Turkey’s secularists are rising, and flawed

Secular politics has gained momentum in Turkey since the cancellation of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral vote, an utterly anti-democratic decision. After many years, Turkish citizens who favor a clear separation of government and religion are suddenly feeling proud and confident.

The rising momentum of secular politics gives us opportunity to analyse its dominant discourse on many issues. Enjoying the euphoria after the recent local elections, confident seculars now elaborate on their political ideas beyond their criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The new secular tide in Turkey seems to be obsessed with the left. Indeed, this is more than a functional attachment to an ideology but it is almost a metaphysical loyalty, akin to that of the AKP toward Islam.

There is nothing wrong with that. Yet in the Turkish case, seculars have developed a very negative idea of liberalism, which they view almost as something one should be ashamed of. In the secular narrative, liberalism is seen not as a poor political choice but rather a disgrace.

Historically, some two-thirds of Turkish voters tend to vote for center or center-right parties, which in turn tend to support a liberal economic agenda. As a result, the secularists’ view of liberalism might only help Islamists consolidate those voters.

Communism has been demonised in Turkey, and though it may sound ironic, secular leftists should not contribute to the demonisation of liberalism in Turkey. With their endless attacks against liberalism, seculars make Islamists the only ideological option to Turkey’s largest constituency. Turkey’s secular politicians might do better if they recognised liberalism a legitimate policy option.

Yet it should not be forgotten that the rise of the left among Turkish seculars happened as late as in the 1960s. To remind, the founder of Turkish Republic, Atatürk, was never interested in socialist thought. Reading the major legal documents of his period including the 1921 Turkish Constitution, we see that there was no doubt that private property was recognized as the major norm.

While copying many legal codes from various Western countries, Atatürk was not interested in any communist or socialist inspiration at legal level. One should not forget that Atatürk, like all other Young Turks, had events like the French Revolution and Western philosophers like John Stuart Mill as his sources of inspiration. It is almost impossible to find a major reference to socialist thought in the formation of Atatürk’s intellectual profile.

In this vein, another critical point that we observe in the recent secular momentum is the anti-Western discourse, which may be sharper than that of the Islamists. Ironically, seculars and Islamists, who defy each other on every other issue, share a severe anti-Western narrative in foreign policy.

Strangely, secular left intellectuals in Turkey are not interested in a selective reading of the West. Instead they tolerate and even embrace reductionist anti-Western criticisms. Yet let’s not forget, some 99 percent of the secular and leftist Turkish intellectuals who have left Turkey in recent years due to authoritarianism live today in a Western country. Still, Turkey’s rising secular tide is pushing a radical anti-western discourse.

According to a 2018 study by Kadir Has University, Turkish citizens view Russia as the nicest country, following the most common answer Azerbaijan. Western states like the US and Germany are at the very bottom, below the likes of China and Iran. If we trust such studies, it would seem the Turkish public wants an anti-Western foreign policy orientation.

Such studies also confirm that seculars, who have long been the flag bearer of pro-Western policies in Turkey, seem to be giving up this traditional stance. Polling data do not give us any clue as to how secular parties like the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) view the West.

The secular and leftist momentum building today is indeed good for Turkish democracy. Yet it also gives some alarming signals: anti-Westernism, a bizarre combining of the left with nationalism, and finally a counter-productive enmity towards liberalism.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.