More than Neutral

Life over the last few weeks has been filled with lots of reading of articles on the issue of secularism, particularly in the Turkish context, but also in general. Now some people might find this rather dry. Sometimes it admittedly is, but overall I actually enjoy it. Which is good since I have plenty more reading and writing to do on the topic over the next few months.

Today I read an article that I found referenced on The Immanent Frame, which is a blog/site that is a collaboration of a number of individuals who are thinking on issues of secularism, which is really concerned with religion in public life.

This comes from an article by Craig Calhoun published in The Hedgehog Review and he makes a really important observation that secularism is not necessarily something neutral or an absence, merely what is left once you subtract religion. It adds something. Whether you consider it an ideology or a worldview or a constitionual approach or whatever you would like to label it.

So why does this matter? It matters because if it is simply an absence then there is not really anything to talk about. But if it is more than neutral then it is something that needs to be discussed and considered and understood. It is an issue and it is worth considering because it is prevalent in a number of areas, in western society I think we almost assume it and forget that it is there until we come into contact with someone who has not accepted it. This is where issues of controversy arise.

So the point of this post? Realize that your particular worldview, be it secular or otherwise, may not be the universal worldview, not everyone adopts the same approach. So it is necessary to ask some of the foundational questions to understand why the stances we may adopt towards issues vary so widely.


Re-Thinking Secularism Abstract

So one of the ways in which I’m hoping to profit from blogging this year is through sharing some of the work I’m doing other places and generating feedback and helping to develop ideas. In my articles that I plan to post on Thursday’s (or Friday’s!) I will often be drawing from reading and writing I’m doing for grad school. Today I sent in the last of my projects for the fall semester. So I am now officially done! I’m looking forward to a few weeks off. It was mildly anti-climactic though because I’m going to be continuing some of the same topics next semester as I work on my master’s thesis.

Below is the abstract for a paper that will form the basis for my thesis. Thoughts? Questions? Ideas?

Re-Thinking Secularism: Religion in Public Life in Turkey


What does it mean to be a secular state? Is there a universal understanding of the place religion should occupy in a democratic state? This paper considers the conceptions of secularism and the particular brand of secularism that Turkey has embraced throughout its history. It is argued that a variety of factors make it untenable for the state to continue in a path of strict secularism through the  control of religion but secularism should be reconceptualized in a way that assures the freedom of religion from the state and the state from religion. A theoretical model is proposed that is better suited to the current realities of the Turkish experience and identifies some of the unique issues of concern. As Turkey continues to develop a robust and stable democracy and desires to remain a leader in the implementation of democracy in the Muslim majority world it must continue to make progress in the place of religion and public life.  

Public Protest as a Road to Democracy?

We are all quite aware that 2011 was a year full of protests. I say “Arab Spring” and”Occupy” what do you think of? I picture crowds filling the streets. Chanting, screaming, yelling for change. Time was on to something when they named “The Protester” their person of the year. There was certainly a lot of noise.

What changed? Maybe you shoot back – what didn’t change? Ben Ali is gone. Mubarak is gone. Gadaffi is gone. Papandreou is gone. Burlusconi is gone. Even Kim Jong-il is gone. Okay, but what changed? What assurance is there that the public protests that pushed most of these out of office will in someway lead to something better for their countries? We know what has been torn down. What will be built up?

Within political sciences many have argued that the public protest is not actually a very likely candidate for moving a country from authoritarianism to democracy. Why would that be? What factors might stand in the way of a public protest leading to a democracy?

Let me at least give you five:

1. Lack of Leadership 

Authoritarian rulers do not appreciate challenges to their rule from other potential leaders. So what do they do? They repress leadership. Students are the universal opposition of regimes, in the words of Samuel Huntington. While certainly public protests have been more than just students, the young people do contribute a significant amount to the cause. Nor am I discounting the importance of young peoples movements. I’m in full support of students and youth taking an active role in the shaping of their society. However, if they are not able to create leaders who are able to reach a broader demographic than just the youth the protest may ultimately fail to produce.

2. Institutional Weakness

Another factor is that the authoritarian government controls nearly every aspect of civil life. Especially in single party regimes they monitor and control the institutions. The civil servants that run the daily affairs of the country are employed by the regime. A violent removal of all those elements leaves the country with weak institutions. During the transition period to a new government there must be some sort of civil institutions. In some societies these are able to operate under the rule of the regime. Whether they are labor unions, religious groups, etc. institutions and organizations will be an important part of a new society. If they are lacking or prove too weak then the prospects may be grim.

