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September 16, 2019
EDITORIAL

Vulnerabilities of secularisation

A student was murdered after opposing rape in Turkey. Her body was mutilated and burnt in an attempt to wipe out traces. The perpetrators were apprehended shortly. This tragic story reminds of one of the most remarkable Turkish films of the last years – ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia’, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. A prosecutor, a forensic doctor and a few policemen, together with the author of a murder, go looking for the body that had been buried in a hard to detect place especially at night time. The film is first of all a metaphor, with the corpse standing for the heavy burden of the obscure side of a human being. However, it could equally be read in a more political key – the conscience of the Turkish society is burdened with sins that lay buried in the depths of consciences. This applies to the case of the student brutally murdered with a crowbar because she resisted a rape organised by the driver of the minivan which was taking her home. Brutality and aggression against women are a constant line in Turkish society. Recent official data of the Ministry of Social Policies indicates a more than concerning rate: four out of ten women are exposed to physical or psychological abuse; 38% women have been abuse in their own family; 89% do not report the abuse. The mass protests that followed the murder also came with a rather unusual gesture for the country – during the funerals, the coffin was carried exclusively by women, which caused the local imam to protest. Of course it would be hazardous to interpret the phenomenon by just considering one single aspect, because there is a complex of factors. First of all, it is not about some local specificity. Without mentioning the horrible group rapes in India or the more recent recrudescence of violence against women in Egypt, even in Europe the situation is not perfect, especially in some countries. For example Italy, where a national campaign is currently in progress against the very high number of women killed by their spouses.

In Turkey, on the other hand, there are also certain specific mitigating circumstances. One of those refers to the ambiguous role of religion. It cannot be neglected that the Islamic civilisation has promoted polygamy. Turkey, the first Islamic country that underwent a sustained process of secularisation during Kemal Ataturk’s post-Ottoman regime, in 1926 adopted a Civil Code of European inspiration. However, seduced by the prospect of a counter-secularisation, in the last couple of decades Turkey has been changing. The Islam is becoming more and more a question of political strategy. The current regime of President Erdogan’s (formerly Capital Mayor and Prime-Minister) has turned the re-Islamisation of society into the flag of his policy. The measures pursued are many and concern a variety of aspects, ranging from the prohibition of piercings and tattoos in schools and re-introduction of the study of the former Ottoman language to the abolition of mixed school principles and very early study of religion, from the liberalisation of the wearing of the hijab by ladies in public or beards for civil servants to prohibiting bright colour lipstick for airhostesses and too passionate embraces in underground stations. As it can be noted, special attention is given to religious education, with the declared purpose of growing ‘generations of pious young people’. Among the objectives there is also the prohibition of abortion and even deterrence for giving birth through C-section operations. One of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most ambiguous statements referred to a fundamental difference between men and women. As a matter of fact, as Mayor of Istanbul, he was known for never shaking hands with a lady. And, in order not to stir him up, lingerie shop windows were covered when the former premier happened to be in the area.

A rape followed by murder cannot be exclusively explained by the higher weight given to the precepts of Islam in a yet highly secular country. However, a certain role of the re-Islamisation rhetoric cannot be completely ignored either, because at stake is a whole culture of the condition of the woman. The same President Erdogan decided that a woman’s mission is to give birth to a minimum of three children. His vice-president demanded women not to laugh in public as it is against norms of decency. When an opposition lady MP last year denounced violence against women her male colleagues from the ruling party fought back in such a way that Aylin Nazhaka almost had to take her shoe off to defend herself. The truth is that the so-called re-Islamisation hides, besides other things, a reactionary attitude on women, ordained by the supporters of the movement to a role very similar to the three K in European culture: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (German for children, kitchen, church). Except for the church which, in the case of Turkish women, is the mosque. This kind of attitude is a temptation for the entire Islamic world, just with differences of degree. After all, the degree of secularisation of a society can be measured by the length of skirts. But this is not Islamic-specific. Both Christianity and Judaism have an equally puritan tradition: relations between men and women are ambiguous enough to entail severe interdictions, at least out of prudence – this is what all three monotheist religions believe. Fortunately, the Christian world has been doubled for several centuries by a process of secularisation that is a salutary counter-weight to theological philosophies that have generated major discrimination in the course of history. Better said, the dominant theological interpretations have maintained discriminating policies. Whilst Jesus could be seen almost as a feminist in today’s language, his later followers, starting with the apostle Paul, perpetuated the stricter perspective of Judaism on the inferior condition of women, filling Christian civilisation with discriminating bans.

The chance to avoid derailments such as the current one in Turkey is secularisation. However, as the very example of Turkey shows, secularisation will always be vulnerable. On the one hand, it would be a mistake to neglect the religious dimension of the human being, not just an anthropological, but also a political one. As Michael Walzer was noting in one of his recent articles, many Left-wing intellectuals still think as Marx did: to them, religion is a weapon handed by some to dominate the others. Religion is the ‘opium of peoples’. Religion must be taken seriously, but, at the same time, it must be criticised in its historic forms if needed. It needs to be balanced by an ethical thinking that can relativise its claims. A religion far too often surrenders itself to the temptation of being spiritually totalitarian, of determining peoples’ life with priority. And such thing always produces political consequences in the right history circumstances. The problem is not to remove religion, but to limit its influence. But on which criteria? If secularisation in the Christian world seems a bit more solid, a certain convergence of a specific religious culture with a culture of different references is not to be neglected. Generally, the two have been in a conflict, at times a hard conflict, but there have also been currents more willing to consider some of the ‘opponents’ arguments. Those who, on the one hand, understood that secularisation refreshes in a fortunate manner a religion tempted by all sorts of controversial deviations over the time, and, on the other hand, those who did not neglect the religious side of life. Just remember the time of John Paul II, which, to the Catholic world, represented a coupling to the ‘human rights’ culture once foreign to it.

Intellectuals and politicians should count more on such problematic, yet fertile convergence, to lower the excessive degree of instability of the various societies.

 

 

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