, the dismantling of the independent Judiciary and the secular educational system have been the main changes that the AKP has brought about. More recently the public demonstrations are being banned and if they do take place, innocent people are faced with water cannons and tear gas under the orders of the Government.

  • Warren Master

    Provocative article – as the varied comments demonstrate. I lived and worked in Turkey in the mid-60s as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, in Ceyhan (a small town & sub-district of Adana in the south) and in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Ankara. My wife and I travelled from one corner of Turkey to the other in the 2 years we were there and experienced Ataturk’s brand of secular democracy in an overwhelmingly Muslim country 40 years after its birth. We thought this was an amazing accomplishment – even given the Army coups and other blind spots viewed from an American perspective (e.g., the 1915 Armenian “action,” suppression of the Kurdish language & culture, redacting whole pages in newspers and/or closing them down, etc.). Remember, Ataturk died in 1938, just as most of Europe was being overrun by fascism and Stalinism was about to begin crushing the rest. Well, while Bulent Atalay may express a higher regard for the founder of modern Turkey than others, and may have glossed over his and others’ blind spots, just look at where Turkey is today. That said, time will tell if this thriving democracy now 90 years old and Erdogan himself can find the resiliency and emotional I telligence to keep evolving with the times. Let the exchange of ideas continue. :-))

  • Nur

    Excellent points Prof. Atalay. Separation of Church and State is definitely the key to progress and modernization. Ataturk was a humanist above all. After fighting in so many wars, he wanted peace not only for his own people, but for the whole world… As a Turkish-American woman, I take pride in how Ataturk inspired the Turks to struggle and save the Turkish nation from captivity. Turkish women are grateful that the advancement of women was on top of Ataturk’s list, and it was one of the main points of his social, religious and legal reforms. The latest “Gezi Park” protests that were started by young people expresses the view of not only the Turkish youth, but people of all ages who are determined to secure Turkey’s secularism, its dignity and its peaceful existence.

  • Andreas Zogopoulou

    I fully agree with Prof. Atalay. Kemal Atatürk was certainly one of the most brilliant leaders the 20th century has created and Turkey was the lucky recipient of this remarkable man. Yes, Islamic Canon Law and Democracy will not mix naturally, but Atatürk was able to successfully accomplish this anomaly.
    Incidentally, I can’t help but laugh at the ignorance of fellow Greek Kyriacos Kyriakides…he definitely needs to read up on Kurdish history and Kurdish problem of Turkey.
    Leaders like Erdoğan and Morsy need to learn that politicising religions will backfire sooner or later. Erdoğan and his klan need to go and leave modern Turkey with its great Atatürk legacy. Long live Kemalism….thank you Prof. Atalay for your comments.

    • You are extraordinarily gracious to write as you do. In front of the Greek Embassy in Washington, DC stands a beautiful statue of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. A genuinely enlightened statesman, Mr. Venizelos came to admire Ataturk, nominating his former foe for the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize. Ataturk’s message of “Peace at home, peace in the world,” must have resonated with him. He also deeded the ownership of Ataturk’s birthplace, 17 Apostolou Pavlou in Thessalonica, to the Turkish people. Statesmen like Ataturk and Venizelos were rare in the 20th century, and they are even rarer now. Thank you for the kind comment.

  • George Demirgioglu

    Tayyib Erdogan leave the country alone. You should go to Saudi Arabia and live there. I wish I could bring back Ataturk to throw you in jail for the rest of your life as you did to others for no good reason at all. You should be ashamed of yourself

  • Tahsin

    Many Turks disagree with Bulent Atalay’s view point. He is presenting Kemalist minority’s view point which is detached from reality. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been elected 3 times in a row and is the choice of the Turkish people. They are campaining hard to draw a bad picture of Tayyip Erdogan in the western media because they know that they cannot fool the turkish people anymore.

    • If this is the minority point of view, that is fine. But in a Democratic system, is the oppression of minority justifiable. That is precisely what we saw happening at Gezi Park. Calling demonstrators “çapulcular,” then elevating the language and describing them as “anarchists” and “Marxists,” cannot be a justifiable response, at least as we see Democracy in the United States and in Western Europe.

  • ellen reisman

    Like may others, we were hopeful that a religiously observant person could uphold secular democracy in Turkey. Perhaps we were naive…perhaps we ignored warning signs because we wanted to believe that an Islamist could be moderate. But we soon came to understand that being a “moderate” Islamist is like being a little bit pregnant. Both are ludicrous.

  • Fugen Cakır Erek

    I fully agree with your article. One sided democracy is not accepted. We have to cover all country .

  • Hülya Taşkın

    I fully agree that secularism is a must in a true democracy, and I do not believe that right now there is democracy in Turkey. There are still people who long for the “Ottoman days,” but that is history now. There is no logic in trying to move to the past, we should look forward, Everyone should try to understand Ataturk, if they can, they will see that he was trying to do the best for the people living in the country of the new nation he founded.