3. Factionalism

During protest movements we don’t often hear much about factionalism. There is a common goal – remove the current person from power. That is pretty much all that matters. Ideologies and principles take a back seat. However – once that goal is accomplished – factions come to the surface in the rebuilding phase. The ability for groups to form broad-based and effective coalitions will be crucial to a transition to a democratic government. If they are not able to do this then the factions will compete – with institutions that are not strong enough to handle the competition within the political arena – and the political movement that started out so well. That drew together people from all different backgrounds and ideologies will ultimately come to nothing. Worse than nothing it will produce instability.

4. Instability

 The period falling the removal of a regime is often marked by instability. One study (from the 1980s) looked at the transition after the removal of a long-ruling leader to determine if the way he was removed made a difference for the instability that followed. The most volatile and negative effects came about when he was overthrown. It is studies like these that inform the fears of outside countries who are cautious about supporting public protests of regimes. This is the charge leveled against the US for their foreign policy in the Middle East. That they will support an authoritarian regime rather than democracy to protect their interests. The evidence in many ways supports the conclusion that instability will follow. If a country persists in a period of instability for too long someone will step in to offer stability. Oftentimes this is the military and sometimes this creates a military regime. It happens not because that is what the public wanted but because they are the only ones who offer peace. This is especially true when violence is involved.

5. Use of Violence

One of the most crucial components is whether or not the opposition movement uses violence in their protest against the authoritarian regime. When they do the likelihood of producing a stable democracy decreases significantly. There are also studies that have shown that nonviolence is a more effective strategy than even a well-armed and well-organized resistance. A non-violent opposition is able to engender more support from more facets of society. It does not offer the regime any way to legitimize their use of force against the protesters. As many have pointed out having the military on your side – or at least not actively against you – is key to successfully removing the regime. Soldiers are less likely to join forces with those who have been throwing Molotov cocktails at them. It also sets the standard for what your goals and objectives are. If you are willing to stand by your principles in your efforts to achieve them.

So what do you need to go from the crowd chanting in the street to the crowd casting votes at the ballot box to the crowd living in a secure, stable, and democratic society? Leadership, institutions and organizations, a willingness to work together and not default to factionalism, minimize the instability, and a rejection of violent methods.

Is it a guarantee of a transition to democracy? No. Is it going to make it easier? No. But it offers the best hope that the public protests will be part of putting the country on a road to democracy.

Public Protest as a Road to Democracy – References

2011 (Reading) Year in Review

During 2011 I set a goal to read 50 books during the year. I ended up doing exactly that. Some of them were great, others were less great. Overall, I would not say that there were any that were awful. There were definitely some highlights. Some books move so much quicker than others. I actually have come to realize that I really enjoy fiction – mystery, suspense type novels, sometimes historical fiction. I also try to read for personal intellectual growth and also spiritual growth. So without further ado here is…

2011 (Reading) Year in Review

This year I did not have a real plan for what I read. Some books were recommended to me. A few I read to supplement classes or papers I was working on. A lot of them were free on kindle and so were kind of hit or miss. Others I knew I wanted and went ahead and shelled out the money for them. In this post I want to breakdown what I read. This year I hope to be a little more intentional about my reading but I also wanted to take a look back at what I read this past year.

I was pleased overall with the consistency of reading. For 50 books you need to average just about 4 books per month. I started out well with 5 books for the first couple months. I never finished more than 6 and my lowest month (May) I finished just one book. I find that I often have more than one book going at a time. This is one of the major advantages of an e-reader. Based on a situation I can snag a few minutes of a novel when I might not be ready to dig into a more difficult book. It is interesting how many times throughout the year I would finish 2 or 3 or even 4 books within a few days of each other.

What books do I read? Well here is the list broken down by genre. I didn’t divide up my fiction, the majority of it was action/mystery with a few historical fiction novels thrown in. Sometimes it was difficult to differentiate between Christian Living and Theology. I’m out of grad school now and am no longer wading through theological treatise or systematic books so some were apologetics or more devotional commentaries but I felt they could be classified as theology rather than Christian Living.

I was also interested in breaking down my reading in a little bit different way. I wanted to see how my reading corresponded with the four topics I thought I’d end up blogging about here: Culture, Theology, History and Politics. I’ll admit that I probably am using the categories fairly broadly here but that’s my prerogative.

When broken down by topic they came out fairly evenly. With a slight advantage going to theology and politics and then history and culture. I tried to keep a balance of different types of books going at the same time and from a rather cursory overview it looks like I did a good job.

Best of the Books

Here are my top picks of the books I read by topic:


First Prize: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

The biography to read about one of the most interesting figures of the mid-1900s. Gives you a window into life leading up to and through World War 2 in Germany, not just the political realm but also the civil and religious events. Is also a great introduction to a Christian who truly strove to understand what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus, no matter the costs.

