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Turkey's counter-revolution or secularism under threat: Muazzez Ilmiye Cıg speaks out

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: March 26, 2014 12:58
Muazzez Ilmiye Cig (AFP Photo / Mustafa Ozer)

Earlier this month an outspoken critic of Turkey's current government led by the overtly Islamic AKP party gave a memorable speech, organized by the Istanbul Cultural College.

At the advanced age of 99, Muazzez İlmiye Cig is still a bright, active and even internet-savvy woman who takes an active part in the social and cultural life of the nation. Born in 1914, in the western Anatolian city of Bursa into a Tatar family that had migrated to Turkey from the Crimea, Cig has today acquired a particular notoriety as a vocal defendant of Atatürk's legacy, speaking up for women's rights and holding those in power to account by means of sending off acerbic letters.

After attending Ankara University's Faculty of Languages and History-Geography, as a student of the Hittitologist Hans Güterbock, Cig spent 33 years researching and studying the ancient civilizations of the Near East as Turkey's first Sumerologist. In the course of her prolific life, retiring in 1972, she has published 13 individual books and countless scholarly articles. As a self-proclaimed product of the Kemalist Revolution and defender of the position of Turkish secularism, she has been more than outspoken over the past ten years as Turkey has slowly settled into its current post-Kemalist phase.

In her talk, Muazzez İlmiye Cig warned her audience that the ruling AKP is slowly turning the country into an Islamic land, actually accusing the PM and his followers of being perpetrators of a Counter-Revolutionary insurrection, aimed at destroying all the benefits of the Kemalist Revolution and Turkish secularism.

Veiled future

As a woman, Cig expressed her particular disquiet regarding the proliferation of head-scarfed women in Turkey today – as proof of the fact that the backward mentality of a male-dominated religious establishment is once again gaining the upper hand in Turkish affairs. As such, in 2006, she faced court charges that could have landed her in prison for one-and-a-half years had she been convicted.

In her book ‘My Reactions as a Citizen’, she maintains that the earliest examples of head scarves date back to Sumerian times, when veils were worn by priestesses who engaged in sex to distinguish themselves from other priestesses. The trial was initiated by an Islamic-oriented lawyer who was offended by the Sumerologist's claims, actually accusing Cig and her publisher of "inciting hatred based on religious differences." In the end, the court acquitted Cig and dropped the charges.

Muazzez Ilmiye Cig (AFP Photo / STR)

In 2008, during an interview conducted by Daniel Steinvorth, Der Spiegel's Mideast and Turkey editor, Cig declared unequivocally that the "old cuneiform [writing] of the Sumerians describes how sexual rituals with young men were a religious requirement – one of many – for priestesses. These women wore veils over their faces to identify themselves. This is a historic fact. I'm a scientist. Whether this article of clothing [i.e. the head scarf, seen by Turkish Muslims today as an overt sign of modesty], a sex symbol, is suitable as a moral calling card today is something for others to decide."

In her recent speech she expressed her fears for the future of the country, blaming self-professed intellectuals for having missed the opportunity to enlighten Turkey's population at large. Cig repeated the oft-made claim that education is at the root of any progress and that lack of education is at the root of today's situation, which sees wide swathes of the population backing a political party diverging from the Kemalist line.

Muazzez İlmiye Cig literally stated that the country is at the moment going through a Counter-Revolution that will turn Turkey into a mirror image of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This Counter-Revolution aims to dismantle the "Turkish republic, secularism, the legacy that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk left us," what she and others call the 'Turkish Enlightenment', as she expressed during the 2008 interview.

As a result, I would now like to throw some light on these references to Atatürk's legacy and the ideology of Kemalism. According to the officially-accepted narrative of Turkish history, at the outset of the 20th century, the end of the First World War (1918) led to the collapse of the Ottoman government. The foreign powers that emerged as the victors of the conflict, the Entente, attempted to carve up the Ottoman lands amongst themselves. In March 1920, the capital, Istanbul, was occupied by Entente forces. However, in the end, meaning 1922, the Turkish population succeeded in defeating the occupiers under the charismatic leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (known as Atatürk after 1934 and the introduction of surnames) (1881-1937).

