During a recent meeting in Cairo, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that secularism does not mean giving up religion, and called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution. "Do not be wary of secularism. I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt," Erdogan said. Immediately, from Cairo to Saudi Arabia, there was a shocked reaction.
Secular circles had long ago expressed their concern that the AKP-led government in Turkey wanted to change the secular nature of the Turkish Republic. With Erdogan's new, "revised" definitions of language, they may well be right.
The Saudi-owned paper Asharq Al-Awsat wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood had portrayed Erdogan as a "Muslim Caliph mounted upon his horse, commanding Muslim armies all across the world," and had thought to hear some support for their dream of having Islamic Sharia Law as the only source of legislation. Instead, Erdogan trashed their hopes. "Picture this" wrote Asharq Al-Awsat: "a moment of utter silence where the cheers died down and eyes were wide open, only to be broken by a well-known, 'moderate' Brotherhood voice, namely Essam el-Eryan, who said: 'We thank Erdogan and love Turkey, but he should not interfere in Egypt's affairs. Secularism is not a solution for us. Turkey is free to adopt its own choice. The power of the Islamic civilization lies in its diversity'…among other loaded phrases."
"Turkish secular intellectuals are still trying to understand whether an apple like Newton's had dropped on Erdogan's head," wrote the Turkish daily paper Hurriyet.
So what happened to Erdogan and why is he supporting secularism? Erdogan used to be admired by Islamist groups and even by preachers in Saudi Arabia. Now, instead, everybody is puzzled. From the icon of the imams, he became the icon of the Arab liberals. "Egypt's democratic and liberal intellectuals, who would perhaps refrain from using similar rhetoric in order not to face reactions from the brotherhood, took comfort after Erdogan's remarks," wrote Hurriyet.
Even in Turkey the population does not know what to think. Erdogan's supporters used to remember him for his pro-Islamic position; they do not recognize him in this secular attitude. "It is ironic to say that Erdogan, as the sworn opponent of classical laicism in Turkey since he appeared on the political scene, is now bringing a new air of laicism to the heavy atmosphere of the Arab Spring. Perhaps that is the reason why Islamist and conservative intellectuals in Turkey have started to criticize Erdogan strongly," Hurriyet pointed out.
The newspaper Zaman, however, close to Erdogan's political party, the AKP, wrote that Erdogan's stances on secularism were honest, as he identifies it an indispensable part of democracy. "This was a revolutionary move given that he represents a group of people who have been persecuted and belittled [...] for their anti-secularist actions and views. Besides, Erdogan made this remark not to please Western countries, but because he really believed this was the best thing to do," wrote Etyen Mahcupyan in Zaman. Other Zaman's editorial writers, however, are instead less supportive of the concept of secularism; they said they consider it a "problem," and explain that Erdogan's secularism is not the French-style one.
"Ali Bulaç, a credible voice of Islamic intellectuals with direct contact with intellectuals in the Islamic world from Cairo to Tehran, wrote in his column in the daily Zaman that Erdogan should not subscribe to a 'post-Kemalist laicism' – referring to the classical, or French Revolution-style laicism adopted under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Bulaç asked Erdogan indirectly whether Turkey had accepted a role in a project to 'secularize Islam' to facilitate integration in the Middle East into the global system under the direction of pious rulers. The hidden answer meant a 'No,'" reported Hurriyet.
Erdogan's approach to secularism was called "neo-laicism." The Turkish Hurriyet's editorial writer, Murat Yetkin, argued that the Turkish prime minister wants to "revise" the definition of laicism, which differentiates itself from the French revolution-style "Separation of state from the church" definition. Yetkin however fails to explains what is the essence of Erdogan's secularism. Lale Kemal in the Saudi-owned website of Al-Arabiya tries arguing that "Erdogan later clarified that his party's definition of secularism is not new, which is that the state can be secular but not the people. This definition has run contrary with that of Turkey's secularists, who are of the opinion that the people should also be secular."
As Erdogan's definition on secularism does not seem to be clear, some Turkish intellectuals are suspicious of the Prime Minister's message. As Fatma Disli Zibak explains in Zaman, according to some circles the Prime Minister's remarks on secularism were actually directed to the "Turkish and Western public opinion, which have long been suspicious of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) secular credentialm," rather than to the Arab Spring. Zibak reports also that Yeni Şafak's known editorialist Yasin Aktay shares the idea that Erdogan's messages were meant for Turkey and the West, with the goal of refuting Western claims about Erdogan's government being Islamist and anti-secular. Hilal Kaplan, Yeni Şafak's editorialist, also think that Erdogan's comments were meant for public opinion in the West.
Even if Erdogan's remarks were directed to the West, he has -- even if unwillingly -- opened a serious debate in the Arab world on the link between secularism and democracy, which is kind of a paradox given the fact -- as pointed out by Hurriyet -- that the Turkish PM never uttered such a liberal stance on laicism and religious-state affairs in Turkey.
While Erdogan suggests secularism (or neo-laicism) as a model for the Arab world, quite the opposite is happening in Turkey. Hurriyet reports that a planned government survey on the public's attitude toward religious issues is prompting concern "that secularism in Turkey could be eroded." Former Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Türk told Hurriyet that he was disappointed that the government is financing a survey on secularism. "The definition of secularism, for instance, is already clear. There is no need to conduct a survey about already-known concepts. It seems the government expects a result that is in line with its views and will make it a base for drafting the new Constitution," he said.
Erdogan, instead of "redefining" secularism, at least at home seems to be fighting its essence, depriving it of any meaning at all.