Commentary :: How Was Secularism Added to the Turkish Constitution? The Varying Rationales

By Cem Tecimer

While the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic erased reference to Islam in the Constitution in early 1928, it was not until 1937 that the term “secularism” was inserted into the text of the Constitution. While this legal move was backed up by full parliamentary support in the form of a constitutional amendment, a closer look at the parliamentary records reveals that the MPs of the time had a variety and at times contradictory motivations for supporting the change. Some MPs were motivated by a desire to strictly separate religion and state while some argued that Islam itself necessitated a secular state. Still others were skeptical about establishing true separation between state and religion, and this latter view arguably best encapsulates the way in which Turkish secularism developed since the founding of the Republic.

The first Turkish Constitution written was the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, which recognized Islam as the official state religion. The 1924 Constitution of the newly founded Turkish Republic initially followed suit, as part of a broader project of secularization. But the founders amended the Constitution in 1928 to remove reference to Islam as a state religion. Nine years later, in 1937, secularism, or rather laïcité—a French-type secularism, known for being more restrictive in matters pertaining to the public visibility of religion—was added to the Constitution’s text through an amendment.

This post focuses on the parliamentary debates that took place in the Turkish Parliament on February 5, 1937, the date on which the constitutional amendment adding the word “secular” to the Constitution was passed. It shows that, while lawmakers at the time agreed on a need to entrench secularism in the text of the Constitution, their motives for doing so varied greatly.

There are at least three rationales that may be discerned from a review of the parliamentary records of the debates. One, which may be termed the strict separationist approach, was quite similar to the wall-of-separation-idea pervasive in United States constitutional law: the notion that religion ought not to play any role in, nor have an influence over state affairs, and that religion and state should remain separate without being contaminated by one another. A more conciliatory approach was espoused by one MP, who, without elaborating on what could be understood as oxymoronic, argued that Islam was a secular religion and that therefore it was within Islamic doctrine to establish a secular constitutional order. A third and final approach, skeptical of true separation of religion and state, pointed to an inconsistency within the system: arguing that state affairs should be free from the influence of religion on the one hand, but that the state should nevertheless control religion through administrative agencies, such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs, on the other hand. This camp seemed to advocate state subsumption of religion into the state.

The first to speak on the matter and in favor of the secularism amendment was the then-Minister of Interior, Sukru Kaya, who argued that secularism was necessary for the young Turkish Republic that was to be governed by laws based on reason and not “other-worldly dreams.”[1]  However, he was quick to add:

We are not pressuring people in the slightest with regard to their conscience and decision to adhere to any faith they wish. Everyone’s conscience is free. The freedom we desire and the purpose of secularism is to ensure that religion does not influence or be a factor in state affairs… . All we are saying is that religions remain in temples and consciences and that they do not interfere with material life and world affairs.[2]

Minister Sukru Kaya’s justifications for entrenching secularism in the Constitution rested on the notion that laws ought not to be based on “other-worldly” sources. His conception of secularism was purportedly not anti-religion but merely against its public visibility and meant to ensure strict separation between state and religion. But he nevertheless added, somewhat strangely, the statement that: “No other religion [other than Islam] has had for itself a more determined, a more self-sacrificing nation than the Turks.”[3] After an interruption of “bravo” and exclamations and applauses, as the parliamentary records indicate, Mr. Kaya continued with a bolder statement: “If Islam still exists in this world, it owes this to the Turk’s arm, blood, and head, who has defended it for 10-12 centuries.”[4]

While Mr. Kaya’s justifications were more outright separationist, some parliamentarians attempted to reconcile secularism and Islam, arguing that the former was an element of the latter. Mr. Refet Bele stated: “[T]his country has well understood secularism. Especially if we really think about this country’s religion—Islam; it is a secular religion.”[5] Mr. Bele did not elaborate.

As seen from Minister Kaya’s and Mr. Bele’s statements, there were two justifications as to why secularism had to be part of the Constitution. The prevalent view, which could be termed the strict separationist approach and represented by Kaya, argued simply that state affairs needed to be freed from the influence of religious influence and that religion itself had to be confined to the individual’s conscience. Mr. Bele, while agreeing with Kaya’s ultimate conclusion, had a different reasoning. Without explaining why—which might suggest that his statement was a mere rhetorical move—he thought that Islam demanded secularism in the first place.

A third voice from the parliamentary records is one by a rather skeptical parliamentarian who drew attention to some of the apparent inconsistencies of the amendment. Mr. Hakki Kilicoglu pointed out that, despite the constitutional amendment’s purported attempt to entrench secularism in the Constitution and despite Minister Kaya’s strict separationist approach, the Directorate of Religious Affairs remained part of the Turkish state. Mr. Kilicoglu called this fact an inconsistency:

The Directorate of Religious Affairs. I am not against this institution. Nor am I an enemy of religions or religious people. But I am of the opinion that, after leaving all religious affairs to [individual] consciences, there can be no place [for this institution] in the state budget … . People say, “you are secular, but you have muftīs.”[6]

Mr. Kilicoglu’s concerns were hardly addressed during the debates. Yet, his objections emphasize a tension that Turkish secularism experiences to this day: on the one hand, it seeks to establish strict separation between religion and state, and on the other, it maintains a Directorate of Religious Affairs—a government agency under the Prime Minister that employs thousands of religious officers, including muftīs and imāms, and authors the weekly Friday sermons given across the country.

Mr. Kilicoglu seems to have had the strongest argument, judging by the light of how Turkish secularism developed in the following decades into something quite unlike the descriptions of Mr. Kaya and Mr. Bele. Mr. Bele’s efforts to reconcile Islam and secularism by boldly asserting, without explanation, that Islam dictated secularism proved not to be the lasting rationale behind the more pervasive secularist agenda pursued by the founding elites. On the contrary, Islam, to an extent, was seen as an alternative source of power and legitimacy, competing with state power, and at times, as an impediment to modernization. This perception resulted in Islam’s confinement to the private sphere, with public manifestations—including, until quite recently, the headscarf ban in public institutions—being largely prohibited.

Mr. Kaya’s assertion that secularism was necessitated by the need to establish strict separation of church and religion, too, proved not to be enduring. To the contrary, the state heavily interferes with religious affairs, most notably by the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Instead, the inconsistency of repeating the claim that Turkey has entrenched secularism but disallowed the state from interfering in religion (but not vice-versa) persists to this very day. Mr. Kilicoglu foresaw this inconsistency many years ago.

[1] Speech Delivered by Sukru Kaya (MP from Mugla and Minister of Interior), Parliamentary Record of the Grand National Assembly, XXXIII, Vol 1 (02/05/1937), 60.

[2] Speech delivered by Sukru Kaya, Parliamentary Record, at 61.

[3] Speech delivered by Sukru Kaya, Parliamentary Record, at 61.

[4] Speech delivered by Sukru Kaya, Parliamentary Record, at 61.

[5] Speech Delivered by Refet Bele (MP from Istanbul), Parliamentary Record of the Grand National Assembly, XXXIII, Vol 1 (02/05/1937), 69.

[6] Speech Delivered by Hakki Kilicoglu (MP from Mus), Parliamentary Record of the Grand National Assembly, XXXIII, Vol. 1 (02/05/1937), 62.

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