After the signature of the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923), the Republic of Turkey appeared as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire in the area (October 29). The doctrine of this newly-established nation state received the name Kemalism, in reference to the founder of the republic.

According to the well-known Kemalist political scientist Suna Kili, who in 2008 incidentally received the ‘Woman of the Enlightenment’ Award in Turkey, this term, Kemalism, denotes the "ideology of the 1920 Turkish Revolution. This revolution comprises both the Turkish National Liberation Movement and the later reforms which involved rapid and radical change of the Turkish state and society."

The principles of this reform program were incorporated into the program of the Republican People's Party (the current opposition CHP) and summarized in the six key words (or Arrows) of the party curriculum: Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Revolutionism, Statism and Secularism. The last-mentioned concept was "considered the sine qua non condition of Turkish progress and development."

Ankara, Turkey (Reuters / Umit Bektas)

Secularism in a Turkish context did not simply denote the separation of worldly from spiritual affairs, but really implied the demolition of the whole substructure of the imperial ideology of Ottoman rule.

But in reality, the whole notion of Turkish secularism, though well-established and oft-repeated, appears a tenuous proposition at best. As I wrote some time ago, “the theory is that Turkey, as a result of the Kemalist reform movement, is a secular state. In reality, however, ever since the Turkish state abolished the Caliphate and the Ministry of Pious Endowments in 1924, the Turkish Republic has regulated its citizens’ religious life through the Directorate of Religious Affairs.” As a result, claiming that the Republic of Turkey is a secular state appears somewhat difficult. A scholar like İhsan Yılmaz has therefore suggested the term ‘Lausannian Islam’ to refer to Turkey’s state-run version of the Prophet Mohammed’s religion. Yılmaz employs the name of the Swiss city where the territorial body of the republic was decided upon to name the “official version of Islam” promulgated by the Turkish state since 1924.

The Treaty of Lausanne is seen in Turkey as a quasi-sacred document which reversed the Sèvres agreement that carved up the Ottoman territories (August 10, 1920) among the victors of the Great War. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs' website describes its own functions as “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places.” And as voiced by İhsan Yılmaz, "the government owns all mosques, and all imams are civil servants of the state. At Friday prayers, which are attended by 70 percent of males in the country, imams can only deliver state-sanctioned and approved sermons. Only the state can open Koranic schools and civil religious associations are illegal. Only the state can teach religious courses ... [and] one can only worship in a state-owned mosque.”

Not strictly secular

Despite secularism is not denoted in Turkey in any objective sense, the Turkish Army is known all over the world over as championing a secular state of affairs. In popular media, the BBC leads the way in spreading this view among a global audience: “The army sees itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism.” But rather than secular, one could claim that Turkish society under the Kemalist regime was permissive and arguably somewhat open-minded, albeit nominally observant of Islam and its tenets and actually employing adherence to the Muslim creed as determining Turkish citizenship and nationality.

This has led to the peculiar circumstance that "non-Muslim citizens [of Turkey are generally perceived] as foreigners," as expressed by the Turkish social scientist and journalist Ahmet İnsel. Elaborating on this proposition, he adds that "equality is another word for all Muslims being equally Turkish. Non-Muslims are at best seen as 'guest neighbors' to be tolerated until they return to their 'fatherland'."

With regard to the issue of religion as a living means of imposing social control and uniformity on the citizens of Turkey, I would now like to turn to A. Hadi Adanalı, theologian and senior advisor at the Office of the Prime Minister. Adanalı correctly points out that in "1927, all courses concerning religion were excluded from the curriculum of primary, secondary, and high schools on the basis that non-Muslims also live in Turkey. Between the years 1927-1949, no religious instruction was permitted in schools." With the advent of multi-party democracy in 1950 and the rise to power of the pro-Islamic Democrat Party (DP), "being more sympathetic towards the religious sentiments of society, this new [DP] government introduced a religion course into secondary schools." These courses however depended upon parental consent.

