Defining Secularism

By Serdar Paktin

There is a country far away from here. A good ally, they would say. That is a country, whose population is constituted by a majority of Muslims, who remained secular more than 85 years thus far. In that country, secularism is a crucial topic. The government and the military are regarded as the sole protectors of secularism. When the present government was elected, a big part of the country took it as a threat to the secular structure of the Turkish Republic, yet they were elected by a majority for the second time; this time electing the former foreign minister to the presidency. They were even more established, even more powerful, until the constitutional court brought up a case against them regarding their “anti-secular activities.” It was said – regarding the prosecution brought against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the Constitutional Court – in a recent article in The New York Times that “The 162-page indictment charges that because of Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is now seen as a ‘moderate Islamic republic,’ an image that it says has become the official view in the United States. It cites former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as ‘having defined our country’ that way, ‘disregarding the fact that Turkey is a secular democratic state.’” Disregarding that fact for a second, I would like to emphasize another aspect of the subject. What about the U.S.? Is it a secular state?

There have been numerous cases brought against political parties and individuals regarding secularism in Turkey throughout the years; numerous political parties were shut down, politicians were banned from politics, and individuals were sentenced to several years in prison. As you can see, secularism is a major debate in Turkey, predominantly when it comes to keeping religious ideas, symbols, and dress codes not only out of official government, but the public domain as well. This essay will explore what secularism is and how it exists in the U.S. I have a significant precedent that I will use to elaborate on this critique: the 50th Assembly of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). This year’s Assembly topic was “Dismantling Terrorism: Developing Actionable Solutions for Today’s Plague of Violence.”

The Academy invited international graduate students from New York City – for the first time – to attend round table discussions together with undergraduate students from various universities all over the U.S., as well as cadets from American and Canadian military academies. There were also some professionals and experts on terrorism who were there to facilitate the discussions and debates. The opportunity to go to the USAFA and talk about this topic, of which we, the international student group, have already been suffering for many years in our home countries, sounded fascinating. I hoped that I could be a part of the solution. Remember the good old saying: “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem”? If one translates that using George W. Bush’s rhetoric, it would be “If you are not one of us, you are one of them!” I went to the Academy to be one of us.

Let me introduce the international graduate student group who flew from LaGuardia Airport to Denver International, and had similar thoughts about the Assembly. There were two Iraqis, two Afghanis, two Turks, one Palestinian, two Israelis, one Indonesian, two Pakistanis, one Albanian, one Scot, one Pole, one Colombian, one Argentinean, and one Venezuelan. These people all have different experiences with terrorism in their home countries and they – most of whom are in the U.S. as Fulbright Scholars – are all doing their graduate studies in the New York region in different departments, including International Affairs, Political Science, Medicine, Computer Engineering, etc. We were all very enthusiastic to be a part of such an Assembly and were looking forward to contribute an outsider point-of-view about this “plague of violence.”

After arriving at Denver Airport and being welcomed by a group of USAFA cadets, we were taken to the hotel to rest before the evening’s event. The same cadets escorted us to the USAFA that evening, and we took our seats in the conference hall. The keynote speaker of the Assembly was Lawrence Wright. He is well known for his articles in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines. He is also the co-writer of the feature film The Siege, and has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He began his speech by stating that Al Qaeda was twenty years old by now. He informed the audience about the profile of a Fundamentalist Islamic terrorist who might become a member of Al Qaeda. He talked about the social, political, religious, and emotional conditions for such a conversion, which give way to how Muslims in such countries take anti-Americanism promoted by Al Qaeda for granted. His speech was mostly accurate and informative, except for his inappropriately humorous fixation with how Muslim men don’t know anything about social and civil life; how they don’t know the ways of pleasing women. The keynote speech was objectionable in relation to its ad hominem structure, but it was acceptable, when compared to the speeches delivered the following day. However, we had all expected to talk about “terrorism,” not about a single terrorist organization among hundreds of others. We especially didn’t expect to hear that Islam was the source of all evil and global terrorism. Misinformation is one of the deadliest weapons of contemporary politics, especially when it takes place at the United States Air Force Academy. Some of those cadets will be appointed to the Middle East and/or Afghanistan. The lives of many people in those countries depend on the perceptions of those cadets.

