A governmentality approach on the transformative role of authoritarian secularism

  • Lacin Idil Oztig


There is a substantial body of literature that analyzes secularism in terms of the way religion is regulated. In this context, while moderate secularism tolerates religious expression in the public sphere, authoritarian secularism limits religion to the private realm. In this study, authoritarian secularism is analyzed by employing insights from the governmentality approach. By studying Turkey and Tunisia in their immediate post-independence periods, it is demonstrated that authoritarian secularism not only privatizes religious beliefs and practices, but it also aims to transform citizens by dictating a particular social imaginary through political intervention.


Authoritarian secularism Governmentality Turkey Tunisia 

Ein Gouvernementalität-Ansatz zur transformativen Rolle des autoritären Säkularismus


Es gibt eine umfangreiche Literatur, die den Säkularismus in Bezug auf die Regulierung der Religion analysiert. In diesem Sinne, während der gemäßigte Säkularismus den religiösen Ausdruck in der Öffentlichkeit toleriert, beschränkt der autoritäre Säkularismus die Religion auf den privaten Bereich. In dieser Studie wird der autoritäre Säkularismus analysiert, indem Erkenntnisse aus dem Gouvernementalitätsansatz verwendet werden. Durch Studien und Nachforschungen in der Türkei und Tunesien in ihren unmittelbaren Nach-Unabhängigkeitsperioden wird gezeigt, dass der autoritäre Säkularismus nicht nur religiöse Überzeugungen und Praktiken privatisiert, aber es gleichzeitig auch darauf abzielt, die Bürger zu verändern, indem eine bestimmte soziale Vorstellung durch politische Intervention diktiert wird.


Autoritärer Säkularismus Gouvernementalität Türkei Tunesien 

1 Introduction

Secularism is the product of secularization, a process encompassing the transformation of the religious domain (Asad 2003; Casanova 2011). The corollary of secularization, which entails teleological, scientific and political developments, is the shift from the legitimization of the state through traditional-religious norms towards secular and rational norms (Inglehart and Welzel 2005). In secular states, unlike theological states, religion is depoliticized. In other words, in such states, religion does not constitute the basis of the political order.

Even though modern political leaders occasionally capitalize on religious sentiments, modernist dynamics has marginalized religion by removing its pivotal role on political power (Falk 1988). A cursory glance at the empirical literature reveals two modes in which religion is regulated: moderate and authoritarian secularism. In moderate secularism, the state tolerates religious expression in the public sphere. In sharp contrast, in authoritarian secularism, the state intervenes in religion in order to relegate it to the private realm (Calhoun et al. 2011).

This article aims at bringing a novel insight into the literature by analyzing the transformative role of authoritarian secularism by utilizing insights from the governmentality approach of Foucault. Through the governmentality approach, this article aims to demonstrate that authoritarian secularism is based on the transformation of the traditional social imaginary1 informed primarily by religious beliefs. Authoritarian secularism operates on certain rationalities, which are geared towards subject formation through the imposition of a social imaginary informed by Western cultural codes through a series of governmental apparatuses.

Turkey and Tunisia constitute the point of departure for theorizing about authoritarian secularism. Even though their pre-Republican pasts differ sharply and the two countries are significantly dissimilar in terms of their political structure, population and economic strength, following their independence, both states enacted strict policies to depoliticize religion and restricted religious visibility in their public sphere. The secularization process, which started in the Ottoman Era primarily in the 19th century, morphed into authoritarian secularism with strict control of religion and the top-down imposition of secular norms upon society under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Tunisia followed the same trajectory by subjugating religion under Habib Bourghiba after gaining its independence from France. Tunisian secularism aimed at subjugating religion through weakening religious institutions and banning the veil (Ghumkhor 2012).

This article is divided into four sections. The first section reviews the literature on secularism. The second section explicates the governmentality approach of Foucault. The third and fourth sections analyze the trajectories of secularism in Turkey and Tunisia in their immediate independence period by casting some light on state-religion relations in their pre-Republican periods. The final section discusses the implications of authoritarian secularism and summarizes the main points of the study.

2 Literature on secularism

There is a tendency for secular arguments to brand ‘the religious’ as the other. The secular argument is built upon a binary view that operates on the faith/knowledge distinction. Consequently, it opposes the all-encompassing nature of religion (Cady 2008; Lilla 2007). Milbank (2006, S. 1) posits that secular reason confines religion ‘to intimations of a sublimity beyond representation, so functioning to confirm negatively the questionable idea of an autonomous secular realm, completely transparent to rational understanding’. Along similar lines, Hurd (2004) argues that secularism’s very act of marking religion’s distinct from politics by placing it under separate category is political. She further argues that secularism associates itself with normal, rational politics (Hurd 2011). In this respect, religion “becomes a repository for a range of non-rational and non-universal dimensions of politics that fall outside the range of ‘normal’ politics, including belief, culture, tradition, mood, and emotion” (Hurd 2011, S. 170).

