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Atatürk's Vision of Secularism Still Relevant Today

Modern Turkey's founding father, Kemal Atatürk, created a secular, pluralist democracy that continues to thrive today. Many scholars say Turkey's separation of state and religion might provide lessons to other Muslim nations.

A history lesson of modern Turkey would be incomplete without Mustafa Kemal Atatürk -- whose name literally means the "Father of the Turks." When the Turkish Republic emerged from what remained of the Ottoman Empire shortly after the First World War, the legendary military leader pushed though what many analysts call the most radical secular program ever carried out in an Islamic society.

Atatürk's Radical Transformation

Kemal Atatürk replaced religious laws with secular civil and criminal codes, and abolished the caliphate -- the spiritual head of the Islamic faith held by Ottoman sultans. He believed a complete separation of religion from political life was crucial for Turkey's future.

He also expanded women's rights, and promoted western-style dress and the Latin alphabet. Today, Turkey is one of a few multi-party, secular democracies in the Muslim world. But can Turkey be a model for other Muslim countries?

Many analysts say that Turkey's unique history makes it difficult. But Zeyno Baran, at the Washington-based Nixon Center, a non-partisan research institution, says Turkey can offer some guidance. “One of the important lessons from Turkey is to separate religion from politics. Most countries with significant Muslim populations have not been able to take that step. And the way Turkey did it was through a radical reform process.”

But some in Turkey fear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist roots threaten Atatürk's secularist legacy. As a young man, he studied politics and Islam. When he was mayor of Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan banned alcohol from city cafes. But he has disavowed any hard-line Islamic views and says religion has played no part in his politics. Most analysts agree, saying that Mr. Erdogan has pushed harder for liberal and democratic reform than previous Turkish leaders.

Turkish Secularlism: Controversial in the Mideast

Abdu al-Kebsi, Senior Program Officer for the Middle East and Northern Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, says Turkish secularism is often viewed in the Middle East as anti-Islamic. But that is changing. "You see change coming into the region where they are accepting secularism when it's not forbidding someone with a Muslim perspective to run for politics. Hence, there is a little more appreciation when it comes to the Turkish model of democracy.”

But Mr. al-Kebsi says there is strong opposition to what many Arab nations say is Turkey's complete rejection of religion from public life. They point to the prohibition against women wearing headscarves in public buildings as an example of secularism gone too far.

The Unique Role of the Turkish Military

Some analysts say Turkey provides another lesson -- the notion of a higher authority to safeguard secularism. Historically, Turkey's military has seen itself as the guardian of the constitution that guarantees secularism -- a role supported by most people in Turkey. It has removed political parties from power that it saw as too religious. The most recent case was the 1997 ousting of an Islamist government led by Necmettin Erbakan.

John Voll, a professor of Islamic History at Georgetown University, adds that Turkey's system also values tolerance and pluralism. “Turkey, since 1945, has basically been a multi-party competitive political system. And even the most authoritarian of the military have recognized the importance of Turkey's strength of pluralism and diversity," says Professor Voll. "The most important lesson is that the Turks have been willing to say, even if an Islamic-oriented party is in power, there is not a danger as long as [the party] recognizes the importance of maintaining political pluralism.”

Safeguarding Secular Democracy

Sonar Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says if not the military, then other institutions could play this guardian role. “The idea is that someone is there who would be watching over the system to make sure that Islamist radicals and fundamentalists do not hijack the democratic system and use it to their advantage. This could be a king, a monarch, a supreme court or a constitutional court -- any institution that is willing to look over the system to maintain its secular, democratic base.”

But critics frown on the notion of a single body having that much authority. The National Endowment for Democracy's Abdu al-Kebsi says a vibrant civil society offers the best protection of a secular democracy. “More and more, people are looking toward civil society as the vehicle, the facilitator and maybe, eventually, the guarantor of democracy and secularism," says Mr. al-Kebsi. "In Morocco, some people see the young king as a force that helps democracy. Egypt today is going through the most vibrant movement toward democracy and civil society, perhaps more than any other country in the region. And you see the people who are leading this are those who have worked in human rights organizations and women empowerment organizations, for example. This was not the case five or ten years ago.”

While Turkey's brand of secularism is unusual in Muslim countries, and controversial for some, many analysts say it is laying part of the groundwork for democratic reform in the Muslim world.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.