Islam and the Eclipse of Secularism

Taner Edis

We—humanists, Enlightenment rationalists, secular liberals in general—like to think that secularism is universally applicable. If we want to keep the peace between sects, promote personal freedom, and enjoy the benefits of modern times, we have to separate the state and religious institutions. We must enforce public neutrality toward private faiths.

Some aspects of modern life do seem universal. Almost everybody enjoys shopping. In the richer, Westernized parts of my hometown, Istanbul, many store owners decorate their shops with tinsel and Christmas trees in December. The common journalistic cliché describes Turkey as a secular state with a Muslim majority. A few Turks observe a kind of secularized Christmas: they just call it a “New Year” celebration and go out drinking on December 31 in establishments that sport decorated trees.

Cultural conservatives are not happy. Last winter, some conservative activists put on a street skit where they arrested Santa Claus. Men dressed up as old-time Ottoman soldiers, hauled a man in a Santa costume in front of a man dressed as a traditional Islamic judge, and accused Santa of enticing Muslims to follow Christian customs. The judge questioned Santa, who responded that those who observed Christmas did so of their own free will. The judge set Santa free. But then, impressed with Islamic justice, Santa Claus converted to Islam on the spot.

Government also gets into the act. Turkey may be allegedly secular, but many local education officials have written to school administrators in their districts, cautioning against allowing cebrations of New Year that are “a product of Christian Western tradition” and might degrade “our national and religious values.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s government and Sunni Islam are increasingly intertwined. Again this past winter, the Directorate of Religious Affairs—a government office with a budget larger than many ministries—became embroiled in controversy. The Directorate operates religious institutions whose religious functionaries are state employees and publishes Islamic legal rulings in response to questions from citizens. Following the sacred texts too closely led the Directorate to make pronouncements about the sin of engaged couples spending time together without supervision and to detail the conditions under which a man’s marriage may remain valid when he happens to lust after his own daughter. Such rulings annoyed liberal Muslims, who like to think that Islam is all sweetness and light.

The long-standing moderate Islamist government of Turkey keeps working to Islamize the public sphere. While the minority of secular Turks were complaining about the rulings published by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the government ordered that public employees should be allowed extra time off on Fridays for public prayers. This was supposed to respect the religious freedom of devout Muslims by accommodating their religious obligations. But in a time when career advancement is often helped by signaling one’s religiosity, both in government and in conservative Muslim parts of the private sector, this means that nonobservant Muslims and the irreligious have fewer opportunities to hide. Many will feel a need to demonstrate their respectability by appearing at Friday prayers.

Istanbul today looks modern: it is full of skyscrapers and men in suits running around with smartphones making business deals. Women in headscarves increasingly adopt the looks promoted by Islamic fashion houses rather than covering themselves more traditionally. At night, citizens retreat to their homes and a realm of miniseries and reality TV. But Turkey is not secular. As in the rest of world, to neutralize dissent, the Turkish government often uses accusations of terrorism. But in addition, officials also prosecute blasphemy. In the secular schools, there is mandatory religious instruction; plus, there is an extensive parallel religious school system run by the state. Important nationwide exams include detailed questions on Sunni theology. On one hand, the Turkish public sphere is becoming privatized and restricted; on the other, it is subject to endless religious intrusions. The state influences and directs public expressions of Sunni Muslim faith. And in turn, the ruling party legitimates itself by the moderately Islamic public ambiance it supports.


Some observers have noticed that the “secular Muslim state” description no longer rings true about Turkey. Many suggest that the Islamist party in power for nearly fifteen years has lately turned authoritarian and has resorted to more urgent appeals to Islam to retain its power.

This is misleading. Turkish secularism—a half-baked secularism in the best of times—has been in a slow-motion collapse for many decades. Most signs of an eroding secularism, from mandatory religious instruction to an interfering Directorate of Religious Affairs, have been evident since long before the present ruling Islamist party was founded. The Islamists have mostly intensified previous arrangements: extending the parallel religious school system, increasing the budget of the Directorate, installing religious conservatives in positions throughout the government, and supporting pious business networks. Desecularization was just as much in progress ten years ago, when Western observers were celebrating increased formal democracy and doctrinaire free-market practices under Turkey’s moderate Islamism.