Assad sheds light on state-religion relationship under the rubric of the modern nation state. He notes that ‘the nation-state requires clearly demarcated spaces that it can classify and regulate: religion, education, health, leisure, work, income, justice, and war. The space that religion may properly occupy in society has to be continually redefined by the law because the reproduction of secular life within and beyond the nation-state continually affects the discursive clarity of that space’ (Asad 2003, S. 201). Similarly, Nandy (1988, S. 140) explicates how religion is regulated by noting that “The new nation-states tend to look at religion and ethnicity the way the 19th century colonial powers looked at distant cultures which came under their domination—at best as ‘things’ to be studied, ‘engineered’, ghettoed, ‘museumized’ or preserved in reservations …”

While there is consensus in the literature that secularism rests on the configuration of the religious realm by the state, in actuality there are diverse patterns of the way secular states regulate religion. Broadly speaking, the literature makes use of the distinction between moderate and authoritarian secularism (Stephan 2011). In moderate secularism, the state tolerates the expression of religious values in the public sphere. As Mahmood (2006) notes moderate secularism treats organized religion as ‘private benefit’ as well as ‘public good’.

The United States, by not intervening in the lives of religious communities and tolerating religious expression in the public sphere, is a typical example of moderate secularism (Philpott 2007). In the United States, students are allowed to wear religious symbols in academic environments, while in the judicial arena, U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court sessions start with a prayer (Kuru 2009). Similarly, Spain adopts an accommodative approach to religion. The Spanish Constitution states that ‘no religion shall have a state character’. Nevertheless, it is also stated that ‘The public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and shall consequently maintain appropriate cooperation relations with the Catholic Church and other confessions’ (Spanish Constitution 2017, Section 16).

Nevertheless, there is no singular model according to which moderate secularism is implemented. Moderate secularism tends to vary based on polity dynamics. As Stephan (2011) notes, secular states might have established religion (Denmark, Norway and Sweden). More interestingly, secular states might have accommodated religion in the public sphere, but this accommodation might vary for different religions. For example, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland only support Christian religion whereas India, Indonesia and Senegal follow accommodationist policies towards a variety of religions in the public sphere (Stephan 2011).

In stark contrast to moderate secularism, authoritarian secularism does not only depoliticize religion, but it prevents its public visibility (Casanova 2011; Calhoun et al. 2011). In authoritarian secularism, state and religious authority are not clearly differentiated as religion is excluded from the public sphere through state intervention (Stephan 2000, 2016; Kosmin and Keysar 2007; Casanova 2008; King 1999). With the disestablishment of the Catholic Church and the strict separation of religion from politics and the public sphere, France is a paradigmatic example of authoritarian secularism (Casanova 2008). Chile under Pinochet, Turkey under Atatürk, Tunisia under Bourghiba, and Egypt under Nasser are also examples of authoritarian secularism (Philpott 2007). It should also be pointed out that authoritarian secularism is different from totalitarian secularism, which launches anti-religious campaigns as seen in Soviet Russia and Communist China (Modood 2010; Kosmin and Keysar 2007; Falk 1988).

In contrast to moderate secularism, in which state-society relations are consensual, state-society relations in authoritarian secularism are conflictual (Philpott 2007). Hurd (2004, S. 245) notes that authoritarian secularism ‘… re-inscribe[s] the boundary between the public and the private, between the sacred and the secular, between the mundane and the metaphysical’. She also argues that authoritarian secularists “compose the ‘ground’ from which the ‘religious’ is generated. In doing so they implicitly set the limits of public space. By defining the temporal, they delineate the transcendental. As a result they control the terms through which ‘religious’ disputes are publicly defined and regulated” (Hurd 2004, S. 245).

As seen above, much of the literature emphasizes the regulatory role of secularism. Secularism is defined and different types of secularisms are singled out with respect to the way religious domain is regulated by the state. Furthermore, there is a burgeoning literature which is written on the transformative role of secularism. For example, Asad (2003) and Mahmood (2006) stress that secularism not only separates religion from politics, but also aims to transform religious subjectivity by privileging rational reasoning.

Along similar lines, Michael Barnett argues that secularism takes part in the construction of social reality by laying out its vision of the world (Barnett 1998). In Appleby’s words (2000, S. 5), secularism ‘shifts the social location of religion, influences the structures it assumes and the way people perform their religious functions, or forces religion to redefine the nature, grounds, and scope of its authority’.

Interestingly, in contrast to the 19th century nation states, which perceived religion as a ‘distant culture’ as argued by Nandy (1988), the relationship between secularism and religion turned out to be more complicated in Muslim-majority nation states which became independent during the 20th century. During their fight for national liberation, the secular leaders of Turkey and Tunisia (Atatürk and Bourghiba respectively) capitalized on the religious sentiments of people in order to achieve national unity. Furthermore, after independence, rather than ‘ghettoizing’ or ‘museumizing’ religion, the secular founders of Turkey and Tunisia sought to rationalize Islam (Berkes 1964; Boulby 1988). In other words, both leaders fought against the dogmatic interpretation of Islam and aimed at reconciling religious beliefs with secular rational values.

This study intends to make a novel contribution to the literature by illustrating the transformative function of authoritarian secularism through the use of insights from Foucault’s governmentality approach. Even though Atatürk and Bourghiba did not promote irreligiosity, they encouraged people to reason more ‘rationally,’ Turkish and Tunisian secularism aimed at restricting faith-based behavior and practices in the public sphere. In this respect, the governmentality approach enables me to demonstrate that in addition to its regulatory function, authoritarian secularism, implemented in Turkey and Tunisia, was equipped with a transformative function which operated on the basis of transforming its subjects in line with Western cultural codes.

