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Principles of Western democracy

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Arguably, one of the fundamental principles of Western democracy is the separation of church and state. Despite much controversy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk achieved this through his federal leadership role in the development of Turkish society of the 1920s and `30s. He sought to decrease the cultural, political and economic disparity between Turkey and other European countries by transforming his homeland into a modern, democratic, and secular nation-state in which the role of religion would be diminished, quite contrary to traditional Islamic principles. The modernization of the Kemalist movement, while not without a struggle, brought this gradually reforming nation into a new era in which the long-forgotten rights and freedoms of its people became a priority. This was especially demonstrated in societal factors such as adjustments in government organization, education, the abolishment of discriminatory religious traditions and an increase in economic opportunity and women’s rights. These concepts were selected based on more successful foreign practices, which Kemal believed would lead to a much healthier and well-rounded national identity.

After the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24th, 1923, the wheels of revolution began to turn (Dupont 43). Later that year, the People’s Republic of Turkey was established as an outcome of the independence war (Mango, 394). With the establishment of the People’s Republic of Turkey, efforts to modernize the country began; the institutions and constitutions of several Western states were explored and adjusted according to the distinctive wants and needs of the Turkish nation (Mango, 394). In doing so, Turkish society was seemingly altered. No longer would it perceive itself simply as a territory composed of mostly Muslim subjects, but as a people of similar interests, recognizing their unique identity as citizens of a newly-founded nation-state (Mango, 394).

At the heart of this new republic was the Grand National Assembly (GNA), which was established during the Turkish War of Independence by Mustafa Kemal (Kocak, 2005). Within the assembly, there were free elections and voting was done using an egalitarian electoral system which was based on a general ballot. The GNA had the right to select and control both the government and the Prime Minister at any given time (Kocak, 2005). The only political party of the GNA was the “People’s Party” that was founded by Mustafa Kemal in the initial years of the independence war. While this was not ideal, it was a necessary part of the transition process. The single-party regime was established “de facto” in 1925 after the adoption of the 1924 constitution (Gülek 138). On September 9th, 1923 the party was renamed the Republican People’s Party (Gülek 142). This seems to have been the first real step towards democracy in Turkey.

According to the Kemalist principles, the Turkish state was expected to neither promote nor condemn any set of religious beliefs” (Olson 166). Kemalism was consciously neutral and any faith-related actions were to be carefully analyzed and appraised by the government through the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which was formed to manage the religious affairs and institutions in the country (Olson 165).

Legal reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal included a secular constitution with the absolute disconnection of government and religion, the substitution of Islamic courts and canon laws with a secular civil code based on the Swiss model, and a penal code based on the Italian model (Thomas, 32). Clearly, the Ottoman Empire had dissipated not only because of its old-fashioned schemes, but also due to the fact that its traditions were not pertinent to the needs of its era; especially the rules relating to criminal cases, as were limited in effectively serving their purpose (Thomas, 31).

These fundamental reforms allowed the Turkish nation to employ popular sovereignty through representative democracy (Kushner 227). This called for the dismantlement of the two main offices that were entitled to the sovereignty of the people; the Ottoman Dynasty on November 1, 1922, and the Caliphate on March 3, 1924 (Cinar 370). Those archaic institutions were replaced by the Turkish republic and the subsequent adoption of the Turkish Constitution of 1924 (Cinar 371). The new system, which gave primacy to Kemalist values, established the offices of Prime Minister and President while legislative power was directed within the unicameral Grand National Assembly (Rustow 820).

Shortly after, on February 25, 1925, the Turkish parliament passed a law stating that religion was not to be used as a political instrument (Cinar 378). Yet it was difficult to bring this law to life in a country whose scholars were dominated by the ulema: guardians of Muslim religious law, tradition, and theology (Dupont 50). Kemalist ideology fought superstition by banning the practices of the ulema and promoting the civilized ways of the West with established lawyers, teachers and medical practitioners (Dupont 51). The strategy aimed to disrupt the strong influence of the ulema over politics by removing them from the social structure (Cinar, 372). However, there was a risk that the party would be perceived as anti-religious, so the Kemalist regime defended themselves by stating that Islam was viewed similarly to all non-scientific views (Neyzi 152).

For the first time in history, Islamic law was clearly separated from the secular law of the nation and restricted to its religious sphere (Mecham 356). Under the new code, women gained equality with men in such matters as inheritance and divorce (Mecham 356). Ottoman practice discouraged the social interaction between men and women associated with the Islamic practice of sex segregation (White 150). Being so extreme, the establishment these laws needed time, so the inclusion of certain principles was delayed until February 5th, 1937. Meanwhile, according to Kemalist theory, society marched towards its goal with all its women and men together (White 149). Kemal believed that it would be impossible for him to progress and to become civilized if such gender disparity were to continue (White 150).

Yet, Kemalist ideology was, in fact, based exclusively on the value of Turkish citizenship (White 150). A sense of honor associated with being Turkish would give the needed psychological stimulation for people to work harder and achieve a sense of unity and national identity (Karpat 307).

Kemalist criteria for national identity or simply being a Turk referred to a shared language, shared values identified as a common history, and the resolve to share a future in harmony (Kushner 4). Kemalist nationalism was not discriminatory, as membership was usually gained through birth within the borders of the state (White 151). Every citizen was recognized as a Turk, regardless of ethnicity, belief, or gender. Turkish nationality laws stated that one can only be dispossessed of his or her nationality through an act of treason (Karpat 306).

