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from issue no. 11 - 2010

After the referendum of 12 September

Secularity: not religion but openness

“We are the continuers of Atatürk’s reforms, we keep to the track of secularity that he conceived, and no one nowadays would ever want to go back to the time before him”. An interview with Kenan Gürsoy, the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See

Interview with Kenan Gürsoy by Giovanni Cubeddu

Kenan Gürsoy is a philosopher, a professor at Galatasaray University, the only francophone university in Turkey, built on the European side of Istanbul. A prolific author, Gürsoy is a familiar face to his fellow citizens having hosted cultural programs on national networks, and since January 2010 he has been the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See. We met him some months after the event trying to get thoughtful comment on the outcome of the referendum of 12 September, in which the majority of Turks approved a broad package of constitutional reforms.

Kenan Gürsoy [© Afp/Getty Images]

Kenan Gürsoy [© Afp/Getty Images]

What did the Turkish people mean to make clear in the referendum of 12 September?
Kenan Gürsoy: As you know, our Constitution still bore the marks of the military coup of 1980, and was so shaped that it limited our progress towards the democratization of the country. Leaving aside whether or not it was the right choice to vote on a package of twenty-six amendments, fifty-eight percent of my countrymen said yes to being more European, more democratic.
In the West there are doubts about your country.
Which are of a cultural, economic and, unfortunately, religious nature. Turkey, because of its history and its importance, causes concern. We know that Europe is a mostly Christian civilization and community of peoples... but every culture is made up of different elements, sometimes very different from each other. And these differences are assumed, coexist within a totality. This, too, is a value, because reality teaches us that we live together in a world of differences. We sing the praises of many values, I wonder why the latter should not be so.
Does the referendum mark the decline of Kemalism?
It is impossible for Turkey to even think anything counter to its founder Mustafa Kemal Pasha Atatürk, the father of the Turks. We are all his children and grandchildren, within his spirit as founder, and it is wrong to say that the referendum was against Kemal: we are the continuers of Atatürk’s reforms, we keep to the track of secularity that he conceived, and no one nowadays would ever want to go back to the time before him. We only say that the time is ripe to broaden his reforms towards democratization. Let’s look at history. Mustafa Kemal founded modern Turkey after the First World War, the country had suffered much and been invaded by the Western powers, which he had fought and driven back. But immediately afterwards he realized it was through the path of westernization and Europeanization that the nation would have to grow. The fact that at the beginning the Kemalist regime was authoritarian is an understandable historical necessity. But immediately afterwards, from the ’fifties onward, the road to democracy has been marked by the advent of multiparty politics. We are now in a third phase.
Of which the referendum is a means...
The people want to participate in political life, which should not be a reserve of the elite of the large cities, the wealthy or the intellectuals. That is democracy.
And how will the Turkish people interact with the European elites, on the issue of secularism for example?
The beginning of the Kemalist regime was marked by the reforms that came from an intellectual, political, military elite. In the early days secularity was reformist but was authoritarian, it followed the ideology of the state which required a separation between state and religion. That secularity turned into secularism, which became the religion of the state, and like all ideologies eventually had a negative impact on the psychology of the people and on its overall way of being. That was yesterday. What is secularity? It is the openness of each individual, or each political party to another, without demanding that the other adhere to our position. We respect each other mutually, both secular and religious. This morality is the foundation of democracy. Differences are prized, sacred so to speak, in the identity of our whole people. They exist, we all know and recognize each other in them, and there is gratitude for them...
Are we still within the thought of Mustafa Kemal?
Yes, we’re in a secularity conceived not as a religion but as openness. There is harmony between unity and differences, and all this requires an ethical foundation that is expressed as a juridical form, in democracy. This ethical principle of unity in diversity in force in Turkey today exists in the name of Islam and the other faiths present here, and in the name of what I call “the practical wisdom of the people”. It was already so in political activity in the Ottoman period.
What is your opinion of the Holy See after a year’s term as ambassador?
Watching the Holy See has enabled us to rediscover an important fact. For a secular state, the separation between civil and religious power is fundamental, and the task of the Holy See is to be concerned with the hearts of believers, not to interfere in the daily politics of States. Because the Church lives as a fortress that defends within itself a tradition that exists in time, while at the same time working to reconcile with modernity, and the problems of mankind – whether those be hunger, poverty, dignity or bioethics. In this, the Holy See’s position is exemplary in keeping alive the religious tradition and the practical wisdom of the people and at the same time having definite ideas about what is happening in the world. What is the relationship between the West and religion? The West may be secular but it knows how to move forward thanks to a Christian history and morality. This is now the problem for us Turks: without leaving behind our traditions and our faith we can be, on the path of democratization, a modern country and have a global, ethical, spiritual view of history, in harmony with the life of the republican State. It may seem paradoxical, but the Holy See, which is a State-religious see and exerts all its strength on the heart and morals of believers, does not despise or override the civil powers. This is an extraordinary success in history.

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