The Geopolitics of Laïcité: Making Sense of the Franco-Turkish Dispute
David Rigoulet-Roze 23 December 2020

Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.

(Jesus of Nazareth to the Pharisees and to the supporters of King Herod who try to corner him on the issue of a tax to Caesar, Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 20, verse 25).

The reality is that the state should have the same distance from all religious beliefs. This is what secularism [laiklik in Turkish] is all about.

(Statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Zagreb, Croatia, on 26 April 2016.)[1]

France, and what it represents, appears in many respects to be a priority target for political Islam in general, and for its extremist avatars in particular. This is not a coincidence, since France embodies a singular conception of freedom of expression inherent to laïcité, which it has historically elevated to the rank of a cardinal republican value, alongside its triptych “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Secularism has indeed been a French distinctive feature since the adoption of the so-called Law of Separation of Church and State of December 9, 1905, which goes well beyond the simple “secularization”, that is, the “privatization” of religious belief and its removal from the public space, which characterizes other Western countries. To say nothing of the impossibility of even discussing the notion of secularism in countries of Muslim culture stemming from the Arab-Muslim mindset, as the very word “secularism” does not exist in Arabic. The law of 1905 is furthermore explicitly complemented by article 1 of the Constitution of October 4, 1958, which proclaims that laïcité is a value of the Republic: “France is an indivisible, laïque, democratic and social Republic. It ensures the equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs.” It is precisely this respect for all religious beliefs that has been called into question and manipulated for largely political purposes by neo-Ottoman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid the controversy generated by the republication, on September 2, 2020, of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by the Charlie Hebdo weekly newspaper.


State provocation

Following the assassination of the teacher Samuel Paty on October 16, 2020, the Turkish president multiplied attacks against his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, accusing him, during a speech delivered on October 25, 2020 in Malatya (in the East of the country), of nothing less than “Islamophobia” and even going so far as to prescribe him “mental health examinations.”[2] This accusation was a jab at the right to draw religious caricatures, a right that the French president had defended on October 21, 2020 during his speech at the solemn ceremony at the Sorbonne in honor of the slain teacher.

Subsequently, President Erdogan once again attacked Charlie Hebdo for having caricatured him on the front page of the weekly (while claiming he had not seen it). “My anger is not due to the despicable attack on my person, but to the insults against the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh),” he said during a speech in Ankara. The Turkish reïs largely fueled a defamatory anti-French campaign that would swell on social networks and provoke many reactions in the Muslim world, some countries even deciding to implement a boycott of French products. A list of countries that includes – unsurprisingly – Qatar, a close ally of Turkey in its support for political Islam, but also Kuwait. Not to mention the fiery demonstrations against France, especially in Pakistan, where the crime of blasphemy is punishable by death,[3] whereas the crime of blasphemy does not exist in French law. The disagreements were thus practically a given. However, this instrumentalization of the religious question by the Turkish president is also part of an elaborate strategy, one especially aimed at internal political objectives as this external projection allows him to pre-empt a form of neo-Ottoman leadership over the Ummah (Muslim community), at the expense most notably of Saudi Arabia, the guardian of the “two holy places” of Islam in Mecca and Medina. The campaign targeted his AKP electorate (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/”party of justice and development”), the Islamic-conservative party that profoundly transformed the Turkey left by its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This attempt to lead the Ummah constitutes a considerable paradox when one thinks that Atatürk had erected as a value for post-Ottoman Turkey a form of secularism inspired by the French model.


A Turkish “soft power” at stake?

Influenced by this French conception of secularism, laiklik (secularism) in Turkey is indeed one of the foundations of the Kemalist Republic. The Constitution of 1924 was thus amended by the law of 10 April 1928 that removed articles declaring Islam to be the state religion. The law of 5 February 1937 enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution the principle of laïcité, which is still theoretically in effect today. However, the definition of this form of laïcité differs from its understanding in France: while no one should be able to influence the social order and the conduct of the state on the basis of religious rules, religion remains subordinated to the state while “Education and religious and ethical teaching are provided under the supervision and control of the state.”

Turkey is thus not a strictly secular or laïc state insofar as there is no separation between religion and the state, but instead religion remains subjugated to the state. This secularism or laïcité is therefore not, as in France, a separation between the Churches and the State because it is the Turkish State that organizes and totally controls the community of believers: the 72,000 or so imams in Turkey are civil servants, paid and trained by the State via the Diyanet (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı/”Presidency of Religious Affairs”) which, with its colossal budget (the equivalent of nearly 2 billion dollars, or 1.6 billion euros), has a staff of about 140,000 people. Created on March 3, 1924 to control the Muslim faith, the Directorate of Religious Affairs has become, by a strange reversal of its initial vocation, a formidable vehicle for social engineering in the hands of an Islamic-conservative government

The Diyanet also deals with the management of Islam abroad through its Department of Foreign Affairs, founded in 1984, which is responsible above all for “mosque services” (cami hizmetleri) for Turks abroad. More specifically, its main mission is “to send someone to lead prayers and to serve as a source of information about religion for Turkish communities abroad”. In reality, the Turkish state sends imams to Turkish expatriate communities via its external arm, the Ditib (Diyanet Isleri Türk Islam Birligi/”Union of Turkish Islamic Cultural Affairs”), which is a direct offshoot of the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs. As the official and historical voice of Turkish Sunni Islam, the committee represents in France around 270 mosques and religious associations[4] under the supervision of some 150 Turkish imams or of Turkish origin under “detached imam” system. The Turkish president did not tolerate that the French president announced his intention to put an end to the practice of detached imams in France. An intention he made clear first in his Mulhouse speech on “Islamist separatism” on February 18, 2020, reiterated in his speech at the Mureaux on the same theme on October 2, 2020 and confirmed by the passing of a bill entitled “Bill to Confirm Republican Principles,” (leaving aside from its title, no doubt as a measure of appeasement, the initial terms “separatism” and “laïcité“).

