Pro-Islamist demonstrators shout slogans during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey, in August. Pope Benedict XVI said a healthy secularity would ensure that politics does not manipulate religion.

CNS PHOTO | MURAD SEZER, REUTERS

Pro-Islamist demonstrators shout slogans during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey, in August. Pope Benedict XVI said a healthy secularity would ensure that politics does not manipulate religion.

December 23, 2013
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

It may sound strange to Catholics who look at Quebec's Charter of Values and shake their heads over secularism run amok, but in 2010 the world's Catholic bishops and Pope Benedict XVI came to the conclusion the only hope for beleaguered Christians in the Middle East is secularism – secularism combined with democracy.

"A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics," declared Pope Benedict in Beirut in July 2012 in an apostolic exhortation that summed up the 2010 Synod on the Middle East.

"Healthy secularity ensures that political activity does not manipulate religion, while the practice of religion remains free from a politics of self-interest."

In the wake of the Arab Spring, now is the time for Muslim countries to discover their own healthy sense of secularism to go along with their new appreciation of democracy, visiting Dominican scholar Father Claudio Monge told The Catholic Register as he settled into his office at Toronto's University of St. Michael's College.

Monge will spend the next five months at St. Michael's writing a scholarly thesis about interfaith dialogue, secularism, citizenship and Islam.

Monge is normally based in Istanbul, Turkey, where he is superior of a small Dominican community. After a decade watching Turkey emerge from the chrysalis of military dictatorship and spread its fragile democratic wings, Monge is convinced the Arab Spring needs Turkey.

"Turkey is a very interesting laboratory," said the Italian.

Though Turkey is about 98-per-cent Muslim, the broad umbrella of Islam has never managed to make all Turks the same. Alevis, Sufis, Shia, Circassians, Kurds and others are all counted as Turks and Muslims, but they're not all the same.

RICH DIVERSITY

"Under the Ottoman Empire, diversity was a richness," explains Monge. "When Mustafa Ataturk (Turkey's first president) tried to create a new Turkish nation, diversity became a danger. . . . Ataturk tried to cut off the past, to create something new."

For the military and business elite that came after Ataturk, keeping Turkey unified meant keeping religion as far away from the public sphere as possible.

The Kemalists who carried on after Ataturk banned the traditional fez and ordered all Turkish men to wear a fedora. Today the battle is over what women wear on their heads. On Nov. 1 this year four female legislators defied a ban on headscarves by taking their seats in parliament wearing the hijab.

When 40 years ago a military government closed down the only Orthodox seminary in Turkey, it was trying to keep a lid on diversity.

If they allowed the Christians the Halki Seminary, then Sufis and other Muslim confraternities would be demanding their own schools independent of the state. Muslim movements and secret societies were always considered a nest of opposition to the government.

"I'm absolutely convinced that to reclaim diversity as a richness and not a danger it is necessary to discover a new way of belonging to the state that is founded on citizenship and not on ethical, cultural and religious things," Monge said.

The rights and duties of citizenship have to be equally applied to Muslims, Christians, Jews and all minorities.

SAFETY BOXES OF IDENTITY

But are Christians ready? Under the Ottoman Empire diversity was a richness because minorities were the empire's first taxpayers. The empire was divided up into "millets" - diffuse nationalities with their own legal systems, each headed by a patriarch accountable to the sultan. It was through the millets that the empire raised its taxes.

Each church and every ethnicity cut its own deal with the sultan's palace. This led over time to the development of churches that were more ethnic than religious – separate safety deposit boxes for each community's sense of identity.

Throughout the region – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt (all once part of the Ottoman Empire) – this led to inward-looking Christian communities, said Monge.

"I don't want to say that the actual Christian situation is not difficult," Monge said. "But very often I think at the origin of this collapse, this implosion of Christian churches, there is an inner crisis. We need a new way of being Christian."

Muslim Turkish scholar Mustafa Gokcek believes Turkey is caught between a French-style assertive secularism imposed by Ataturk and his followers and an American-style passive secularism.

Passive secularism ensures that every citizen can contribute regardless of religion and doesn't exclude religious motivations and points of view from the marketplace of ideas. French secularism or laicité gives the state the job of protecting people from religion.

As the Arab Spring swept from Tunisia through Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged Muslim countries to adopt secular constitutions.

Politically, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have their base of support among conservative, religious Turks who resent the restrictions of the old military-Kemalist governments.

But the Turkish leader made the argument that secular government protects Muslims from the inner divisions of Islam.

SECULARISM ANSWER

"No matter what kind of religious environment you have, you're not going to have millions of people thinking in exactly the same way. So how do you deal with religious diversity?" asks Gokcek, who teaches history at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, N.Y. "Through secularism.

"You keep religion outside the rhetoric at least – the political rhetoric. That keeps religion safer from the political heat and controversy."

There is a danger in the West treating Islam as though it were a monolith and a danger in political Islam trying to impose uniformity.

"Islam is not a monolith," said Monge.

Monge came to Toronto to write about diversity because he wanted to experience the Canadian model of multiculturalism.

"I'm more and more convinced that this is a good place to do this. There is this incredible variety, incredible diversity of cultural presence, who try to live together and not just side-by-side," he said.