Today's date:
Summer 2007

Turkey : Not About Islamic vs. Western Values

Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. He is Lamont University Professor at Harvard University and formerly Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. His most recent book is Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. He answered these questions for NPQ by email.

NPQ | You've argued—in part in response to the "clash of civilizations" thesis—that "identity is not destiny," and that the clash idea suggests a "miniaturization of human beings" into "unique and choiceless" identities that fit into "boxes of civilizations." In the context of your thesis, how do you see events in Turkey today? What answer is there to the conundrum that democracy itself may lead to the end of secularism?

Amartya Sen | Turkey is a country with a very rich history and a variety of past experiences that have shaped the attitudes of modern Turkish people. As in any vibrant society, there are many schools of thought in Turkey, and the fact that they don't agree with each other does not indicate that there must be a bloody battle between them, driven by some imagined "clash of civilizations." Those who want to see the disagreement between secular politics in Turkey and more religion-oriented politics there just as a clash between Islamic values and Western (or Judaeo-Christian) values make a huge mistake. These differences relate to views on appropriate political and public practice—not to what religion is appropriate. Indeed, most of the secularists in Turkey are themselves Muslims.

Democracy does not in itself provide a guarantee of secularism, but nor does it contradict secularism in any way. Of course, those of us who are secularists aspire to get support from a large majority of people. That is certainly what the situation actually is in India, by a huge margin. A strong belief in secular values applies to Indian Muslims too (there are 150 million Muslims in India—many more than in Turkey), just as much as it applies to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees, and other Indians. Indeed, huge majorities of Indians of all religious backgrounds agree that the state should be equi-distant from different religions. There is nothing to indicate that democracy must lead to the end of secularism, at least in the form that is well established in India.

It is true that many—indeed most—people in Turkey seem to be keen on joining Europe. There is no surprise there: Europe is a wonderfully dynamic part of the world today—economically, socially and culturally—and it is not hard to understand why the Turks may want to join it. As an Asian, I am a little sad that the Asian identity, which had been so important in Turkey's past, does not seem to attract the modern Turk very much. But again I am not surprised by this. Asia—especially West Asia close to Turkey—has been full of battles between countries and regions, linked with religion, ethnicity and other divisions. We have many problems to overcome before we can make the Asian identity an unproblematic boon.

NPQ | Let me ask you about India itself. What is its identity? Sacred cows or software? Untouchables or connectivity? How many identities can fit into one idea of India?

Sen | This is really a non-problem, I fear. We all have—each of us—many affiliations, many distinct associations, related to our professions, politics, language, literature, religion, social commitments, and many other loyalties. And ultimately we also have our respective individual identities (no two persons have exactly the same collection of belongings)—there are more than a billion identities right there. The acceptance of variety does not in any way compromise a shared sense of being Indian in terms of national identity and the corresponding political affiliation, and it would be a conceptual confusion to think that it would.

Some of the items in your list are, however, very oddly chosen. India is very successful in software, which is a reason for happiness, but software can hardly be the basis of an Indian identity. It is a professional identity of some Indians—about a million who are in that occupation, out of a billion Indians. Very few Indians, even Hindus, would really take the cow to be sacred. Indeed, the Vedas, the primary source book of Hinduism for three and a half thousand years, has many references to the eating of beef, and says nothing about the sacredness of cows. A belief in the sacredness of cows (whatever that might mean) can hardly be linked to the identity of a person as an Indian.

Untouchability is a very different kind of practice—demeaning to many and a violation of the rights of others. It was, therefore, entirely appropriate that after India became independent from Britain in 1947, the new constitution of the Republic of India outlawed that terrible practice comprehensively.

NPQ | How do we find a modus vivendi among competing identities in a hybrid world? Rather than forcing a false universality, some have suggested that we learn form the Middle Ages where different values applied in different jurisdictions. Do you agree or disagree with that approach? What is the alternative?

Sen | It is not surprising that values may vary, to some extent, between one region and another. But to say just that and to stop there would be to miss out two very important further issues.

First, different persons even in the same country can have very different values. It is not a matter of just going from one jurisdiction to another. Second, for reasoned vindication of any local practice, it would have to be open to further examination and arguments. In that scrutiny it would quite often make sense to refer to practices elsewhere and to the arguments that are used in the defence of these different practices. This is where universalism is important.

The fear of what you call "false universalism" can hardly eliminate the need for reasoned scrutiny taking note of serious arguments—no matter from where they come. It is this kind of defence of universalism as an affirmation of the reach of reason that we can see in Adam Smith's insistence that the ancient Greeks, including highly advanced Athenians, could think that infanticide was perfectly alright only because they did not look beyond their local practices, beliefs and prejudices.

There is a similar argument in the ancient Indian philosophy that warns against behaving like the "well-frog"—a frog that knows only about the inside of the well in which it is born and that never wants to hear about the world outside that little well. The recommendation of avoiding the fate of the "kupamanduka"—the well-frog—is voiced in at least four ancient Sanskrit books that I know of, going back to the first millennium B.C. Please don't try to despatch us to the parochialism and insularity of the well-frog in admiration of some alleged juridical merits of the wonderful Middle Ages, with plentiful inquisitions and the burning of heretics and witches.