The issue of religious instruction was only to come full circle in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, commonly known in Turkey as September 12. The military leadership introduced a new constitution in 1982 and in the present context, this legal document's 24th article appears particularly poignant. The article starts off with the phrase, “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction,” but then also contains this section: “Education and instruction in religion and ethics shall be conducted under state supervision and control. Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.”

Turkish soldiers sit in a vehicle (Reuters / Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Even though the military justified its September 12 intervention by means of appealing to the principles of Kemalism and Atatürk's legacy as the ‘guardian of Turkey’s secularism’, it would appear that the military coup's indirect outcome was to challenge the very doctrine that General Evren and his henchmen set out to defend. In 1994, 12 years after the new constitution was introduced, Necmettin Erbakan's pro-Islamic Welfare Party came to national prominence and, as I have outlined elsewhere, today's AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is but the apparent heir to the long-since-banned RP.

In the end, one cannot but conclude that the issue of Islam in Turkey is a complicated and convoluted one which cannot be relegated to the sidelines. Though staunchly opposed to the ruling AKP and its grassroots support, in her 2008 interview, Muazzez İlmiye Cig admitted that "what is really at stake is power and political interests! Even in Atatürk's day, there were groups that feared that their power would be threatened if Western schools were suddenly established and competed with the old Koran schools. It's a lie that Atatürk was opposed to Islam. But for those who lost their influence as Arabic teachers because Atatürk introduced Latin script and permitted sermons to be delivered in Turkish in the mosques, it was a convenient charge. In truth, however, the Turks were happy that they could finally read the Koran in Turkish. We have a similar situation today: The Kemalists are accused of godlessness, simply because they want to protect the principles of the secular state."

And a secular state-of-affairs in a Turkish context denotes a state-controlled dissemination of Islam for the benefit of a citizenry united by their nominal adherence to Islam.

The events of the past weeks and months, and particularly of the past days, have once again revealed the divisions in Turkish society: a society consisting of Muslims adhering to the ‘official’ Islam promulgated by the Religious Affairs Directorate; of adherents of an Anatolian Islam of the faith-based Gülen movement; and of Turkey's very own Alawite community; in addition to the minute remnants of Anatolia's Christian communities of yesteryear.

And then there is the self-proclaimed Secularist Elite, represented by such extraordinary figures like the Sumerologist Muazzez İlmiye Cig, who is now single-handedly waging a war against a perceived reactionary counter-revolution. But rather than blame ineffective intellectuals for not fulfilling their civic duty, the blame for the current prevalence of Islam in the political and social discourse of the Turkish nation would appear to lie at the feet of the Turkish Armed Forces, the self-proclaimed ‘guardians of Turkey’s secularism’.

One could thus put forward the somewhat ironic proposition that Turkey's 21st-century ‘Counter-Revolution’ was effectively set in motion by Turkey's military leadership as long ago as the early 1980s.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Comments (3)

 

Thaddeus lovelock 17.04.2014 09:19

I think the resurgence, of Islam in turkey, is a phase , that will run its course, I don't think its possible to turn turkey back from its secular roots.

 

Wayne Mickel 30.03.2014 15:18

It is a shame that Islam cannot respect the separation of Church and State, it is wrong on the part of Islam to force citizens to believe in only one religion, the Christian Church did that in the Dark Ages even God does not force people to believe in him that is why there was so much bloodshed in the Christian church, it was not according to God's plan, it is called free will and God does not stop humans from having free will, to believe or not to believe it is our choice.

 

Derek Maher 30.03.2014 09:31

Ataturk looks like being written out of history as Turkey looks back to the Ottoman Empire days.

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