Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Question: Secular and Muslim?

As I read a report about Turkey 'calling off military exercises with Israel', I was confused by the reporters' description of Turkey (Turkiye) as a "secular muslim" country. The two adjectives appear to be oxymoronic. I ask as a genuine question, rather than an accusation, if it is acceptable journalistic practice to oversimplify in this way. I don't believe the uninformed reader would know what this description of Turkey is supposed to mean. 
Having lived in the Republic of Turkey for a brief time, I could disambiguate: The modern republic has a fiercely secular constitution and political tradition handed down by the much-revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk. The government is currently headed by a mildly-islamist political party (much milder in its pushing of religious issues, in fact, than the Republican party of the secular republic that is the United States) in parliament and presidency. The majority of Turkish citizens are at least nominally muslim in faith, and many are devoutly muslim. So when we pair these two words, secular and muslim, to describe Turkey, are they in fact oxymoronic?
"Muslim" is traditional in its use as a noun to describe the adherents of Islam (literally the meaning of the word "muslim" as derrived from Arabic is 'a follower of God'. But in the English language we can see this word also sometimes used as an adjective. Thus far--poring through the online dictionaries available to me--I haven't found a dictionary entry that defines what muslim means when it is used as an adjective. Does it overlap or superimpose the adjective "islamic"? The word islamic, if used to describe a country would, I think, suggest a non-secular government.
"Secular" is a word that refers only to form of governance, but muslim could possibly be seen here as a reference to either the people or the government. "Majority-muslim" could have disambiguated this description, discerning between Turkey as a government and Turkey as a body of people who are mostly muslim.  
The result is ambiguous. The reporters (based on name, one of the reporters seems to be a Turk or of Turkish ethnicity) surely know better, but their readers won't.

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