Religion and politics in Turkey and Italy

21.04.07 Publication:

A huge crowd of at least 300,000 people gathered on Saturday April 14th in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to protest against the idea that Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is a devout Muslim, should become the country’s president. Their argument is that religion and politics must be kept separate, as Kemal Ataturk wanted when he founded the country in 1923 as a secular state. Yet by making this argument, they are also violating other constitutional principles: they are saying Mr Erdogan should be made ineligible for a political office simply on grounds of his religion. Why do I mention this event? Because it raises the same important question as does Italy’s debate over the Catholic Church’s intervention over homosexuals and unmarried couples.

            That question concerns the degree to which religious views, and religious institutions, should be allowed to influence democratic politics. The principle is easy: religion and the affairs of the state should be kept separate. People can and should be allowed to differ in their faiths, and even in their interpretations of those faiths. The state, however, needs to treat the rights and views of all citizens equally, regardless of religion.

But the practice, as we all know, is a lot harder. For if you also believe in free speech, then bishops and devout Muslims should be fully entitled to air their views. If those views happen to be against the legalisation of gay marriage, then so be it. Let others with different views make opposing arguments. Then let parliament decide.

On the other hand, the problem is that the bishops are not just offering individual views: they are, implicitly, wielding the power of their institution, a power which may influence parliamentarians beyond the views themselves. In that, however, they are not so different from a trade union which puts forward its views but also threatens, implicitly or explicitly, to achieve its goals by other means. If trade unions behave in such a way, why shouldn’t the Catholic Church also do so?

So it is not just a question of religion and politics. It is also a question of the way large interest groups wield their power in a democracy. They do so to try to make their votes, their influence, much larger than those of others. It is in all our interests to fight a constant battle against this tendency, whether it is coming from unions, big business or the Catholic Church. In that battle, the media plays a crucial role.

If it uses it properly, the media has the ability to transform such debates into arguments based on reason, rather than on faith or power. For example, if the debate about giving homosexuals the legal right to marry becomes based on reason, then the answer should become clear. Any religious view against homosexuality should be irrelevant to it, for homosexuality itself is already legal, thank goodness.

Thus, the question in the case of gay marriage is not whether homosexuals should be homosexuals. It is whether they should have the right to make commitments to one another that carry legal implications and are codified in law. The answer, surely, is that they should. There are plenty of people whose marriages I might disapprove of, for all sorts of reasons. But why should that give me the right to stop them from making commitments to one another that will have no bearing on me? A Catholic bishop can, if he wishes, tell his flock that they should not be homosexuals, just as he can tell them not to use contraceptives. But they should be free to ignore him. And his views are no reason to deny homosexuals, or co-habiting couples, equal legal rights. The role of the state should be to provide and protect such rights.

The demonstrators in Ankara were just as wrong, in my view, as Italy’s bishops. Mr Erdogan should have an equal right to be chosen as Turkey’s president. If the people don’t like his party’s Islamic views, they can reject it at the next election.