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University of Iowa News Release


March 29, 2007

Panel Will Discuss If Majority-Muslim Countries Can Be Secular Democracies

When Americans think of countries with a majority population of Muslims, they usually bring to mind images of fundamentalist regimes advocating terrorism and violence against the United States and other western countries.

But Ozan Varol, a third-year student in the University of Iowa College of Law, points to his native country of Turkey as proof that the stereotype doesn't hold.

"Since its founding in 1923, Turkey has been a secular, democratic state with a population that is 99 percent Muslim," said Varol. "As we try to instill democracy in Iraq, a lot of Americans are asking if it's even possible for a majority-Muslim country to have values like secularism and democracy. Turkey shows that it is possible."

Varol and UI law professor Adrien Wing will discuss Turkey's ability to maintain a secular majority-Muslim state in a panel discussion at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in Room 285 of the Boyd Law Building. Admission is free and open to the public. Their discussion will be based on a paper the two co-authored, "Is Secularism Possible in a Majority-Muslim Country? The Turkish Example," which will be published later this year in the Texas International Law Journal.

Varol said the experience of the Turks in creating a secular democracy has important lessons for Iraq, another majority-Muslim country trying to create a democracy. Both, for instance, have histories that trace back to the Ottoman Empire. Turkey, in fact, was created directly from the wreckage of the empire, which collapsed after its defeat in World War I.

"The Ottoman Empire was one of the most fundamentalist Islamic countries in the world, which treated women like second-class citizens and refused to make international agreements with non-Muslim countries because the leaders believed it went against the tenets of the Koran," said Varol. "They didn't even let the printing press into the country for 200 years."

One important difference between Turkey and Iraq, however, is that in Iraq, democracy is being imposed by an outside force, the United States. In Turkey, it was an internal development led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military commander and national hero from World War I and a post-war uprising against the Ottomans and Allied occupation forces.

"Ataturk realized that the Ottoman Empire's downfall was because of its fundamentalism, which bred isolation and corruption," Varol said. "When Turkey was established, he wanted to separate religion from the state to make sure the state survived."

To protect its secular nature, Turkey has adopted such constitutional measures as guaranteed education for women and men, a ban against Islamic clothing in schools and universities, and a prohibition against political parties that are based on such tenets of Islamic fundamentalism as jihad and shari'a law spelled out in the Koran. The Turkish constitution specifically states the country is a secular republic and puts its sovereignty in the hands of the people, not God. As a result, Turkey is a thriving, multi-cultural society that protects the rights of all citizens, men and women, Muslim, Christian or Jew.

"It's not unusual to see a woman wearing an Islamic headcovering talking with a friend, who is wearing European dress," he said. "In countries that border Turkey, women can be stoned to death for having sex out of wedlock. But in Turkey, a woman has served as prime minister."

Still, Varol said the balance in Turkey between secular democracy and an Islamic state is tense.

"It is fragile," he said, pointing to the many Turks who continue to advocate for an Islamic Republic in Turkey. In recent years, he said the Constitutional Court has had to dissolve four political parties for taking positions that advocated fundamentalism or the violent overthrow of the secular regime.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,