Through the diffusion of Western cultural codes, individuals were not only expected to comply with behavioral norms (more particularly dress codes), but also emancipate themselves from religious dogmas and reason more rationally. In the following section, Foucault’s governmentality approach is outlined in order to explain how authoritarian secularism centers on the production of subjectivity.

3 The governmentality approach

In the Foucauldian perspective, power manifests itself through governments’ technicalities and rationalities (Merlingen 2003). In this respect, governmentality refers to a diffuse form of political power through which populations are managed and controlled by institutions, administrative practices, rationalities and tactics (Foucault 1991, 2007). In this context, governmentality is the ‘conduct of conduct’ which creates an enabling environment for some types of conduct while discouraging others (Foucault 2000, S. 341). In governmentality, the government exerts its disciplinary power on individuals not through direct use of force, but by setting normative standards (Dillion 1995).

Governmentality has a cognitive dimension as it relates to the restructuring of its citizens through the spread of certain forms of subjectivity through mentalities and the means utilized by governments (Butler 2004; Rose and Miller 1992; Dillion 1995). In other words, governmentality does not only aim at shaping the conduct of individuals, but also their beliefs through a series of government apparatuses and knowledge structures (Rose and Miller 1992). In this respect, it is grounded on knowledgeable practices which articulate particular epistemological and philosophical presuppositions (Dillion 1995). In governmentality, power and knowledge are amalgamated with each other as state practices are based on certain types of rationalization and knowledge is converted into a means of power (Bröckling et al. 2011; Dillion 1995).

The very act of constructing and reconstructing the subject constitutes the basis for governmentality (Merlingen 2003). Governmentality turns individuals into subjects through a series of knowledge structures and norms of conduct (Merlingen 2003; Dillion 1995). Subjectification does not result in the disempowerment of citizens. Rather, in governmentality, citizens are given a degree of autonomy. Nonetheless, citizens are integrated into a ‘web of power/knowledge’ which sets forth which types of actions are appropriate in certain situations (Dillion 1995, S. 325). In other words, even though subjects are empowered to act, their actions are conditioned by certain knowledge structures which legitimize and delegitimize certain actions.

Governmentality, which is directly concerned with discursive construction and execution of the political imaginary (Dillion 1995), provides an illuminating theoretical tool for explaining the practices of subjectification of authoritarian secularism (or the reconstitution of subjects through rationalized government practices). In the following sections, insights from the governmentality approach are employed in order to examine the transformative role of authoritarian secularism in Turkey and Tunisia. It is shown that in addition to regulating the religious domain, secularism implemented in these countries entailed a distinctive mode of reconstructing the subject in line with the Western cultural codes. Put differently, this paper illustrates that authoritarian secularism not only relegates religion to the private sphere, but also shapes conducts and beliefs of citizens by installing a secular imaginary which takes rationality and Western cultural codes as reference points.

This study theorizes authoritarian secularism in a comparative fashion with a specific attention to the state-level dynamics through the governmentality approach. It should be noted that governmentality does not only operate through the state, but also in non-state institutions and discourses (Butler 2004). This paper acknowledges that the approach to governmentality requires not only a focus on state actions but also the exploration of citizens’ behaviors and transformations. Secularization at the individual and societal levels constitutes the limitation of this study, as it takes the secularization at the state-level as its central theoretical concern.

4 Secularization process in Turkey

In the Ottoman society, Islam and state authority were intertwined with one another. Shari’a was the basis of the Ottoman family law (Nadolski and Glidewell 1977). The ulema (Muslim clergy), who were responsible for providing justice on the basis of religious law, legitimized the sultan’s authority over the subject populations (Yavuz 2003). Equally important, religion was the basis on which the Ottoman society was organized. Under the millet system, different laws are applied to Muslims, Christians and Jews. For example, taxation and education systems were organized and regulated according to religious differences in the Ottoman society (Ortaylı 1999).

In the Ottoman state, Islam ‘provided the source of legitimacy, the unity of state and religion, a source of identity. Islam was not only the basis of the state; it … provided a cognitive map of action and meaning, a repository of memory and also a sense of authority’ (Yavuz 2009, S. 17). Nevertheless, despite the fusion of religion and state authority, the Ottoman state was not a religious state. The ulema was strictly tied to the Ottoman bureaucracy and the Ottoman sultans could reject their decisions (Mardin 1984; Berkes 1964). Most importantly, Ottoman sultans mostly based their decisions on the laws of the sultan (kanun), which were derived from secular traditions rather than religious sources.2

The secularization process started in the Ottoman state in the 19th century with the Tanzimat reforms in the areas of administration, education, military and justice (Kern 2011). Nevertheless, the secularization process was thwarted under Sultan Abdülhamid II. Although the 1876 Constitution was adopted by Abdülhamid II, he later suspended the Constitution in 1878. After losing vast territories in the Balkans with predominantly non-Muslim populations in the Balkans, Sultan Abdülhamid II turned to pan-Islamist policies to foster an Islamic identity among the Ottoman-Muslim population (Deringil 1991) and to create ‘a consolidated Islamic empire’ (Barkey 2008, S. 290). Placing more emphasis on the caliphate identity than other Ottoman sultans, he preferred to be referred to as the ‘Shelter of the Caliphate’ (Hanioglu 2010).

