Beware of the New Ataturk! | Jake Painter
“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” – Proverbs 14:12
Michel Houellebecq is an engaging writer, whatever one may think of his overt messages. In his 2015 book Submission he delves into a not too distant France in the year 2022. It is election year and the Islamist candidate Ben Abbes has one won the French presidential election. He wins on the back of a general disenfranchisement towards the secular republic. The people have found life meaningless, without any overarching purpose. The main character of the book by the name of Francois feels this acutely, as he goes about his days being a moderately successful French literature lecturer in Paris, but feeling his career has reached somewhat of a dead end. On top of this he feels a somewhat lonely existence in his Paris apartment, apart from the occasional love interest with a young Jewish woman he is fond of, but even she eventually leaves for Israel once Habib gains power. But with the coming of Habib towards the end of the book, Francois experiences a rebirth. Abandoning his previous life of perpetual bacheloring, he finds new meaning in this new France. He regains his position at his university which is now a Islamic university (with their now being separate secular ones), he adopts Islam after previous irreligiosity and gains multiple wives, and with it he gains what he and France as a whole lacked, which led to Habibs election in the first place. Purpose.
This is where Macron will ultimately fail. His ongoing attempts to firm up Laicite (French concept of secularism) in the face of rising Islamism will fail precisely because it is Laicite that has (at least partly) led to this situation in the first place, the exact same situation described in Submission. Civilisations need a “noble cause”. For America it was manifest destiny and then defending liberal market orientated democracies from communist tyranny, and for the West in general it was its broad Christian heritage. What liberal humanists/secularists don’t understand however is that their ideology is not a sufficient replacement for a religious moral value system and is not a sufficient engine to drive society forward.
Without such a system there is no justice in the universe. There is no offer of salvation for those who seek to rectify their wrongs or to those who live pious lives, nor is there the threat of eternal damnation to those who have committed unspeakable evil. We are merely here by accident, our actions and lives are without much consequence and liberal humanism/secularism does not offer an end point. Where religion offers heaven, an afterlife, reincarnation etc, the former merely offers the scientific method. It is in effect a means but to achieve what end? What does society ultimately strive towards such a society that we live in?
Mustafa Kemal, better known as ‘Ataturk’ was a member of the Young Turks, a Turkish WW1 field marshal, resisted the conditions put on his country as result of the treaty of Sevres and ultimately led the Turks to victory in their subsequent war of independence. He would go on to be the founding father of the fledgling Turkish republic and introduced an aggressive secularisation drive to modernise Turkey [Photo Credit]
Douglas Murray discusses similar developments in his book The Strange Death of Europe where he discusses the rise of British converts to Islam. Many of them being young people, who have gone about their days of merely existing but at the end of it asking the ultimate question “is this it?”. Is this all there really is to life? Just mere existing and reckless hedonism? Most will suppress such thoughts by doing much of the same but some, as Murray highlights, do ask such questions and come to the conclusion something is amiss. I myself have asked these questions during the various lockdowns, as the halt to normal life has inevitably made one ponder the meaning of their existence. I have even been to a fair few masses and evangelical sabbaths. Alas, I have not yet fully opened up my heart to the idea of divine creation. Whilst I do believe it would be beneficial for god to exist, much like Peter Hitchens explains in The Rage Against God, just as it is ridiculous for atheists to not want there to be a god (as they don’t like the idea of their being other worldly consequences for their actions) it is equally so for one to believe in god just because they want it to be so. That is in my eyes, not a true confession of faith.
This brings us full circle to Macron. What answers does he have to these questions? He can shove secularism down people’s throats all he likes but if there’s nothing to latch on to, if that vision of France is something many can’t identify with, if that vision has no substance, if it doesn’t give society as whole purpose, then what are the chances it will be everlasting? This is not me going from allyship towards the Islamic faith. Indeed, I see the very similar issues France faces with Islamism in the UK itself and I will even admit at first I was at least lukewarm to Macrons proposals. My reservations lie in whether laicite is the answer France, or indeed the wider West, should look for.
Something does need to be done however. The fact that recently 25 retired French generals have written an open letter to the Macron government saying there is the risk of civil war breaking out due to the rise of Islamism in France is not something to be scoffed at. Not least because current serving soldiers in the French Armed Forces have signed the letter, but also because this wouldn’t even be the first time there has been a French military coup in living memory, if we count the 1958 French military putsch in Algeria that brought Charles De Gaulle back into power. There are aspects of Macrons anti Islamism drive that are necessary. Banning virginity tests and making it easier for the government to stop foreign financing of mosques (something we desperately need to do in the UK) are very sensible.
However, the recent vote in the French senate to ban Muslim women from wearing the hijab whilst they are under the age of 18 is a different matter entirely and gets to the crux of the issue in that there is a very big difference between freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion. There is a difference from defending the French Republic from genuine threats of Islamist subversion and nullifying such efforts by going after such a mundane cultural and religious practice such as the hijab, which is no more threatening than say the Catholic chapel veil.
The principle of freedom FROM religion is something Macron is getting dangerously close to. One can argue Laicite has always leaned towards this brand of secularism but is nonetheless something we can observe in Turkey during the interwar period. Mustafa Kemal (better known as Ataturk) was the founder of the Turkish Republic, after the Ottomans defeat after WW1 and after he successfully led the Turkish war of Independence against the victorious allied powers who attempted to carve up Turkey. In his role as president, Ataturk underwent a mass modernization drive to bring Turkey into the 20th century and did so at breakneck speed. There were many facets of this but for the sake of this article we’re interested mainly in the social, legal and political aspects of his reforms.
Many of his reforms were necessary. Ataturk abolished sharia law and any vestiges of Islamic dictates from the political and legal sphere (with him adopting civil law as the legal foundation for the Republic), he would make education secular and compulsory at that, he would abolish the caliphate and give women basic legal rights. He did however go much further than this. His secularisation of education was total and eliminated all vestiges of religious involvement in education, he would forcibly make all imams state employees answerable to a state body and what they could preach would have to be approved by the state, and (you guessed it) banning the hijab in public, along with the traditional male headdress known as the fez.
Again, whilst many of these reforms were necessary to make Turkey into a modern nation state, many others were not and left a bad taste in the mouths of a still largely religious and conservative country, which would ultimately be exploited by Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the turn of the 21st century to help launch his own political rise, partly off the back of discontented conservative Muslim voters. Will a Ben Abbes type figure follow in Erdogan’s footsteps and do the same and make Submission into a prophecy rather than a work of fiction? Very unlikely but the stage is certainly set for it. Fundamentally, whatever one’s political and ideological persuasion, doubling down on laicite and making it even more draconian than it was previously by banning things such as the hijab will do Macron and by extension France no favours. By the same token, I fear it is broadly speaking the only rallying cry our leaders (not just Frances) are willing to gather round, as there is not yet an alternative moral value system that has the strength to push back against this kind of challenge from within. Countries like say Poland do, but we are a long way away from that sort of revival.