Friday, February 09, 2007

Tension between religion and secularism in Turkey

In Turkey, nearly everyone has a “Nufus Cuzdani”, a government-issued identity card. It is the one piece of ID everyone assumes you have.

In America, the equivalent is the driver’s license. When a cashier, or a post office employee, or nearly anyone, wants to see some ID, they ask for your driver’s license. The Nufus Cuzdani serves the same kind of universal purpose.

When I saw a friend’s Nufus Cuzdani for the first time, one thing fascinated me: there was a box on it for “religion”.

In a country where the government is so overtly secular, where you are reminded of the secular nature of the state in a thousand ways on an almost daily basis, why does a government-issued identity card have a space for “religion”?

And why did this friend’s identity card say “Muslim”, when she is one of the most unreligious people I have ever met? At a recent party when my friend was deemed “most pious” in the group, it was a joke and everyone laughed.

Contrast that Muslim to a deeply pious one who prays five times a day, strictly observes all religious holidays, and even considers his religious marriage ceremony to be perfectly sufficient, and a state ceremony irrelevant.

Why take these very different people with very different outlooks on religion, and lump them together in one category? Especially in a secular state where religious belief isn’t a requirement for membership in the nation that state represents?

Remember that the Republic of Turkey is little more than 80 years old, and the early vision for the nation was a radical departure from what came before it.

Generally, the idea was that if you were inside the national boundaries, and your allegiance was to the Republic, that was enough to be a Turk. It didn’t matter what your religious or ethnic background was.

But what if the notion of allegiance to a democratic nation-state owned by the people themselves didn’t exist yet? The nation would break apart before it ever got a chance to form.

It would need something else, an allegiance more familiar, to tie its people together, at least for the time being.

It couldn’t use ethnicity, because people had spent thousands of years rampaging through its lands. The bloodlines were pretty thoroughly mixed, the population too ethnically diverse.

However, enough people did identify with “Muslim” in at least one of its many manifestations, and allegiance to Islam in general was a familiar concept to most of its people. If religious affiliation was an official part of a citizen’s identity, a nation could build itself, or hold itself together, on an allegiance already felt by most of its citizens. And over time, those feelings, that allegiance, would gradually transfer to the secular state itself.

So the state uses a Muslim umbrella to bring together most of the people inside its national boundaries.

The building of a secular state, and the unification of a diverse population on religious grounds, go together like oil and water. However, while the revolutionary concepts of allegiance to a secular state take hold, religious affiliation serves as an already-existing umbrella to hold everyone together in the meantime. The secular state’s dependence on religion for survival was built right into the revolution.

In Turkey, the ongoing struggle between religious and secular isn’t something that threatens the state or nation. It is something that has built it from the beginning.

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