Civilizing religion: Jacobin projects of secularization in Turkey, France, Tunisia, and Syria

Edward Webb, University of Pennsylvania


This study investigates the practices of religious management used by radical modernizing states, usually labeled 'secular.' The method applied is a comparative historical study of institutional and ideological practices, principally legal and educational reforms, as revealed in constitutional and other key legal texts, curricular documents and textbooks, and significant speeches and writings of major regime figures. The cases studied are the French Third Republic, the Turkish Republic of the single-party period, and Arab nationalist republics, principally Tunisia under Bourguiba and Syria under the Ba'th Party. The study finds that these so-called secular states find uses for religion in a particular form. That form reflects Rousseau's notion of the Civil Religion, and its genealogy leads back to Rousseau via the French Revolution. Latter-day Jacobins follow the early Revolutionary French National Assembly in nationalizing religion, follow Robespierre in seeking to reform it from above, and follow Napoleon in bureaucratizing it into an effective arm of the state's ideological machinery. In other words, twentieth century revolutionaries such as Atatürk or Arab nationalist regimes have carried out projects of political secularization that do not seek to remove religion from public life, but rather attempt to harness it to their projects of political transformation and state- and nation-building. Even where social conditions are very different from those facing the first Jacobins in France, for example in terms of which religion is dominant or the degree of religious and other diversity, their ideological descendents have pursued similar strategies with apparently similar ends. By studying both the institutional paths chosen and the ideological content of projects of political secularization across regions and cultures, this inquiry contributes to the understanding of comparative secularizations and secularisms. The story told here of these particular cases may illuminate projects pursued more broadly among later-developing states. ^

Subject Area

Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

Webb, Edward, "Civilizing religion: Jacobin projects of secularization in Turkey, France, Tunisia, and Syria" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3292087.