Turkey is not very different from many other Muslim countries. Since the 1970s, a worldwide Islamic revival has replaced secular nationalisms with varieties of religious nationalism. Muslim populations have become more conservative, very visibly so in countries such as Egypt. Sometimes observers attribute intensifying religiosity to failed modernization, economic stagnation, and political chaos, as seen in most populous Arab states. But at the same time, many non-Arab Muslim nations have more successfully modernized, joined the ranks of middle-income countries, and also desecularized. For instance, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia have liberalized their economies, developed a wealthy and dominant business class, adopted modern technologies, and taken advantage of Western deindustrialization. Their pious middle classes adopted a business-friendly religious conservatism and supported transitions to electoral democracy, curbing the influence of military-based secular nationalists and transforming the authoritarian states that had followed independence. Their politics, popular culture, and public spheres have become saturated with modern varieties of Islam.

Lest we think Islam is especially resistant to secularism, other religions are also putting up a fight. Today’s reforming religious movements are moralizing, entrepreneurial, and scripturally literalist. They are often represented by televangelists and prosperity preachers, as well as study circles led by engineers or business people. The old religions of parish priests or local scholars and holy men are long gone, replaced by new forms of religiosity. The believers of today embrace technology and capitalism but seek a religiously authentic, pious form of modernity. The success of Hindu nationalism in India alongside the gradual erosion of postindependence Indian secularism furnishes a vivid example. Buddhist nationalism is noticeable in countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand; Jewish nationalism is ever-present in Israel. Closer to home, the Christian nationalism of the religious Right enjoys significant influence in American politics. In all such cases, existing forms of political secularism have been challenged and sometimes badly eroded. Religious movements allied with business interests often exercise power, claiming to represent religious freedom and cultural integrity.

In the face of this changing world, those of us who continue to favor secularism repeat our stale arguments. We say that states are not competent to decide theological claims, and so the state should confine itself to worldly concerns. In complex societies, we cannot agree upon private faith-based claims, and, therefore, we have to negotiate our interests by offering secular public reasons. More religion in politics leads to a freedom-denying theocracy such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. A secular state prevents conflicts between sects.

Such arguments are much less compelling today. Secularism is too obviously tied to the history of the post-Christian West. Muslims do not have a historical memory of wars of religion; Muslim political tradition emphasizes autonomous communities rather than a secular state as a way to contain sectarian conflict. Indeed, recent Muslim experience associates secularism with despotic, oppressive regimes.

For most Muslims, Islam is supposed to be a public truth and the foundation of public order, not just a private confession. And moderate, business-friendly religious conservatives do not aspire to emulate Iran or Saudi Arabia. They draw inspiration from the latest trends in political thought, which are often negative toward secularism. Both postmodern and old-fashioned conservatives describe secularism, with its implied state control of religion, as an artificial, inauthentic, colonially rooted imposition on pious populations. Religion, today, appears to many as a domain of freedom—of organic social commitments closely linked to personal identities—as opposed to quasi-totalitarian, state-centered, homogenizing demands seeking to make worldly liberal individualists of us all. Even within the Western democracies, secularism has lost much of its sparkle. Strict secularism may be unsuitable for multicultural societies, excluding the pious among natives and immigrants alike from full citizenship.

Secularism still has a political constituency in many countries, largely among the weakly religious and the indifferent. There are technocratic elites who make a living from expertise acquired through secular learning, who may not have much use for conservative populism. Sometimes, as with the Alevi sect in Turkey, a religious minority may be so alienated from the majority religion that its members strongly support political secularism. But by and large, secularism expresses the political aspirations of secular people. Those places, such as Western Europe, where secularism has the most depth, are also places where organized religion has faded. Globally, such regions are anomalies.