The next day, we were waiting for the morning session speakers, having no clue about what was going to happen. The first speakers were Kamal Saleem and Zachariah Anani, who were invited to the Academy to talk about their experiences as “former terrorists.” They claimed that they were terrorists in the Middle East before they were converted to Evangelical Christianity.

Mr. Anani told us of how he killed 223 people, why he killed the imam of his neighborhood, and how he eventually found the right way; a conversion from hating all Christians and Jews to hating all Muslims. It is still beyond my comprehension that a person, who claims to have killed hundreds of people, in front of government officials and military officers, can enjoy his freedom within the US. Nevertheless, innocent people are still being taken to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Still, this man is not only free but is invited to the USAFA to give a speech, and gets paid to do so with your tax dollars. Then, something even better happened.

Kamal Saleem took the stage. He claimed that he had traveled to Israeli cities to operate terrorist bombings at the age of seven, and that on one of those days, he had carried his best friend’s corpse back home with him. He screamed, reenacting how he asked his mom “Why?!” The audience was surprised because the speech suddenly turned into a theatrical act. He told us that he had participated in more than a dozen bombings. Then he jumped in time and arrived to the U.S. in order to convert Christians to Islam, to prove to them that Islam was the superior faith. Until one day. After experiencing a car crash in which he was badly injured, he met – like Anani – an Evangelical Missionary, who covered all of his medical expenses and then converted him to Christianity. Hallelujah!

And now he was at the Academy, talking to academics, cadets and other professionals and experts in order to prove to them how superior Christianity was; how all Muslims hated them, just as he did once. There he was making a hate speech against Islam. “They – Muslims – hate you all and they are getting prepared to destroy your country and your culture. What is America doing? America is sleeping!” [He lies down on the floor and starts snoring. After snoring for a while, he jumps to his feet and yells at the audience.] “They are getting ready for you, what are you going to do America? WAKE UP!” The front row had to wipe the saliva from their faces. “WAKE UP AMERICA! They want to destroy your country from within! What are you doing? SLEEPING!” He went on to speak more about how evil Muslims were and from time to time he was going back to the chorus, “Wake up America, before it’s too late!” Some people in the audience were shocked, especially us. Some of the cadets were nodding their heads in accordance with Saleem’s rant. It was one of the scariest moments of my life: imagining that one day those cadets would be manning fighter jets, flying over the Middle East loaded with bombs and hate, preparing to drop them both.

In the afternoon session, the third speaker was another Evangelical named Walid Shoebat, representing the Assembly’s “victim of terrorism.” Yet, he said he was a victim because he was forced to perform terrorist acts. He was the man of the day. His delivered a resounding opening: “They are talking about Moderate Islam and Radical Islam. I tell you: there is no Moderate Islam. Islam, in itself, is radical.” Following each speaker I thought that I had witnessed the extremist of extremes, and that it couldn’t get any worse. Each time I was proven wrong. Each time I was surprised even more. And yet, we still hadn’t talked about “terrorism,” only Islam.

Shoebat told various anecdotes about how evil the Muslims were, how they were out there to kill you, how they will never give up until each and every one of you is either dead or converted to Islam. Every now and then, he quoted from the Qur’an in Arabic, thus stereotyping Arabic people by yelling in Arabic. He made his point clear. I cannot bring myself to write about his performance anymore, as it becomes more absurd and tragicomic every time I recall the things he said. You can view several of his similar speeches on Youtube. He has appeared on CNN International, Fox News, CN8, and a few other channels. He has numerous books, including such titles as Why I Left Jihad and Why We Want to Kill You. What worried me most was that Shoebat’s speech was alarmingly similar to the types of speeches that, according to some Assembly speakers, terrorist masterminds use on their potential followers, after which they go nuts, burn flags, and raze buildings. It was the same thing. Fortunately, the Assembly’s audience was more educated than those “terrorists,” so they didn’t lynch us. But we were there to be one of us…