  • Engin Ege

    Over the past decade Erdogan has used his position to systematically oppress any differing opinion and therefore threat to his power (e.g., military, journalists, citizens). Whether or not you agree with Bulent’s portrayal of Ataturk, surely you must see something wrong with a leader who is jailing journalists and calling protestors “terrorists.” Turkey is a country rich with the history of many ethnic and religious identities, and needs a leader that will honor and celebrate such diversity.

  • Sili Özerdim Giraud

    I FULLY AGREE. Secularism is a must for our country. The reason Turkey still survives is that the religion and state are separated in our constution. Now, Erdogan is trying to change this very important fact. He is acting just like a dictator, dictating everything to us. Whoever acts against his [decrees] ends up in prison. Prisons are filled with brilliant people, who are against his thoughts. The soul of our country needs to be awakened. When leaders act contrary to our [sensibilities], we must [resist] the leaders. “Those who cannot speak their minds are slaves” (EURİPİDES), and we do not want to be slaves. We deserve to live in a free state that our beloved leader ATATURK created.

  • Lale Gurman

    I really am confused to come across here-in such a high degree article by Mr. Atalay- some unfounded allegations in this century where it is so easy to provide whatever topic is needed, apart from infonography.
    The short history of Turkey is concisely depicted by Mr Atalay in this piece of writing for those who has no or little acquaintance/false data with Turkish history, background and culture. It is the camel’s nose to argy-bargy here but I cannot pass without touching on some comments. The most noteworthy is about religion (an unending story both in the east and west). If once common sense is attained about the general appreciation of religion, which is to leave it to people’s own perceptions, -leave aside trying to impress people in another country- instead of overwhelming and emposing with something which you don’t have any slightest idea about, such as Islam. Although some commentators here are unaware of the Prime Minister’s background and Islam, they think they have authorization to talk on these and shamelessly assert that they(?) “were hopeful that a religiously observant person could uphold secular democracy in Turkey” and what’s more, after all happenings, they try to take themselves apart with the words, “ ..perhaps we were naive”!
    Ladies/gentlemen, why don’t some give the devil his due? When Erdogan was not even a member of Parliament in his country who and why some people abroad supported and prompted for him? And a few words for these commentators who suggest here the divinity of elections: Is an election divine and untouchable if it is manipulated and so, shady in the real meaning of the word?
    As for “Kurdish problem” in Turkey, please do have knowledge at first and then please answer: If there’s no ban for an etnisity (not only for Kurdish in origin, but for others also) in a country and anyone of any etnisity could be a prime minister, president, chief of defense, minister, whatever he/she is talented for, let aside can talk his mother tonque without any interruption but cannot claim his vernacular language in schools (as in USA, and others), is that to be blamed for?

  • naci kaptan

    I fully agree with Prof. Bulent Atalay.

    Kemal Atatürk was certainly one of the most brilliant leaders the 20th century has created and Turkey was the lucky recipient of this remarkable man.

    I fully agree that secularism is a must in a true democracy, and I do not believe that right now there is democracy in Turkey. The reason Turkey still survives is that the religion and state are separated in our constution. Now, Erdogan is trying to change this very important fact. He is acting just like a dictator, dictating everything to us. Whoever acts against his [decrees] ends up in prison.

    Prisons are filled with brilliant people, who are against his thoughts. The soul of our country needs to be awakened. When leaders act contrary to our [sensibilities], we must [resist] the leaders. “Those who cannot speak their minds are slaves” (EURİPİDES), and we do not want to be slaves. We deserve to live in a free state that our beloved leader ATATURK created.

    There are still people who long for the “Ottoman days,” but that is history now. There is no logic in trying to move to the past, we should look forward, Everyone should try to understand Ataturk, if they can, they will see that he was trying to do the best for the people living in the country of the new nation he founded.

  • F.D.

    One does not have to be a genius to recognize that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Just look around, and you will see how the Islamic countries are violating the basic norms of human rights and democracy. The more Islamic, the fewer liberties. These countries are also in a state of unrest, if not within, with their neighbors. Unlike the West, which had its Reformation and Enlightenment, Islam was not given a chance to reform itself, and superstition and dogma became the cohesive force. That resulted in Islamic countries falling behind in arts and sciences, and along with it, in democratic traditions. Kemal Atatürk, a visionary by all accounts, recognized the debilitating effect of religious dogma on society, and for Turkey prescribed a path based on reason and secularism. It was a path to modernity. Keep religion and the affairs of the state separate, was the dictum.

