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Tensions between Secularism and Democracy in Turkey and Israel

12 Jan 2015
Artemis Niaros
Image Credit: Flickr (TheeErin) Creative Commons.

The interaction between the secular and religious realms in Turkey and Israel both enriches and undermines the health of their democracies.


Many Israelis casting their vote on 17 March will be paying close attention to the candidates’ positions relating matters of civil marriage, conversion and ultra-Orthodox conscription into the military. They will also, no doubt, be considering their views about the bigger question of whether Israel can be the both the Jewish state and a democracy. The Jewish State Bill has already divided the Israeli Knesset – finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni opposed the bill and were subsequently dismissed by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who then called an early election.

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres has warned that the law would “destroy Israel’s democratic status” since it alienates Israel’s sizeable Arab minority. If Israel is formally established as the Jewish nation-state, Jewish law will form the basis of the Israeli legal system and Orthodox principles will be elevated above those protected by the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Jewish tradition has always been embedded in questions of Israeli nationalism and legitimacy. It is for this reason that the Orthodox camp has been able to demand concessions and support, slowly eroding the secular Israeli state: for example, it is troubling that couples who are married outside the provisions of the Chief Rabbinate face two-year prison terms and that the Reform movement is not considered Jewish because it illustrates the extent to which particular Jewish sects have influence over the lives of non-Orthodox Israelis.

The bill will also affect the dwindling prospects of a two-state solution. In Israel religion functions not only as a source of national unity, but also as a tool to divide Jewish Israelis from Muslim Israelis, suggesting that those who are ethnically Arab are somehow illegitimate citizens of Israel. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister proposed to give Israeli Arabs economic incentives to leave Israel, since any formal acknowledgement that Israel is the Jewish state requires the deportation of Israeli Arabs into the ever shrinking Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Alternatively Israel will need to accept that its actions are facilitating the creation of an undemocratic binational state.

While Israel was established as a secular home for all Jews, its secular camp has fallen apart. This has been  facilitated structurally by a pluralistic electoral system that gives relatively marginal religious groups disproportionate influence over policy. Israeli parties need to form coalitions with nationalist-religious and Orthodox parties in order to have any chance of winning an election.

Even though one could assume that Israeli governments have historically used the settlers for their own purposes, the reality is that these settlers are somewhat outside of the government’s control because they fundamentally believe that the settlement of Palestinian land indicates the coming of the Messianic age. Settlements are a massive roadblock to finding peace with the Palestinians because they are creating the realities for a binational state. Israel can be Jewish, or a democracy, but not both.


Unlike Israel, in Turkey the presence of religious parties on the political stage has actually enhanced democracy. Islamist parties acted as a counterweight to a monocratic state. The powerful secularists forced the Islamist parties to gradually moderate their religious policies in order to survive. Restricting groups that have a religious agenda is not necessarily beneficial for either democracy or secularism since secularism necessitates a tolerance for religious expression.

Debates in Turkey that consider the impact of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the ‘secular’ Turkish state therefore misconstrue both the nature of the Turkish state and the goals of the AKP. Turkish secularism is not characterised by the strict separation of mosque and state. It is defined as the recognised importance of a state-sanctioned Sunni Islam to Turkish identity and the subordination of all religious institutions to the state. Often secularism was used to justify the repression of political groups that posed a threat to the dominance of the Kemalist Republican Party.

The accusations that the AKP is undermining Turkish secularism fail to consider the history of repression that defined the Republican era in Turkey. They also fail to consider that President Erdoğan’s changes to the rights awarded to minority religions have been relatively piecemeal, especially when one considers the Alevi community’s struggle to have legal recognition for their place of worship.

To some extent, however, the AKP is slowly reconfiguring the nature of secularism in Turkey. Rather than being an Islamist party, the AKP is a conservative party with an Islamist pedigree that is more concerned with questions of its own supremacy than with implementing Sharia. President Erdoğan has been able to use the rhetoric of democracy and secularism to monopolise power in his own hands. Any reforms the AKP implements should be understood as bringing Turkish secularism in line with the religious preferences of its voter base and as addressing the discrimination that was previously protected by the secular ‘deep state’.

The AKP’s 14-year reign has seen the disempowerment of the judiciary and the military, which is a problem for democracy more so than it is for a conventional understanding of Turkish secularism or “Laiklik”. Similarly, the influence of the nationalist-religious camp over Israeli politics raises questions about the limits of secular democracy and the ways in which the political inclusion of religious groups may both enrich and undermine democracy and secularism.

Artemis Niaros completed a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University with a major in Politics in 2012.

This is a shortened and updated version of an article published in the AIIA’s Emerging Scholars 2014 publication.