Abdülhamid II was particularly concerned about the spread of Christianity, Shiism and Wahabism in particular areas of the Ottoman state. Therefore, he sent missionaries to these areas to spread Sunni-Islam. Furthermore, Abdülhamid II encouraged the publication of religious books and the active participation of the ulema (Muslim religious scholars) in state institutions. Through these policies, norms which promulgated an Ottoman-Muslim identity, prevailed over the norm of equal citizenship, a concept and practice which was introduced during the Tanzimat period (Gelvin 2005).

Under the Western-oriented Young Turks who came to power in 1908 using the slogans of French revolutionary principles, secularization process gained pace (Walter 2014; Farhi 1971). The Young Turks encouraged women to take a more active role in the society. During this period, women were allowed to participate in public places without fully covering their heads (Ahmad 1993). The Shaykh al-Islām’s (the chief religious officer) mandate of overseeing religious courts was given to the Ministry of Justice (İnalcık 2016). The Shaykh al-Islām was removed from the Cabinet in 1916. Secular courts were given the authorization to control religious courts in 1917. By giving women the right to divorce, the 1917 ‘Decree on Family Law’ limited the impact of Islamic practices on family law (İnalcık 2016).

Atatürk proclaimed the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923. He created modern Turkey through vigorous, state-led modernization reforms. Differing sharply from the Ottoman heritage, religion ceased to be a base of legitimation in the new Turkish Republic (Esisenstadt 1984). Even though there are some continuities between Ottoman reforms and Kemalist reforms, the latter aimed at creating a modern state and nation by cutting off the nation’s bond with the Ottoman state and societal traditions (McCarthy 1983). Under an authoritarian single party regime, Turkey underwent rapid political, economic, social transformation (Özyürek 2006). Atatürk’s nation-building project was predicated upon secularizing Turkish national identity. Atatürk epitomizes his objective with poignant clarity in the following statement:

The Turkish Revolution … means replacing an age-old political unity based on religion with one based on another tie, that of nationality. This nation has now accepted the principle that the only means of survival for nations in the international struggle for existence lies in the acceptance of the contemporary Western civilization. This nation has also accepted the principle that all of its laws should be based on secular grounds only, on a secular mentality that accepts the rule of continuous change in accordance with the change and development of life’s conditions as its law. (quoted in Berkes 1964, S. 470)

Similarly, in his speech before the Grand National Assembly in 1924, Atatürk emphasized his objective of depoliticizing religion by indicating his intention to ‘cleanse and elevate Islamic faith, by rescuing from the position of a political instrument, to which it has been accustomed for centuries’ (quoted in Ahmad 1993, S. 264). From 1924 onwards, secularizing reforms subjugated religion with the abolishment of the Caliphate, closing the office of Seyhulislam, religious schools, religious courts, religious brotherhoods, dervish lodges, and shrines (Altunışık and Tür 2005; Berkes 1964; Toprak 1995).

Equally important, the Presidency Religious Affairs, which was responsible for administrating mosques and appointing and dismissing imams, was established.3 Through the Presidency that is tied to the Prime Minister, a Sunni interpretation of Islam was promulgated. In addition, the state-imposed control over religious education of Imams who were trained in the theology faculty of Istanbul University, which was attached to the Ministry of Education (Lewis 2002).

In 1926, family law was secularized with the adoption of the Swiss Civic Code. In addition, a committee was also established to oversee the modernization of Islam and it soon published a report, which stated that ‘religion, like moral and economic life, must be reformed on scientific lines’ (quoted in Kasaba 1997, S. 25). In 1931, religious academies were closed and a ban was imposed on religious education (Meeker 2001). The language of the azan (the Islamic call to worship) was converted from Arabic to Turkish in 1932.4 The law, which prohibited wearing religious attire other than in places of worship or at religious ceremonies, was adopted in 1934 (Law Relating to Prohibited Garments). Importantly, in the same year women acquired full universal suffrage. A year later, wearing a chador was forbidden (Dikici 2008).

Secularism in Turkey is characterized by the imposition of certain epistemological duties on individuals. For example, with respect to the closure of religious brotherhoods, dervish lodges and shrines, Atatürk stated that ‘The most truthful tarīqa is the tarīqa of civilization’ (quoted in Hanioğlu 2011, S. 156). He also noted that ‘primitive individuals seeking moral and material prosperity through the guidance of such and such a sheikh despite the enlightenment of science, technology, and civilization as a whole should not exist in Turkish society’ (quoted in Hanioğlu 2011, S. 156). He further stated in Nutuk that these reforms confirm that the Turkish nation is not a primitive group committed to superstitious beliefs (Atatürk 1981).