So, defending secularism today has become much more complicated. Many of our assumptions, such as a neat separation between public and private domains, do not work as often as we might like. It is not possible to have a political order that is fully neutral about religion. For example, secular states inevitably, often implicitly, take positions on the truth or falsity of many theological claims—such as when they direct schools to teach evolution, impose public health requirements such as vaccinations, and override religious beliefs about child welfare. And we need to take the believers who belong to tight-knit religious communities seriously. It is not so easy, today, to place extra burdens on the devout by requiring secular rationales for public practices. Religious conservatives present alternative views about how to manage complex multicultural societies while allowing a fuller form of religious freedom than secular frameworks have typically recognized. Much of the postmodern and conservative critique of secular liberalism is overstated. But much of it rings true.

Clearly there is a long and complicated argument to be made. But I will venture a few suggestions.

First, we have to remember that the contest between secular and more religious political frameworks runs deeper than disagreements about the consequences of particular policies. Secular liberals and religious conservatives do not want the same things. Religious politics does not have to mean theocracy; nonetheless, godly social orders and secular liberal social arrangements emphasize different goals. Religious and secular people will culturally compete and occasionally cooperate. But it makes little sense to seek an overall political framework that does not provide any structural advantage to anyone. Secularism is political; politics has winners and losers.

Second, we have to start with secularism as a political framework that is best suited for secular and religiously liberal people. It is not a universally appealing way to live together. We can aspire for a secular liberal order to become universal, and we can certainly keep secular culture open and available to people from all sorts of backgrounds. But world religions such as Islam can also claim a similar universality. If we are not content for secularism to remain the identity politics of people like us, we must then work to dampen intense religious attachments. We will often support the cultural reproduction of secularity by means of public policy, particularly in education. This will interfere with the religious freedom of, for example, creationist parents of schoolchildren. Freedoms conflict; secularism cannot be completely neutral, and some coercion is associated with any social arrangement. Religious conservatives are not deluded when they object to secularist policies that advance secular interests.

Third, we can no longer coast on the expectation that secularism is an inescapable accompaniment of technological and economic modernity. Alternative, pious forms of being modern are on offer. Hindu nationalism or moderate Islamism, like the Christian Right, can flourish within our current global neoliberal economic order. Indeed, nonreligious ways of maintaining social solidarity are more at risk in today’s conservative political environment dominated by business and financial interests.

And fourth, we have to acknowledge that secular liberalism is not the only way to keep the peace. Majority-Muslim societies successfully resist attempts to remove religion from the public sphere. Their ways of maintaining harmony and respecting other religions will more likely be legally pluralistic and community-oriented, rather than relying on liberal individualism and a common law for all. Those not attached to a religious community will be second-class citizens in Muslim lands, just as one fully living according to an orthodox Islamic ideal encounters roadblocks in secular Western societies. Again, politics has winners and losers.


This past winter in Istanbul, I got together with some of my high-school and university friends. We spent hours eating and drinking, even though taxes on alcohol had been just raised to an absurd level, ostensibly to promote health but perhaps also because the government likes to discourage violations of God’s laws. Curiously, among the friends I see most often, most now declare themselves as deists, agnostics, and even atheists. None would have done so when we were young. Religious politics has polarized the country, and many from liberal Muslim backgrounds have had to examine their religious commitments more closely. So while religious unbelief, rather than just lax observance, has been very rare among Muslims, it might be increasing. My friends represent only a small, politically impotent minority. But they remind me that the religious landscape never stays the same. If civilization lasts long enough, secularism might one day get another chance in Muslim countries. For now, it is dead.

Taner Edis

Taner Edis’s most recent book is Islam Evolving: Radicalism, Reformation, and the Uneasy Relationship with the Secular West (Prometheus Books, 2016).

If civilization lasts long enough, secularism might one day get another chance in Muslim countries. For now, it is dead.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.