    Re-human rights, just consider the treatment, in fact the abasement, of women in countries run by Islamic law and traditions. It is fair to ask, for example: How many Moslem women wear Islamic garments as a matter of personal choice, and not because of brainwashing or pressure from their men folks? And how they feel covering themselves tightly from head to feet in the seer of summer heat? Not to mention the violence many women undergo.

    The Western media, unfortunately, has also been astonishingly shortsighted and pedestrian in associating democracy with victory at the ballot box. Such is the message carried in claims pronounced as “democratically elected.” Victory at the ballot box – apart from the question of legitimacy of the voting results – is no guarantee of democracy. When a “democratically elected” politician abuses his/her electoral victory, establishes a repressive and authoritarian rule, denounces the foundation of the very Constitution to which he/she pledged allegiance, manipulates the judiciary, usurps the powers of the legislative body, cannot tolerate criticism, intimidates the media into submission, and the imprisonment of his/her opponents reaches record levels – all amounting to a de facto civilian coup – it is ridiculous to further talk about “democracy.”

  • Tijen Arik

    The AKP government has been systematically chipping away at the secular democratic Republic of Turkey established by Ataturk. Ataturk was the enemy of the backward religious groups driven by dogma and superstition, and today the Turks who follow Ataturk’s principles are the biggest threat to the AKP government. In the modern age governments that oppress and limit personal freedoms are seen for what they are, and it is only a matter of time before they too will collapse.

  • Mine Uysal

    In the article dated July 4, 2013 and in comments made in response, there are some points that need to be clarified, as well as points that are clear enough. First of all, I would like to say I’m really fed up with this exploitation of Armenian “action”, this plundering of history, instead of examining historical events in their contexts, which is certainly much more difficult than the raping, plundering “method”. In Turkey minorities or ethnicities other than Turks that constitute the founding majority have the same human rights as the ethnic Turks and as other ethnicities in other countries. Finally, I would like to thank to Mr. Atalay for his lucid, concise and honest explanation concerning Atatürk and Turkish History.

  • Melis Giraud

    We, the inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean: Turks, Greeks, Cypriots, Arabs, Kurds, Levantines… “United we stand, divided we fall” instead of, “united we fall, divided we stand” as the Western World imposes on the Middle East and Eastern Med (and many other places on planet earth).

    Whether Christian, Muslim or another religion, a secular government of the nation is the guarantee of free practice.

    Wake up and keep the money makers out of your history and out of our life. Learn your history correctly to save today and the future.

  • Murat MOLU

    The secular and contemporary Turkish republic is established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the ashes of the Ottomans. Therefore the moderated Islamic project or other antidemocratic politics have never been alive in Turkey.

  • Seyma Arsel

    Turkey is going through a period of enlightenment just like all the Western World did hundreds of years ago. Basing rules and regulations and laws on ways suggested by religion 1400 years ago is not at all practical in the 21st century and therefore, harmful to the present society.

    We Turks only hope that our International Friends and Allies understand, that if they close their eyes to what is happening in Turkey, they will also have problems on their hands in due course. Ignorance fuelled by fanaticism is dangerous for everyone.

  • Lolly w.

    What a superb article written by Professor Atalay. It is painfully apparent that Turkey is a nation that has reversed it’s direction under the present leadership. It is my sincere hope that the Turks will wake up and realize that, under the current rule, freedom and equality will only be a memory.
    Dr. Atalay, you have enlightened all of us. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Fairs

    Too much religion has never been a good thing. Turkey or any other Islamic nation will never prosper until it keeps religion in the mosque, the home and the heart. Not in schools, government or the military. If you want to find poverty in the world just look for a country where the church has too much influence.

  • Cem Ismen

    Secularism is a must for our country. Separation of Church-Mosque and State is MUST

  • Nergis Dolunay-Sursal

    Turkey, according to its constitution is a secular country. There are quite a few reasons why it should be kept secular. One of them being the right to practice according to one’s beliefs and avoiding the interference of religion to politics. Although religion is a useful institution which consoles us and gives us courage and makes us a better person, it is metaphysical and based on faith. However, people need a government and parliament that uses scientific methods and judgement based on facts. Therefore no one should talk about an Islamic government of Turkey mild or not.
    As for the protesters in Turkey, from the very beginning when they were opposing the elimination of a patch of green in the center of the city where young and old were enjoying the nature, they were using their constitutional rights to have a peaceful protest. In spite of their peaceful opposition the AK Party government used un-proportional response by attacking on the protesters by tear gas, water cannons (TOMAS) and plastic bullets (using their police force who should in the first place protect the people), which has killed 5 people and wounded and maimed hundreds.

    There is no excuse [for the government] to attack its own people engaged in peaceful protest and there is no excuse for disenfranchising 48% of its people because they do not always agree with the policies of the government.

  • Louis

    I have been to this country and talked to the people in 2009. This article captures their voices and love for Ataturk’s old policy’s.

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