In addition to influencing subjects’ epistemological beliefs and expectations, Atatürk’s secularizing reforms laid out certain behavioral codes. In Atatürk’s notion of civilization, a Western outlook had an important place. Although the veil was not banned,5 the modernist outlook was imposed on the Turkish society though the Hat Law, which banned fez and made wearing hat obligatory for men in 1925 (Berkes 1964).6 Atatürk’s speech at İnebolu on the Hat Reform lays out behavioral codes in the process of subjectification:

The people who constitute the Turkish nation are a civilized bunch. It is historically and essentially civilized. But I have to inform you, as a brother of yours, as your friend and as your father … that members of the Turkish nation who call themselves civilized must prove and show that they are intellectually civilized as well. They must show how civilized they are through their family life and lifestyles. (quoted in Genç, 2013)

From 1923 onwards, the idea of the adoption of the Latin alphabet had been heatedly discussed among the elites. Opponents of the idea associated the Latin alphabet with Christianity and supported the preservation of the Arabic alphabet in order to protect their Turkish and Muslim identity. In 1928, the consolidation of the Kemalist regime and the weakening power of the religious opposition cleared the way for enacting of a law, which introduced Turkish alphabet, despite strong opposition from some segments of the society (Berkes 1964; Lewis 2002). Furthermore, through the Turkish Linguistic Society, (which was created in 1932), the Turkish language was purified from Arabic and Persian words. The language reform aimed at increasing the rate of literacy as well as breaking the Turkish nation’s bond with its Ottoman-Islamic past (Akural 1984).

The secularization process in Turkey was complemented with the legalization of laicism. With Article 163 of the Penal Code, adopted in 1926, transmitting anti-laicism messages became forbidden by law. In 1928, the article that stated that ‘Islam is the religion of the state’ was removed from the Constitution. A 1931 regulation stated that religion is a private affair, and all legal rules and regulations should be made and implemented according to temporal needs (Mardin 2013). Perhaps the most important development in this trajectory was the incorporation of secularism into the Constitution of 1924 in 1938. With this development, Turkey became a constitutionally secular state. With regards to constitutionalizing secularism, the then Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya stated: ‘… We note that religion should stay in individuals’ consciences and temples without intervening to material life and worldly affairs. We are not letting them intervene and we will not let them intervene’ (quoted in Kuru 2009, S. 217).

Nevertheless, as mentioned previously, even though Atatürk took strict measures in order to depoliticize Islam, his objective was not to promote irreligiosity, but to rationalize Islam. In other words, he sought to ‘Turkify Islam for the sake of religious enlightenment’ (Berkes 1964, S. 484). In his speeches, he repeatedly emphasized that “Islam was a creed worthy of human beings; it was natural and rational; it had been corrupted by the ‘play-actors of religion’ in the service of tyrants in order to enslave the minds of the people …” (quoted in Berkes 1964, S. 483).

Atatürk’s secular measures were maintained and reproduced under President İsmet İnönü between 1938 and 1950. During this period, people who questioned secular norms were pushed to the margins of society. The ban on the chador, which was imposed in 1935, was strictly followed. A law in 1941 aimed at the imprisonment of people who prayed azan in Arabic. Furthermore, disciplinary measures were taken to prevent religious propaganda and the mobilization of Islamist groups (Dikici 2008).

This study posits that Turkish secularism, in its immediate post-independence period, constitutes an act of governmentality. As the case study shows, the Turkish state (in addition to exercising power to secularize state institutions) capitalized on procedures, techniques and discursive practices to regulate faith-based behavior and practices in the public sphere. Most importantly, in addition to reforming state institutions and regulating the public sphere, Turkish secularism operated on the reconstitution of the subject. Another way of putting it, by taking on the role of ‘civilizing mission,’ Turkish secularism aimed at producing new subjects by molding citizens according to Western customs and lifestyles through a number of procedures and techniques.

‘The people of the Turkish Republic, which acknowledges civilization, ought to prove their state of civilization with their family life, lifestyle, and their outer appearance from head to toe’ (quoted in Göle 1996, S. 60); Atatürk’s statement poignantly illustrates how Turkish secularism played a transformative role by intervening into the public and private spheres and shaping the norms of everyday life. Last but not least, by challenging superstitious beliefs, and simultaneously privileging reason and rationality, Turkish secularism not only shaped beliefs and expectations of individuals, but also created an epistemic hegemony.

5 Secularization process in Tunisia

Tunisia was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until the 19th century. From 18th century onwards, Tunisia was ruled by Turkish Beys beys under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Under the Ottoman rule, Islam played an important role in shaping Tunisian culture (Dalacoura 2007). Nevertheless, religion was subjugated to royal authority as Turkish Beys had the power to appoint and dismiss ulema. The Tunisian ulema lacked an inclination to criticize Beys’ decisions, even when they deviated from the sharia (Ghozzi 2002).

From 19th century onwards, Turkish beys initiated the modernization process. The modernizing reforms were not realized in response to social demands. Rather, the Tunisian elite were forced into these reforms by France whose interest on Tunisia grew following its occupation of Algeria in 1831. Sweeping reforms, made in the areas of education, economy and the military, strengthened the authority of the Tunisian government and limited the role of religion in the society (Dalacoura 2007; Shanin 1998).

The first constitution in Tunisia (also in the Arab world), which had liberal components, was declared in 1861 (Borowiec 1998). The Constitution established a constitutional monarchy and curbed the Ottoman rulers’ power over Tunisia (Borowiec 1998). The French captured Tunisia from the Ottoman Empire in 1881. Unlike Algeria, which was subjected to total French colonization and assimilation, Tunisia retained its national autonomy while being ruled as a protectorate (Ghumkhor 2012).

