A respected political scientist, Dr. Atilla Yayla of the Gazi University of Ankara, Turkey, has been dismissed from his teaching position and pilloried in the press in Turkey for daring publicly to make critical remarks about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose version of “secularism” has meant state control of and suppression of religion.
Kemalist secularism is not well understood by Americans and Europeans. As Dr. Yayla put it some years ago (about 10, I think) at a seminar on Islam and civil society I organized for him at the Cato Institute, “People say that you have separation of church and state in America and we have separation of mosque-and-church and state in Turkey. In America, that means freedom of religion. In Turkey, it means freedom from religion. There is a great difference between the two.” Private property, contract, and limited government, he argued, should create the framework for people to decide on their own, through voluntary cooperation, whether and how to build a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or anything else. Such decisions should not be made by state officials.
Atilla was calm during the hot discussion that followed and offered a voice of reason and true liberalism, as passionate secularists and Islamists around the seminar table argued against each other, the former for suppressing and controlling religion by force and the latter for imposing it by force. One secularist even showed a calculation of how many square meters a Muslim needs to pray, multiplied it by the Muslim population of Turkey, calculated the number of square meters of Mosque space in Turkey, and concluded that Turkey had a 50 percent surplus capacity of Mosque space, and therefore that no more should be allowed to be built. Dr. Yayla suggested that that decision should be left to the religious devotion of the faithful, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise, and calmly appealed for peace by promoting freedom of religion: religion should be neither suppressed nor supported by the state.
Americans can be grateful that they enjoy the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is not the same as “secularism,” as it is understood in the Middle East. That’s why when I’m in the Middle East I promote freedom of religion, rather than secularism, for the simple reason that secularism in that context doesn’t mean the same as the term “secular state” does elsewhere. That is one element of the Kemalist legacy that Dr. Yayla dared to criticize.
Advocates of freedom the world over should support Dr. Atilla Yayla, a principled voice for freedom of speech, for toleration, and for the civilized values of limited government, protection of property, and freedom of contract, association, and trade.
Those who wish to express their support for Dr. Yayla should contact Ms. Ozlem Caglar Yilmaz, executive director of the Association for Liberal Thinking in Ankara, of which Dr. Yayla is the president. The email is ozlemcaglar [at] liberal.org.tr and the fax is +90 312 230 80 03.