Q&A: Murat Akan on The Politics of Secularism

Murat Akan has given us an incredibly thorough account of how ideas about secularism have traveled between France and Turkey and how to relate these ideas to broader understandings of the relation between religion and society. His sophisticated theoretical approach is deeply informed by his empirical research. This book will clarify many misunderstandings in the comparative study of secularism and multiple modernities. It is a must-read for scholars from a wide range of social sciences as well as for an informed public.

~Peter van der Veer, author of The Value of Comparison

The author of The Politics of Secularism: Religion, Diversity, and Institutional Change in France and Turkey Murat Akan joins us in a discussion about his study on secularism in France and Turkey, and on the publication of his book. In today’s Q&A, Akan walks us through some of the differences in language and provides more context to the current understanding of secularism. 

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Q: How would you explain the difference of “laïcité” in France or “laiklik” in Turkey from secularism as it is understood in the United States?

Murat Akan: The gist of The Politics of Secularism is precisely to go beyond these etymological or “naming” debates with history and genealogy in action and in comparison. By focusing on the institutions sought, and political ends chased on three issue areas; religious symbols, religion in education, and state support for religion infrastructure, I bring France and Turkey at a level vis-à-vis institutions, public arguments, and politics, and if I had a chance to include the United States in the comparison I have good reason to suggest that its experience would easily fit in the analytical grids and the levels of analysis of The Politics of Secularism without any risk of straightjacketing.

Q: In the Preface you mention how you chose to wait for some time before publishing your book and how this allowed you to appreciate the political struggles for democracy in France and Turkey ‘at a depth beyond culturalist paradigms’. Can you talk a bit about what you mean by this term? 

MA: My generation of academics were working on their Ph.d. dissertations when after 9/11 the ‘multiple modernities’ paradigm was advanced against ‘the clash of civilizations’ paradigm in the comparative study of secularism and democracy. The multiple modernities’ original claim was precisely to surpass Huntingtonian culturalism; however, research under its lead produced almost without exception Weberian typologies of countries and a new type of culturalism. What anchored these country types in the typological approach was a national “social imaginary,” a concept which in fact has gained purchase and popularity in a wide range of social sciences and could be traced to various authors or conceptualized in various ways. ‘The multiple modernities’ challenge, perhaps inadvertently, replaced a Huntingtonian culturalism with a Weberian or Hegelian culturalism, nothing more and nothing less. I say inadvertently, because culturalism as an outlook in our daily lives or as an analytical framework in research in the social sciences has been laid deep in us with years of social, political, educational molding. Two observations. One, all the conferences and workshops with secularism in their titles I attended since my Ph.d. student years discussed more religion, each specific religious tradition, than secularism. The implicit assumption, definitely not explicit, was that the only key to account for different trajectories of secularism is to study the different religious traditions—religious imaginaries—each secular project faces. Which may well be true, but it is a hypothesis to be tested, and not an assumption to be made. Neither Turkey is a “muslim majority” country, nor France a “catholic majority” country as far as the levels of analyses of the Politics of Secularism is concerned, but I would claim even more: these claims are not demonstrated by any of the tools and methods of social science I know of. On the one hand, there is the question of measurement, neither France nor Turkey has national statistics on religion. S. On the other hand, there is significant diversity and contestation within each tradition on the set of beliefs and practices which constitute that tradition. Being muslim, I suspect has a wide range of meanings in Turkey. Plus, The Politics of Secularism demonstrates again and again with contemporary and historical sources that the question of secularism is more about minorities than majorities. Hence, to build arguments on “Turkey as a muslim majority country” is to build castles on sand, and even to appeal to it as a common sense description is way below the level of accuracy we seek in the social sciences.

Q: You emphasize, especially in Chapters 3 and 4 that neither diversity nor challenges to laïcité are new in France and how, despite this, both academic and more mainstream portrayals of France treat this issue as if it is new. How do you think a more nuanced understanding of laïcité can be accomplished and what do you think French politics and thought can gain from such an understanding? 

MA: This point on diversity, very clearly demonstrated from primary sources, through a comparison of the Third French Republic and contemporary France is a more nuanced understanding of laïcité. The book makes this possible by pursuing a multi-layered approach; that is, keeping track simultaneously of political ends, institutional choices and the public arguments for these choices during moments of potential institutional change. The focus on potential moments of institutional change is as crucial as the focus on multiple layers. These moments prove ideological and sociological understandings of laïcité insufficient; their richness and depth expose a dynamic political field common to Turkey and France; that is, two countries which have various differences, become translatable to each other.

Q: What are some lessons from The Politics of Secularism that will be useful for France? 