It sounds like I’m agitating, doesn’t it? Let’s approach this from another angle: A Middle Eastern, thrilled with his experience in the modern and supposedly secular West, is living in constant paranoia of being mistaken as a terrorist because he fits the stereotype. Just the opposite of what an American citizen might feel in the Middle East. Think about the things that are regarded as Radical Islamic methodology to recruit terrorists: hate speech, brainwashing, emotional abuse, and propaganda. I saw them at the USAFA, one of the most significant military institutions in the U.S. They will serve their country, traveling all over the world – including the Middle East no doubt – in the coming years. Think about the people around the world stereotyping Americans. Think about the anti-Americanism gaining strength throughout the world. Think about the stereotypes that are created in American citizens’ minds by the omnipresent power of media.

Now put yourself in my place, living in a foreign country that you assume is secular and modern. Think about those Iraqis and Afghanis at the Academy Assembly listening to that nonsense, in peace, while Baghdad is still under military occupation. Think about us watching those speakers, who claim to have killed hundreds of people in their pasts, now under the protection of four fully-armed guards. Protection from whom? From us? Unbelievable.

And finally there was Steve Emerson, the banquet’s keynote speaker, whom I had the chance to talk to a few minutes after his speech. Emerson is the Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. He is also the author of several books including American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us and Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S. His speech focused on Radical Islamists now living in the U.S. He accused various Islamic organizations within the U.S. of supporting terrorism both financially and politically. They were, according to Emerson, fellow terrorists. It was hard to be surprised by his speech after all we had heard. And he stated that “the caricature crisis,” caused by the publication of some caricature cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish Newspaper in 2006, was the Muslims’ fault as well. He said “The caricatures weren’t re-published in the U.S. not out of respect but out of fear.” That is to say, there is no respect for others’ religions within the U.S., only a fear of them. How can they be “one of us” if you keep calling them “one of them”?

Before I return to debating secularism in the U.S. in light of the events that took place at the Assembly, I would like to discuss two significant interactions that took place between the cadets and some of my traveling companions.

An Iraqi friend was wearing his traditional headscarf – it’s also fashionable among American youth for some reason. I remember my friend being questioned by the police in the past, simply for wearing that scarf. One of the cadets asked him why he was wearing that scarf.

The Iraqi answered with a question: “Why are you wearing that uniform?”

The cadet’s answer was simple: “Because that’s my country’s uniform.”

His response: “And this is my country’s uniform. What else should I wear?”

“You should wear a nice outfit and attach an American flag on your collar.”

[No comment]

The second interaction was between the Palestinian and another cadet. The cadet asks him where he was from.

His answer: “Palestine.”

“You mean, Israel?”

“No, I mean Palestine.”

“Alright, then you mean Israel.”

[No comment]

As I stated before, I come from a country that is sometimes questioned about its secularity by the European Union and the U.S. The headscarf conflict, the conservative religious government, and the conservative religious president have all been big issues both in Turkey and throughout the world. Recently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is the ruling party in Turkey for now, have been prosecuted at the Constitutional Court for “anti-secular activities.” If the Court decides against the party, it will be closed down and 71 members of the Party will be banned from practicing politics for the rest of their lives. There is also a pending lawsuit against the president in that case. This part of the equation is problematic, too. Barack Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, made several controversial statements in a religious context, yet the nation became transfixed by their political connotations. Religion in this country is everywhere; in politics, schools, the justice system, even in the military, where it’s the last place it should exist.

The military approach to religion in Turkey is just the opposite of what I have witnessed in the U.S. I have seen friends get expelled from military schools for taking part in religious activities and meetings; a friend’s mother could not attend her son’s graduation ceremony because of her headscarf. Also, at public universities no less, I have seen students denied entrance to school buildings because they were wearing headscarves, teachers expelled for voicing their religious beliefs, and religious leaders arrested for speaking out against the secularism. Therefore, as a person who comes from a “secular” country, what I witnessed at the USAFA was incomprehensible. In Turkey, which is regarded in the U.S. as an ally (for now), no such speakers would ever be invited to address an official assembly, let alone a military academy. They wouldn’t even be allowed to speak at a wedding ceremony, which is treated as a social contract and executed by an official from the municipality. Therefore, there is no possibility of using citizens’ tax money towards hiring religious preachers in any public setting, other than a Mosque, where they belong. (The Evangelical preachers who addressed the Academy in Colorado Springs were paid $13,000 each, using taxpayer dollars of course.) And if such a thing occurred in Turkey, the media would cry out over how such a thing could happen in a “secular” country. The U.S. once stressed the importance of democracy and secularism. I am not sure about that anymore.