Turkey happens to be the country most invested in the management of Islam in France, as it sends more than half of the 300 or so imams “detached” from abroad (more than 150 Turkish imams, 120 from Algeria and about 30 from Morocco). In addition to these 300 detached imams, France usually hosts some 300 “psalmodiers” every year during Ramadan, a practice that will also be terminated. The president also intends to implement a reinforced monitoring of foreign funding to places of worship in order to be able to block suspicious projects. He also announced the termination of the ELCO classes (Teaching in Foreign Languages and Cultures), which provide to 80,000 students courses taught by teachers sent by other countries, especially Turkey. Some of these teachers did not speak French and were not subjected to any real control from the Education ministry.

Turkish President Erodgan spoke out against all of these measures. Meaningfully, he once said in a statement to Saudi TV channel Al Arabiya in mid-February 2017 before a visit to the Saudi Kingdom: “In Turkey, we do not consider secularism/laïcité [laiklik in Turkish, A/N] to be hostile to religion […] I find it hard to understand why the Muslim world [seeks] a link between Islam and secularism/laïcité […] We have created our party [AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/’party of justice and development’), A/N] and we have defined secularism. I have already expressed myself on this point […] First of all, individuals cannot be laïc; it is the State that can be laïc, and that is an important point. Laïcité means that the State must be tolerant with all beliefs and keep an equal distance from all religions and beliefs. …] In other words, laïcité means creating a favorable ground so that all creeds, of all religions, can be freely exercised, this also being true for atheists. But to consider laïcité as something to be imposed on religious people is not right.[5]


An effective strategy

In any case, the Turkish president’s strategy proved to be successful since the French president’s speech at the Mureaux provoked turmoil in the Muslim world, and incomprehension in the Anglo-Saxon world where secularization does not mean laïcité, leading to the publication of some reproachful articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Financial Times. The next day, the theological institution of Al-Azhar qualified the French president’s speech as racist and denounced “accusations” that stigmatized Islam. The OIC (Organization for Islamic Cooperation/Munaẓẓamat at-Ta’âwun al-islâmî, the organization that brings together all 57 Muslim countries), despite being based in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and having its political governance de facto embodied by Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane, a declared enemy of President Erdogan, also denounced “the remarks of some French officials [without explicitly naming them, A/N] that could harm Franco-Muslim relations.” The Council of Muslim Scholars, chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, but based in Abu Dhabi, had “decided to set up a committee of international jurists to prosecute Charlie Hebdo”, according to a tweet published in the night of 26-27 October 2020 on behalf of the Sunni institution Al-Azhar, based in Cairo.

The council, which happens to be chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, further stated that it also plans to “prosecute anyone who offends Islam and its sacred symbols.” In addition, the Muslim body stated that it “strongly rejects the use of freedom of expression as a pretext for harming the Prophet Muhammad.” It added: “Freedom of expression […] must respect the rights of others and should not allow religions to be manipulated for […] electoral propaganda. In other words, there appears to be a deep misunderstanding between France and the Muslim world, notwithstanding the subsequent efforts made by the French President, notably through an interview ha gave to Al Jazeera[6] in an attempt to explain the nature of the French position on this issue. An issue that has become even more inflammatory given that it is susceptible to be instrumentalization by some interested parties.



[1] Cf. « Turquie : Erdogan défend la laïcité », in Le Figaro, 26 avril 2016 (

[2] Judging these remarks to be “unacceptable”, the Elysée Palace decided on 24 October, 2020 to recall its ambassador in Ankara purely for consultation, an extremely rare act in Franco-Turkish relations. There is a precedent from 1901, when Antoine Ernest Constans, then French ambassador to the “Sublime Porte,” was recalled to Paris for a completely different reason, in this case an outstanding debt.

[3] The law banning blasphemy in Pakistan was enacted in 1986 under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq as part of his initiatives to Islamize Pakistani society. The law promulgated under Zia ul-Haq introduced a section 295(c) to the Pakistan Penal Code, Title XV, Of Offences Relating to Religion, which states: “Any derogatory remark, etc., towards the scared prophet [Mohamed] […] shall be deemed to be blasphemy, in writing or orally, or by visible representation, or any imputation or innuendo, direct or indirect […] shall be punishable by death, or imprisonment for life, and also liable to a fine.”

[4] Cf. Ania Nussbaum ; Caroline Alexander, « Macron’s War on Islamists Comes Up Against Erdogan’s Soft Power », on Reuters, 11 octobre 2020 (

[5] Cf. Alaa Walid Elhamoud ; Ahmed al-Masry, « Erdogan : ‘En Turquie, nous ne considérons pas que la laïcité soit hostile à la religion’ », 17 février 2017 (

[6] Cf.


David Rigoulet-Roze is an associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Translation by François Valentin.


Cover Photo: Adem Altan / AFP

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