Rather democratizing and secularizing the country, the French took legislative and administrative measures to reform the Beydom to suit their interests (Murphy 1999). They neither abolished the Islamic family law in Tunisia nor the ulema (Dalacoura 2007). Nevertheless, they strictly controlled the ulema and decreased its financial autonomy (Ghozzi 2002). Above all, the Western-style education and legal system in the country introduced by the French were instrumental in Tunisia’s secularization process (Ghumkhor 2012). Tunisians who were exposed to Western-style education became critical of traditionalist views and became ardent supporters of modernization and secularization. In 1935, a group of nationalists published the first feminist journal in Tunisia Leila within which the Western style dress codes were encouraged and donning the veil was depicted as a threat to social transformation (Halila 1984).

Inspired by the Young Turk movement in the Ottoman Empire, the Young Tunisians had encouraged the development of a modern nation state at the beginning of the 19th century (Charrad 2001). Even though the Young Tunisian movement was abolished in 1920, their ideas were reinvigorated by the nationalist Neo-Destour Party that was formed in 1934. The party directed anti-colonial resistance against the French (Charrad 2001). Before the Tunisian independence, Bourguiba often referred to religious values in order to mobilize the people against the French. The Neo-Destour Party frequently held meetings in mosques and Bourguiba called on people to pray five times a day (Boulby 1988).

Under the authority of Habib Bourguiba, the leader of nationalist Neo-Destour Party, Tunisia’s independence was declared in 1956 (Charrad 2001). The Tunisian Beydom was abolished with the creation of the Tunisian Republic on 25 July 1957. Following the independence, a fervent debate arose between traditionalists and reformists with respect to Tunisian identity. Traditionalists wanted to preserve their Arabic identity whereas reformists had a vision for Tunisians modeled on the West (Tamimi 2001).

Bourguiba’s goal was to recreate Tunisia on the basis of Enlightenment ideals and the French revolutionary principles (progress, rationality, and human dignity) (Boulby 1988). The balance was tilted towards reformists and Tunisia witnessed a series of secular reforms. Religious endowments were disbanded. All religious courts were abolished and the judicial system was unified (Shanin 1998). Women were allowed to vote in 1957 local elections (Murphy 1999).

With the promulgation of a civil code in the same year, Islamic traditions such polygamy, a man’s right to divorce his wife by declaration and marriage at puberty were outlawed (Halila 1984). Even though Islamic norms were retained in inheritance, changes in the civil code were important steps towards gender equality and secularism (Dalacoura 2007). On this issue, Bourghiba stated that ‘This change [in the law] represented in our minds a choice in favor of progress … the end of a barbaric age and the beginning of an era of social equilibrium and civilization … [we must] fight anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities’ (quoted in Charrad 2001, S. 220).

Furthermore, education was made compulsory (Borowiec 1998). The education system was nationalized and unified. Quranic schools were tied to the Ministry of National Education. Religious schools were closed. The Zaytouna College, which offered Islamic education, was converted into the Faculty of Theology and Religious Science under the University of Tunis. Religious education in schools was limited to two hours a week (Boulby 1988; Shanin 1998). In addition, the Administration of Religious Affairs was created in the 1960s and was attached to the Prime Minister. These measures, in turn, resulted in the weakening power of the ulema (Shanin 1998).

Tunisian secularism bears a striking resemblance to Turkish secularism. Following in the footsteps of Atatürk, Bourghiba accepted the Western cultural model as a source for emulation in creating a modern state. In line with his vision, he stated ‘what links us to the Arabs is not more than historical memories. Tunisia’s interests are tied to the West and to France in particular. Marseille is closer to us than Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo. Crossing the Mediterranean is easier than crossing the Libyan dessert’ (quoted in Kardi 2001, S. 3). Again, like Atatürk, he stressed the importance of secular mentality: ‘The secret behind the decline of Muslims in their dark ages lay in their rejection of reason, their conservative imitation, and submission to dubious leaders, fake religious characters, conservative scholars, and Sufi orders that restricted reasoning and stagnated religion’ (quoted in Shanin 1998, S. 35–36).

The Tunisian Constitution of 1959 guaranteed political, civil and social rights for all Tunisian citizens, including non-Muslims. Nonetheless, in sharp contrast to Turkey in which secularism gained a constitutional status, the Tunisian Constitution declared Islam as the official religion of the state (Shanin 1998). Furthermore, in his public speeches, Bourghiba repeatedly referred to the Qur’an. However, Bourghiba’s appeal to religion was primarily derived from his interest in gaining the consent of the population over the course of social transformation he envisioned.

For example, he stated that religion ‘well understood was not obstructive … Islam is faith and action … It is also realism and generosity … Religious commandments must be adapted to the evolution of social structure … [In Tunisia] we believe in a necessary evolution of religion’ (quoted in Halila 1984, S. 29). While before the independence Bourghiba elevated Islam as the cement of the nation in order to oppose anti-colonialism, after the independence he referred to religion in the context of secular society.

In his speeches, Bourghiba placed more emphasis on Tunisia as a nation rather than a Muslim community. He regarded religion as a personal matter and opposed its intervention in political, social and economic affairs (Halila 1984, S. 29). He touched upon the importance of reason and rationality (Micaud 1969). He argued that with its attachment to reason, Tunisia is different from other Arab states, which are characterized by sentimentality and passion (Micaud 1969). These statements illustrate how Tunisian secularism determined the epistemological sphere by sidelining religious dogmas and privileging rationality.