Let’s define secularism. Simply, it is the separation of church and state. That is to say, religion cannot interfere with the state and the state cannot interfere with religion. The United States Air Force Academy is a state-run institution. During my visit, I was informed that the huge chapel sitting on the Academy’s grounds was built using private funding, as the state doesn’t openly support religious activities. Isn’t this a contradiction? No, because the Evangelical preachers were invited as “ex-terrorists,” and somehow they had a “hidden agenda.”

After performing some research on the Academy, I discovered that until 1976 it was mandatory for all cadets to attend Sunday sermons. Fifty-one complaints were filed between 2001 and 2006 against the Academy because of religious discrimination. In August, 2007, the magazine American Humanist reported on three Air Force Academy members who had spoken out against Evangelical pressure that was being applied to cadets and officers. So the Academy, as it turns out, was never truly secular in the first place.

We had a meeting with two cadets from the organizing committee, because we felt extremely uncomfortable about being a part of the Assembly, given the circumstances. They apologized and then professed their unawareness that the scheduled speakers had religious affiliations or any “hidden agenda.” When we asked them why they hadn’t stopped them from speaking once this was discovered, they replied that they wouldn’t do such a thing. Freedom of speech, they said. How did they not know about any “hidden agenda?” They could have simply Googled their names. The cadets also informed us that the military intelligence report they received regarding the speakers was “clean.” How does the USAFA define “clean,” exactly?

Former terrorist Evangelical preachers – who had simply shifted their hatred of all Christians and Jews to that of all Muslims – came and spoke at a state institution and got paid for their services. Walid Shoebat said “Kill all the Muslims!” When an audience member asked him if he meant what he said, Shoebat replied, “I have never used such a word as ‘to kill’ … but there will be no peace as long as Islam exists in the world.” So, what is he saying? We should convert all Muslims to Christianity, and those who resist are expendable? Does that make the U.S. Air Force modern-day Crusaders, who “strike down upon [Muslims] with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy [their] brothers [and sisters]”? Does this mean that any potential war with Iran is not about the country’s nuclear capabilities but about it being Muslim country? Does this mean that the war between religions is not over? Does this make the President of the United States the head of all Christians in the world, just as the Khalifah was once the head of all Muslims in the Ottoman Empire? These questions sound scarier than they do absurd.

I wish that someone could tell me I dreamt the whole thing. I wish someone could do more than increase the airport’s security level to orange when a few people of Middle Eastern decent enter the terminal. When I ask the airport’s check-in personnel if there is a problem, I wish someone could provide a more informative answer than “It is your name.” Just once, I wish that when someone looks at my I.D., their reaction would be a cordial smile. Think about what the news report would say if our plane had crashed, with twelve Middle Eastern passengers on it. Then you would have seen my name and picture as someone else; someone evil, who hated you all.

This is your country. You are responsible for what’s going on here, and therefore, like it or not, in the world. I would like to repeat what Kamal Saleem yelled to us one too many times, but with a different emphasis: Wake up America! Wake up before it’s too late!


Serdar Paktin is a first year grad student in the Department of Liberal Studies at the NSSR. He is a Fulbright Scholar from Turkey, the country. He was produced by a military family and has graduated from a military high school. He—not me—continued to the Air Force Academy until he said: I’m done. Now, he is academically interested in phenomenology, linguistics, religion and media—and tries to figure out “the dynamics of meaning giving.” I don’t know why I am talking about myself as a third person I am also a journalist and a translator. A Ph.D? Why not!