- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

When President Bush talks about Iraq, he emphasizes the spread of democracy as key to fighting terrorism. He has described his resolve to fight radical Islamists in religious terms, but he has stopped short of characterizing it as a war between Christendom and Islam. “It should be clear to all that Islam — the faith of one-fifth of humanity — is consistent with democratic rule,” Mr. Bush has said. But the president chose not to talk about secularism, which is necessary to a functioning democracy.

Alas, even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says his country is neither a secular nor a religious state. But it should be clear that secularism is an inevitable part of democratic societies. And regardless of whether people accept it technically or officially, a “religious war” is taking place.

On New Year’s Day, The Washington Times ran a front-page story detailing an attack in Palau, Indonesia, by suspected Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists, who bombed a market that sold only pig and dog meat. The blast killedeightpeopleand wounded at least 45 — the year’s first deaths in the name of religion. But it is also important to stress that Jemaah Islamiyah wants to establish an Islamic state in secular Indonesia.

This “war” isn’t limited to violence, however. In other parts of the world, attacking faith has become fashion. On the same day, the paper also carried a story about a hip new line of jeans in Sweden. “A punk-rock style, trendy tight fit and affordable price have made Cheap Monday jeans a hot commodityamongyoung Swedes, but what has people talking is the brand’s ungodly logo: a skull with a cross turned upside down on its forehead,” the story read. The designer, Bjorn Atldax, called the logo “an active statement against Christianity.”

Secularism is not about atheism. Ultimately, democracy — which truly lives up to the name only if it’s secular — is about tolerance and respect for others, both in the minority and in the majority. Secularism emerged in Europe centuries ago, when monarchies overthrew the pope’s theocratic hegemony and established their own rule. People fled to the United States to be able to practice their religions freely — and the United States has never known a religious war.

Turkey did not fight a religious war, as well. Yet its founder,MustafaKemal Ataturk, established a secular republic, abolishing the caliphate. Still there are some Turkish nationals who don’t really believe in secularism as a model for society.

Today, there is an ongoing debate about the practice of secularism. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan endorses U.S.?style secularism. As a man rooted in Islamic traditions, he wants to allow women to wear headscarves in public. This represents a significant challenge to Turkey’s political system, as the one and only secular democracy whose population is majority Sunni Muslim.

Until recently, the European Union criticized the Turkish government that opposed the practice, misguidedly calling it a violation of human’s rights to not allow this public expression of faith. But faced with the issue on its own, France banned all religious symbols to be displayed in schools and government offices. President Jacques Chirac told his people that unity depends upon “the principle of secularism…It expresses our wish to live together in respect, dialogue, and tolerance. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience.” Also, that same EU applies extra scrutiny to potential immigrants whose wives and daughters wear headscarves. They question their attitudes about modernity. As a result, Turkish Islamists find themselves in a quandary, trying to figure out Europe’s “secular” standards.

Perhaps they’d find a clearer answer on this side of the Atlantic. Former President Reagan said of the United States: “We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not to believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief. At the same time that our Constitution prohibits state establishment of religion, it protects the free exercise of all religions. And walking this fine line requires government to be strictly neutral.”

But can a government be “strictly neutral” if most of its population practices the same religion within the same sect? The current Turkish government chooses to interpret the headscarf as a right to Muslim women. The question is, how will the majority — in Turkey — tolerate minority religious views, much less ensure their protection? It cannot. Given that, France was right to ban all religious symbols from the public sphere. But the EU was wrong when it refused to stand with Turkish secularists when they needed European support the most. And if such confusion continues, Turkey could fall victim to the same kind of violence that has occurred in Indonesia, as the clash between secular ideals and religious faith continues.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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