Like Turkish secularism, Tunisian secularism is built upon a set of behavioral conducts. Tunisian secularism took on a patronizing tone as Bourghiba called women to cast aside their veils by labeling it as ‘odious rag’ and banned the veil in schools in 1957 (Boulby 1988, S. 593).7 He described asceticism and fasting during Ramadan as a ‘harmful practice’ (quoted in Rossi 1967, S. 98–99). He encouraged the abstention from fasting during the Ramadan in order to increase social productivity (Micaud 1969). Additionally, he advised Tunisians to make economic investments in Tunisia instead of spending extravagantly on travelling to Mecca for pilgrimage (Shanin 1998).

Bourghiba’s antagonistic attitude with respect to Islamic practices, accompanied by the government’s economic failings in the mid-1960s, led to a religious revival (Boulby 1988). In order to appease Islamists and counter-balance the leftist opposition, the Tunisian government supported the creation of the Quranic Preservation Society at the al-Zaytuna Mosque in 1970. The Quranic Preservation Society reached a wide audience through its Quranic schools and sowed the seeds of Islamic Tendency Movement (later Ennahda) which called for a return to Islamic principles (Waltz 1986). Islamists rejected Bourghiba’s mobilization program realized solely on secular principles (Murphy 1999). Concerned over the growing power of political Islam in the 1980s, Bourghiba ordered draconian measures to thwart the mobilization of Islamic Tendency Movement (Perkins 2004).

Prime Minister Bin Ali toppled Bourghiba in 1987. In order to legitimate his coup, in his first three years in power, he showed signs of toleration towards Islam and embarked on a campaign of democratic reforms. Nevertheless, this policy was reversed. With the law enacted in 1988 that prohibited the formation of political parties with religious programs Islamic Tendency Movement was again targeted. Religious lectures at mosques were prohibited (Borowiec 1998; Shanin 1998; Sadiki 2002; Clement 2007). Bin Ali also maintained the veil ban and described the veil as a type of sectarian dress which emulates Saudi-style Wahhabism (Ghumkhor 2012; Lav 2006). All in all, the idea that ‘mosques belong to God and God only, and that no political movement should have the exclusive right to use religion for its aims’ formed the basis of Bin Ali’s policies toward Islam (quoted in Borowiec 1998, S. 8).

Taken all together, Tunisian secularism (like Turkish secularism) can be read from a governmentality-oriented perspective. Tunisian secularism capitalized on a number of administrative and discursive practices and legal instruments in order to exclude religion from the public sphere. Furthermore, Bourghiba and Ben Ali saw authoritarian secularism as a remedy for the country’s cultural backwardness (Cavatorta and Haugbølle 2012). As such, their secular policies not only targeted education, the judicial system and the like, but also the beliefs and lifestyles of Tunisians. To put it another way, Bourghiba and Ben Ali saw the aspect of changing the traditional role that religion once played in the Tunisian society as a political task and consequently laid out how Tunisians should behave and reason.

6 Conclusion and implications

Notwithstanding its variegated forms and its complex relationship with religion, secularism is the ordering force and lynchpin of the modern political life. The ordering principle of moderate and authoritarian secularism is grounded in the depoliticization of religion. In other words, both moderate and authoritarian secularism are equipped with regulatory functions. By analyzing Turkey and Tunisia as examples of authoritarian secularism from a governmentality perspective, this article has shown that authoritarian secularism differs from moderate secularism not only in terms of relegating religion to the private realm, but also with in terms of its role as reconstituting citizens with the infusion of a top down social imaginary informed by Western cultural codes.

The hallmark of authoritarian secularism is the management of populations by promoting new forms of subjectivity. In other words, authoritarian secularism aims to reconstitute ‘the subject’ by dictating how one should think. It is tied to a particular epistemological viewpoint, which is based on the demystification of religion. Even though it is not based on an irreligious epistemology, it expects subjects to be detached from their superstitious beliefs and acquire a more rational understanding of the world. As these case studies show, in order to secularize their societies, the Turkish and Tunisian governments instilled certain rationalities, which delegitimized individuals’ unquestioned embrace of religious dogmas through discursive, bureaucratic and legal practices.

Furthermore, authoritarian secularism become a way of doing things and a new mode of life. Both Atatürk and Bourghiba envisioned that Western dress codes could serve as cultural markers of their nations’ secular identity. As a consequence, Western dress codes were grafted onto the secular normative order. As subjects were expected to dress in a certain way, authoritarian secularism became a mechanism of social control. All in all, by taking a political-ethical imaginary which is premised on Western cultural codes as a reference point, secularism took on the role of a ‘civilizing mission.’

It should be specified that secularization experience is not unique to Turkey and Tunisia among Muslim majority countries. Notwithstanding the Islamic theocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the theocratic republic in Iran, a number of Arab countries underwent the secularization process. The secularization process in Syria, which began under the French mandate in 1920, reached its climax with the ascendency of the Bath Party into power in 1963. The President Hafez al-Assad took a number of measures so as to limit the role of religion in the public sphere. For example, the Islamist opposition was suppressed (the most evident example is the 1982 Hama massacre in which the Syrian regime violently suppressed an uprising organized by the Muslim Brotherhood); wearing veil in schools and prayers in military barracks were banned. Furthermore, women’s rights were increased and religious marriages were not officially accepted (Khatip 2011).