MA: Perhaps the most significant institutional suggestion for the future of the political terrain mapped in the book is the continuing commonplace, even banal qualification of France as authoritative and anti-liberal because of its strong state, with the common contrast to the American case. One thing is clear for me, the United States is a Machiavellian republic; that is, fearing the masses, while France is a Rousseauian republic educating the masses. The last three decades of discussions on laïcité in France was just another occasion for the pejorative qualification of France as anti-American, anti-liberal, assimilationist, homogenizing, etc. I have attended various talks in New York between 2000- 2005 by French academics and witnessed how the audience’s lack of comparative perspective, its embracement of the United States as the only reference point, totally hindered any understanding of France. Solving problems in a public system –France–, and private system—the U.S.A.– are just different. It would be presumptuous to open a discussion in this short space on a comparison of public and private education systems. One reason that debates on laïcité in France have been intense is because there is a public way beyond the sum of private individuals which is not necessarily homogenizing or assimilationist. What is unfortunate is that a question of laïcité, wearing religious symbols at school, which I would expect to be addressed within the school system and within a more spread out time span, got resolved by an abrupt national law, and one outcome was in fact in the direction of privatization in education—private Muslim schools opened. Political acts which create causal chains ending in the pushing forward of privatization are pretty much anti- laïc, if the term is defined by its French historical institutional genealogy.

Q: How would you suggest someone who wants to learn about the role of secularism and religion in Turkey start? 

MA: You can definitely start by reading The Politics of Secularism. Its empirical chapters are very direct and full of rich material. Here, the key is comparison. To be able to pin down like whom various Kemalists and the AKP look like in other countries or at other time periods. The comparative approach breaks the thesis of Turkish exceptionalism and renders Turkey more accessible. The other crucial point is to face the rich evidence challenging the dichotomy of Kemalism versus Islam. The Politics of Secularism does quite a bit of that. It locates the AKP and the Kemalists of the Third French Republic and contemporary France. It also shows overlaps between Kemalist and AKP politics of secularism without reducing these positions into each other.

Q: Throughout your study, you emphasize the AKP’s role in changing and affecting the way secularism is understood and practiced in Turkey. You also mention that the efforts of AKP to raise a religious youth is important in understanding religion’s role in AKP politics (256). How do you view these efforts of AKP to attract young men and women to religion? Do you think they have yielded the desired results or perhaps even created a backlash effect? 

MA: Difficult to answer, because from my point of view a satisfactory anthropology of Turkey on this matter does not exist although it is doable. I can say evidence for both hypotheses is available. There is a visible conservatization of Turkish society; however, the conservatization in question cannot be reduced to religionization; the latter is a subset of the former. To top it all, Turkey already ranked high in conservatism before the AKP. I would say with the AKP depoliticization and conservatism has been merged by civilian means as opposed to the Turkish past of merging the two by military coups. On the other hand, the AKP period since 2002 has seen young and critical academics and researchers rising, educated in Turkey; that is, without the international experience of someone like me. These are academics and researchers who have an imagination of universalism, internationalism and who have produced amazing books. These books are awaiting their translations into English. Please see at the least, Sevinç Doğan, Mahalledeki AKP, Nuray Türkmen, Eylemden Öğrenmek, Yasin Durak, Emeğin Tevekkülü. None of these authors have seen a ruling government other than the AKP. Imagine a Turkish citizen who has voted for the first time in his/her life in the 2002 elections, the elections which brought the AKP too power, this citizen is today 35 years old. That is, no one in Turkey below the age of 35 has an experience of rotation in government in their adult lives. I would say, this is the real danger against democracy in Turkey. At the same time, look at these amazing three books, all authors way below the age of 35, but with such a commitment to empirical critical knowledge. In short, whatever means governments try in order to seal their power for good, playing the Gramscian game of hegemony, extending their trenches into society, success is just not possible, they just cannot buy or control all minds. Look at election results in the world for winning right wing parties, their core electorate is around 30% at a maximum, the rest is either coalitions or electoral systems which create majorities out of minorities.

Q: Would you like to talk about the recent Istanbul elections and what this might mean for AKP politics, especially as it pertains to religion and diversity in Turkey?

MA: The relation of post-2016 coup attempt developments, including the local elections of 2019, to the questions of secularism posed and answered in The Politics of Secularism is not obvious, it has to be separately problematized. I have received invitations for the 2019-2020 academic year from three institutions, Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), and L’Institut d’études avancées de Nantes precisely for my project to answer this question with a comparison of Turkey and India. I hope I will soon have an answer for you. Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview, I enjoy very much going back and rethinking the content and the relevance of The Politics of Secularism. I truly enjoyed the research and the writing of this book. I am grateful to Columbia University Press for publishing it.


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