The Kemalist understanding of the secular and secularism which has characterised the institutional and legal framework of Turkish society since the foundation of the Republic is tightly linked to the concept of modernity. A legacy of the Enlightenment, modernisation theses hold that as reason supplants superstition, religion's influence on society will recede. If Kant held thatt “the spread of knowledge and reason would mean […] “holding religion within the bounds of reason”” (Benhabib, 2010:452), Weber went further to argue that modernisation would mean “dispensing with religion altogether in the name of modern reason and an emancipated society” (ibid). Such approaches were instrumental to the Kemalist project of Westernisation of Turkish society.
However, notions of the secular and the modern did not emerge with Mustafa Kemal. The modernisation tide began well before his rise to power. Already in the 19th century, Ottoman elites realised the need for reform to address nationalism within and imperial threats without. Hence, the Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876) were meant to modernise (i.e. Westernise) and consolidate the empire. A centralised and bureaucratic system was established and efforts were made to inculcate a sense of Ottomanism to the empire's multi-ethnic subjects (Kuru, 2009b:205-8). Secular courts, schools and laws were formally established and coexisted along with Islamic institutions. No explicit secular ideology was, however, framed and no contradiction was perceived in this cohabitation of the secular and the sacred (ibid). The sultan himself embodied this coexistence as both a temporal and spiritual leader. Already in the 19th century existed this idea that Islam and modernity, including Islam and constitutionalism, as this dual legal structure was enshrined in the 1876 constitution (Tröndle, 2007:1), were compatible and desirable.
Conversely, the Young Turks who emerged to power in the early 20th century: attributed the decline of the Ottoman empire to Islam and embraced a top-down approach to Westernise and secularise society (Kuru, 2009b:212-4). It is on this legacy that Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic in 1923: a centralised secular nation-state. He built upon the secular institutions of the Tanzimat period and did away with the Islamic ones to foster modernisation (to which secularisation was seen as inseparable). From a process, secularisation turned into a project; one that would be implemented from above (Yilmaz, 2002:114). So secularism was adopted as one of the founding principles of the Turkish Republic. In this regard, it needs to be understood with reference to the other five, and particularly to statism, nationalism, and reformism. While Islam was held responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman empire, secularism would be key to modernising state and society and to “elevating the nation to the level of contemporary civilisation” (Shambayati and Kirdis, 2009:767). Reference to a...