Even though Egypt also embarked upon a secularization process, it was not long lasting. After overthrowing the monarchy in 1952, the President Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to secularize state institutions, supported a liberal interpretation of Islam and imposed strict control over the ulema. Nevertheless, Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat drifted away from secular Arab nationalism promoted by Nasser and supported a more conservative interpretation of Islam. Islam was incorporated into Egypt’s legal codes in the 1971 Constitution and in the 1980 constitutional amendment respectively. Even though under the Mubarak regime, radical Islamists were repressed, the Islamization of the public sphere continued (Hibbard 2010).

It should also be pointed out even though Turkey and Tunisia embarked upon ambitious secularization projects, secularization processes in these countries have not proceeded smoothly and progressively. In Cesari’s words (2014, S. 7) in Turkey and Tunisia, the utilization of ‘Western secular techniques in law and constitutions, rather than resulting in the differentiation between political and religious realms, has created a strong connection between Islam and politics and contributed to the redefinition of Islam as a political norm in ways unknown under the Muslim empires’. Indeed, Hallward (2008), Vaggione (2005), Berger (1985) and Botwinick (1998) emphasize that the border between the ‘religious’ and ‘the secular’ becomes porous in practice in many countries with the embeddedness of religious values in political ideas, collective norms, and social practices.

In Turkey, even though religious values were disassociated from politics, the link between the state and religion has not been completely dissolved as Turkey subjugated religion under state control through the Presidency of Religious Affairs. Later periods of Turkey, especially under Turgut Özal and more specifically under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan witnessed the prioritization of religious values with respect to national identity and lifestyle (Salt 1995; Yavuz 2003; Hale and Özbudun 2010).8 By and large, authoritarian secularism, cemented in the early years of the Turkish Republic, did not remain static, but rather was modified over time. In particular, under the Justice and Development Party government, authoritarian secularism has morphed into moderate secularism.9

Similarly, and even more interestingly, Tunisia has displayed paradoxical tendencies with the relegation of religion to the margins of the society and the constitutional recognition of Islam. Like in Turkey, authoritarian secularism in Tunisia has not remained static either. After the Arab Spring, Tunisia has adopted a more moderate approach towards religion (Cesari 2014). Moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which was repressed by Ben Ali for a long period of time, came to power following the 2011 elections.10

Similar paradoxical tendencies can also be observed in Syria. Even though under Hafez al-Assad secular policies were strictly followed, Islam continued to be the main source of law and religious courts (which adjudicate matters related to inheritance, marriage and divorce) operated along with civil, criminal, security and military courts. Furthermore, Islam was constitutionally recognized as the President’s religion (Khatip 2011). Similar to Turkey and Tunisia, Syrian secularism also exhibits transformative dynamics. After Baser al Asad came to power, the Syrian regime started to follow a more moderate approach towards religion. The ban on wearing veil in schools and the prayers in the military were lifted and (until 2011) the regime started to show more tolerance towards the Islamist opposition (Khatip 2011).

As noted in the introduction, Turkey and Tunisia differ in terms of political structure. While from the 1950 elections onwards, Turkey developed into an electoral democracy (despite several setbacks, including 1960, 1971 and 1980 coups), Tunisia was ruled by a single party until 2011.11 In this respect, whether differences in political regimes (democracy vs. non-democracy), or the strength of political regimes impact the diffusion of secular norms from the state to the societal level would constitute an interesting research project. Future research could analyze why some secularization projects in Muslim majority countries were longer lasting than others. Furthermore, the impact of authoritarian mode of secularism on religious mobilization also offers a fruitful avenue for future research.


  1. 1.

    Social imaginary refers to the way people imagine their social surroundings. It entails a common understanding that gives sense to collective practices. See Taylor (2004).

  2. 2.

    There were times that even Ottoman Sultans’ decisions, which were not in conformity with Islamic law, were implemented for the sake of Muslims’ highest good. See İnalcık (2016); İnalcık (2005).

  3. 3.

    The Turkish government also imposed control over religious education of Imams. Imams were trained in the theology faculty within Istanbul University which was attached to the Ministry of Education (Lewis 2002).

  4. 4.

    The Democrat Party, which came to power in 1950, converted ezan back to Arabic. See Arat (2005).

  5. 5.

    In certain places, the veil was banned through municipal orders. See Kamrava (2013, S. 54). The ban on chador was imposed in 1935 (Dikici 2008)

  6. 6.

    The Hat law was abolished in 2014.

  7. 7.

    In 1981, the ban on veil was extended to government offices. It should be noted that before independence, Bourghiba evoked the right to use veil in order to gain supporters from the conservative segment of the society (Shanin 1998).

  8. 8.

    Guided by the norm of religious freedom, the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) has also expanded the rights of non-Muslim minorities. See (Oztig and Aydin 2017).

  9. 9.

    For a detailed study on the subject, see Oztig (2017).

  10. 10.

    Ennahda Party was replaced by secular Nidaa Tounes party following the 2014 elections.

  11. 11.


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and International RelationsYildiz Technical UniversityIstanbulTurkey

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