It is important to remember, though, that Kemalist secularism was not in favor of incredulity or the rejection of faith; it simply promotes freedom of thought and the independence of state institutions from religious dominance (Turkes 109). In neutralizing political Islam, Kemalism strived to develop a liberal, pluralistic Islam on the social front (Cinar, 384). The Kemalist principle of secularism was not against an enlightened Islam, but against an Islam opposed to modernization and democracy, which would improve the Turkish quality of life (Turkes 100). This method of separating state and religion shadowed the replacement of an entire set of institutions and interest groups, as well as the relationships between those institutions and the political regulations that governed their functions such as constitution and election law (Turkes 108). The removal of the Ottoman Caliphate was followed by the removal of its political mechanisms and the article stating that “the established religion of Turkey is Islam” was officially removed from the constitution (Dupont 52).

Clearly, the abolition of the Caliphate was an extremely important factor in Mustafa Kemal’s attempt to reform Turkey’s political system and to promote its existence as a sovereign nation (Neyzi 141). The Caliphate had been the core political concept of Islam, by the consensus of the Muslim majority very early on (Neyzi 140). Therefore, abolishing the sultanate was easier, since the survival of the Caliphate seemed to satisfy the members of the sultanate (Karpat 308). This produced a disfunctional two-headed system with the new republic on one side and an Islamic government on the other (Karpat 309). This brought about concern that the state nourished expectations that the sovereign would return under the pretext of Caliph, which was soon after abolished and its powers within Turkey were transferred to the GNA (Gülek 140).

The removal of the Caliphate was followed by an extensive effort to separate government and religious affairs (Gülek 139). Not only were all the social institutions of Turkish society reorganized, but the fundamental values of the state were replaced as well (Neyzi 151).

Kemalism ideology replaced the absolutism of the Ottoman Dynasty with new laws, popular sovereignty and civic virtues with an emphasizing the liberty of the Turkish people (Cinar 166). This is why Kemal’s form of republicanism defined a constitutional republic in which all government officials are elected to represent the people and must govern according to existing constitutional law which limiting the government’s power the Turks (Kushner 230).

The head(s) of state and other officials were now chosen by election, rather than inheriting their positions, and their decisions were always subject to judicial review (Olson 165). This is a huge improvement on behalf of the Kemalists, as all laws of Republic of Turkey were to be inspired by the actual needs of the population (White 152). Active participation, or the “will of the people”, was established with this republican regime and nationality rather than other forms of affiliations was promoted (Mehmet 53).

The next step in Turkish democratization was the alteration of the national education system. In 1923, there were three main horizontal educational institutions: The most common institution was the local school based on Arabic language, the Qur’an and the other type of institution was the reformist school: the colleges and minority schools which taught in foreign languages that used the modern teaching models to educate their pupils (Szyliowicz 161). Mustafa Kemal changed the classical Islamic education with a strongly supported reconstruction of educational institutions along the line of an enlightened pragmatism (Szyliowicz 162). He felt that the purpose of education in Turkey was to rais a generation of publicly cultured people (Perry 300). In 1924 the state schools created a common curriculum which became known as the “unification of education” to encourage contemporary citizen awareness (Taeuber 122).

Mustafa Kemal was also interested in adult education in order to form a basic, common skill base in the country (Brockett 49). Turkish women were taught not only home economics, but also the tools that they needed in order to become a productive part of the general economy (White 148). Education became an integrative system, aimed at alleviating poverty and establishing greater gender equality (White 149).

Then, on November 1, 1928, Mustafa Kemal introduced the Turkish alphabet as a replacement for Arabic script and as a solution to the literacy problem (Brockett 52). Although it was a dramatic change, the removal of Arabic script was deemed inappropriate for the authentic Turkish phonetics, which required a new set of symbols to be accurately represented (Brockett 52). The abandonment of the Arabic script was not just a “symbolic expression of secularization” by breaking the link to Ottoman Islamic texts, but Latin script would also make learning to read and write less complicated to learn and would consequently improve the literacy rate (Brockett 50). As little as ten percent of the population was literate at the time, but the adaptation to the new alphabet was very quick, as Kemal himself actively encouraged people and even taught it himself (Szyliowicz 162).

Further adjustments to Turkish society were eventually implemented, increasing the individual rights of women, and promoting their equality within Turkish culture. Beginning in 1923, a series of laws were formed to limit the wearing of certain traditional clothes, such as the veil and turban, while encouraging the styles of the Western World (White 145). Traditional Ottoman attire clearly and divisively represented the gender, social status and occupations of its people – a trend which was frowned upon by the Kemalists (Rustow 815). These styles had been strictly regulation for many generations, enhancing the classifications of feudalism (White 146). The Kemalist goal to change this was achieved through the direction of these new, progressive customs and the eventual prohibition of many traditional customs (White 146).

The idea of such social change was that permanence of secularism could be maintained by the removal of traditional cultural values and the religious labels which threatened the new ideology (Rustow 815). These changes in the Turkish civil code brought about legal equality between the sexes (White 145). Women also gained many other rights and freedoms at this time; reforms instituted legal equality and full political rights for both sexes on December 5, 1934, well before several other European nations (including the right to vote and the modification of laws relating to family and marital relationships) (White 149).

In conclusion, it is fair to say that despite the dramatic changes which Mustafa Kemal imposed upon his people, they saw great benefits from this democratic revolution, and to this day are proud of their national identities. While religion may not always have a role to play in the politics of the state, it must nonetheless be taken into account, as it has such dramatic and deeply rooted effects on the behavior of its people. Not only are women in Turkey now seen as equals within Turkish culture, but they have the freedom of choice and the opportunity to make informed decisions. With literacy rates on the rise and extended cultural diversity, Kemalist advances are talked about to this day, having left such an incredible legacy which will never be forgotten.

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