Read my full review here: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas←

Runner-up: One God One Message by P.D. Bramsen

This is a journey that takes the reader from beginning to end through the story of the world’s all time best-selling book, the Bible. It is one part apologetics, one part biblical theology and one part story-telling. It is primarily aimed at monotheists who are interested in learning what the Bible itself really teaches. It is based on the author’s long experience in the Middle East and other Muslim majority countries and also from online interactions email correspondences.

Read my full review here: One God One Message by P.D. Bramsen←


First Prize: God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics by Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah

Does religion matter in global politics? Don’t we live in the secular, modern world? Well then why are we talking about religion? This book argues and then responds to the fact that religion does matter in politics. Going beyond just if people are religious this book looks at how religion influences their actions in ways from terrorism and civil war to peace brokering and transitional justice. They look at two factors that largely help to explain why religious actors do what they do – 1) political theology 2) relation to the state structure. Really enjoyable and compelling book.

Runner-up: The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Ed Husain

This is the autobiographical story of a British Muslim growing up into the world of Islamist organizations, becoming a mover and shaker in that world, before ultimately seeing the emptiness of it and looking for something more. I would highly recommend this book.

Read my full review here: The Islamist by Ed Husain←


First Prize: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

An epic true story of the limits to which a man can be pushed and still retain his will to survive. This is a story of Louie Zamperini, someone who if you have not heard about you should, and this is the place to do it. From a world class athlete to a bombardier in the Pacific theater in WWII to a castaway  to a POW to a struggling Veteran Louie  – and others who shared his experiences – were pushed to unbelievable lengths. Many of them did not survive, for those who did none were the same. This is a great book and well deserving of the many accolades it has received.

Runner-up: The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien

This is a book about one man’s life. It is a fascinating read that will open your eyes to the highs and lows that one can experience in life. It is all about his story and through that it offers plenty of food to consider your own story. It will draw you in – and draw your mind to think about this life – and the One who created this world.

Read my full review here: Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien←


First Prize: How Should We Then Live? (: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis Schaeffer

An insightful book from one of the premier Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In this book Schaeffer traces the rise and fall of western thought and culture. It is a massive undertaking and on the whole he handles it well. In this book he argues how the truth of scripture is relevant for every aspect of life. It is one of the books for Christians looking to answer the question for how they should live and it remains extremely relevant even 35 years after it was first published.

Runner-up: The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies

Impossible to accurately summarize this in just a few sentences. This book is a must read for Christians who are beginning to navigate this new digital world. Really analyzes how technology affects us, our world and our faith. That decision “iPhone or keep my old talking only” is much more than simple addition to your life. It has far reaching affects that The Next Story helps you see and consider.

Honorable Mentions: Think by John Piper, Reset by Stephen Kinzer, Day of War by Cliff Graham, Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef, The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, Crazy Love by Francis Chan, and all the books by Steven James.

Here’s a link to a list of all the books: Reading and Reviews


Welcome to 2012!

Okay, so I am nearly a week late but this is my first post so far of the new year. It has been a rather strange last couple of weeks. We had a quick trip to London to celebrate Christmas together with family. Then returned back to Istanbul for a few days before having family visit us here. In between was trying to stay up with schoolwork as there are just a few weeks left in the semester here. So it has been rather out of routine.

I don’t feel like I’ve taken time yet to sit down and think and plan. Sometimes I do that quite well and at other times I don’t. I’ve been encouraged (rebuked?) by the example of another blogger who I’m quite familiar with to set up goals for my blogging this year.

Looking Back

Since I started the blog in August there have been some things I was really pleased with and others that I was disappointed in. I was able to finish my goal of reading 50 books this year. For a list and a link to reviews for some of them click here. I’m also excited about the series reviewing articles from the Review of Faith and International Affairs. I still have quite a few left but have enjoyed it so far.

Looking Ahead

For this next year I want to stay with the general types of posts that I’d envisioned when I first started blogging. I expected that I would write longer articles, shorter thoughts, links, and reviews of things I’ve read. While I’ve generally tried to stick to that I have not been regular in my structure of posts. So my plan for this year is to post four times a week. Once in each category. I will still need to work out the order for the posts but I hope to get a schedule in place and stick to it.

I also will look to start incorporating more of my academic work into the blog. I’m frequently reading journal articles and so will look to share some of the thoughts those generate. I also have been working on a number of papers and so may adapt those for different articles. This spring I will be working on a thesis and so will share some of that research here. Hopefully I can generate some feedback and discussion on various topics. I also will continue to participate in the “Blogging for Books” program (free ebooks!) and so will be posting reviews as a part of that.

Who knows what this next year will hold in store for us but hopefully, for me at least, this blog will help contribute to making it a more productive and enjoyable year than the last.